Monday, July 12, 2021

The Unmarked Grave

Allow me to introduce to you my guest author for this post, 
George Hofmann. 

The Unmarked Grave

There’s a small plot of grass on a gently sloping field dotted with granite markers; memorials to people who were loved and too soon lost. But this plot, wedged between black stones with etchings of people now passed, sits unmarked, barren though covered with lush, freshly cut grass, anonymous. Beneath it, for nearly five years, has lain the remains of an eight-year-old girl. She was in the news once. Now you can’t find her.

I work in the shop that made many of the monuments and grave markers that radiate out in rows from this lonely place. Some of the stones are carved in other plants, but a lot of them we carve ourselves. I draw the inscription on tracing paper on a drafting table, cover a stone with a stencil pad, transfer the image from the drafting paper to the stencil, and carefully, with a steady and respectful hand, cut out each letter and number. We sandblast the stone, so that the name and dates will last longer than the very people who remember the deceased. The stencil pad keeps the stone unscarred. Only the exposed memorial inscription speaks. Then a crew takes the marker to the cemetery and sets it at the grave. Most of the time.

When I first started the job I walked around the stones in the yard, all of them waiting to be set. I noticed some of them were old, with death dates of 2017, 2007, 2003. I asked my boss why they were still there, and he told me they weren’t paid for yet.

There was one marker, a medium-sized one, crammed between several others. It was covered with stained and weather-beaten cardboard and wrapped in steel bands. The cardboard was torn in the center, so I stepped over another stone and bent down to see what was there. Through the frayed and tattered hole gazed a very young girl on a porcelain badge, her face a shy smile, her hands held in front of her in the shape of a heart.

I pulled apart a bit of the cardboard. It was old and wet and it nearly disintegrated. I saw that the girl died in 2016, and in 2021 the red granite meant to keep her memory alive sat hidden on boards like a cenotaph while a mother, a mother surely still grieving, made monthly payments meant to turn that small plot of grass in the cemetery across the street into a proper memorial.

And so she sits there. When working in the yard I walk to her and think of my daughter and thank God… After a few months of glimpsing the photo of the girl silently straining to be seen the stone was moved to another part of the yard, the cardboard and steel cut off, and she finally saw the sun. But there she remains, still a receivable, not scheduled to be set.

A few days ago I Googled her name and saw the news articles. She was killed in a hit and run. At the sentencing of the driver, in 2018, the mother cried that her baby was buried in the ground while the driver could still hug his child. But today when the mother visits the ground where her baby is buried she finds only grass. Grass that grows unaware of what it covers. Grass, green and damp with dew, that lives.

When I’m moving markers in the yard with the two-ton crane and it starts to rain I have to bring the electric crane inside. I stand in the plant and look out at the downpour. The yard becomes muddy around the stones set aside waiting for payment. Over time grass grows up around the splattered granite. You’d think the people that work here would be full of gallows humor, but they’re not. They’re reverent, and I clean the dirty stones and trim the grass pushing up between them.

The girl waits behind a couple to be remembered together and in front of a young man also taken early in a life that surely held promise. She will, eventually, stand on the grass plot where her body lay. People will come to see her and remember, finally. Her monument with her image will join the rows of stones laid out for mourning that declare that a life passed is worth clinging to and never really ends. Those left behind never fully move on. Her small plot a place of reverence for the living covered with grass that will always grow as she will in her mother’s memory - the girl’s picture looking out over the field to stand there longer than any of us will ever be.


George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Cemetery in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey

What’s a Jersey shore vacation without a trip to a local graveyard? As my family frequents the area around Long Beach Island, I’ve visited most of the local cemeteries. On this trip, I thought I’d see what’s up with the “closed” pet cemetery, noted on my iPhone’s Google Maps. Looked to be in Manahawkin between the on ramp to the Garden State Parkway and Whispering Oak Circle. So I left Beach Haven about 7:30 a.m. on an overcast Saturday morning, drove the seven miles north up the island, over the causeway and onto the mainland. About five miles west on Route 72 is where the Garden State Parkway crosses it. I cut off 72 toward Whispering Oak Circle. 

Try as I might, back and forth on this small residential street, and I just could not find the place. It was woods on one side, residences on the other. The woods just looked like they butted up to the parkway. Maybe Google Maps was in error. Ah well, good fail, as the skateboarders say.

Even though it was a further drive than I wanted to make on this early Saturday morning, I thought I might finally check out Reevestown cemetery, about an eight-mile drive north on Route 72. 

For several years, I had known about this remnant of the Pinelands, but had never visited. One reason being the inherent spookiness of the pine barrens. People living off the grid, down sand roads deep in the forest. Makes you feel a bit like Hansel and Gretel with the Jersey Devil playing the part of the wicked old witch. Especially after seeing mailboxes like this one along the road.

The pineys, as they are called, rather cultivate this mystique, in order to maintain their isolation from the masses, and probably especially from tourists. 

Google maps showed me where the Reevestown Cem was supposed to be. Passes a crumbled roadside memorial at the intersection of 72 and Warren Grove Road, where I made a left. I got to where Google Maps said the cemetery was, but …. Damn. Just a patch of woods. Oh well, maybe there’s something in there. So I pulled over, got out of my SUV, sprayed my shoes, socks (damn! Forgot to wear socks!), and pant legs with tick spray, and took one last look at Google Maps before venturing into the thicket. What? Now it shows the cemetery off an access road up ahead! Jump into the vehicle and head up the road a piece. And there it was off to the right, a sand road leading into the woods, with a rain puddle at the entrance to greet me. A very weathered “Warning” sign was nailed to a tree where the road led into the trees.

Sand road entrance to Reevestown Cemetery

As I write this, I’m sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay, cappuccino and raspberry scone in hand. Yesterday at this time, however, I was in full explorer mode. And truth be told, I was a bit uncomfortable there, having recently read the book, “The Pine Barrens,” by John McPhee (1978). All the legends, all the history, all the fables of the pine barrens – including the pineys, are covered in the book.

Reevestown Cemetery

I drove into the woods. The road took a few twists and then opened up onto a perfectly maintained small cemetery with old graves (starting around 1862) on the left, newer graves on the right. I imagine people continue to be buried here, even though there is no town for miles. Reevestown itself is no more – not even a ghost town. 

Reevestown Cemetery in Stafford Township, New Jersey, is deep in the heart of the pine barrens – just a few miles from the Pinelands unofficial “capital city,” Chatsworth. Reevestown is not exactly a ghost town - it’s actually no longer there. Destroyed by a massive forest fire in 1936, this small sawmill settlement (which I assume was called Reevestown, there really is no evidence of this that I could find) consisted of the mill, some houses, and a schoolhouse. The fire was the worst forest fire up to that point in the history of the Pinelands - it left five firefighters dead and 20,000 acres of forest, dwellings, and businesses burned (ref.). Reevestown was destroyed but the cemetery remained, and continues to be used, by locals I assume. There have been burials here in the past decade.

See the clipping below from “Union Township,” a report written by the Barnegat Historical Committee: (

"A small sawmill settlement once was located near Reevestown Cemetery [which I assume was called Reevestown]. Today only cellar holes mark where buildings once stood. Only the cemetery remains intact. Saw mill, dwellings, and a schoolhouse were located here prior to a fire in 1936." 

Lone sentinel at sand road exit of cemetery

Somewhere online I read that if you live in the general area, you can be buried here. The cemetery has maybe a hundred plots, with many more people than that residing below. It seems to be kept up, but then, there is no grass or weeds to cut. Its all sand. The rules posted on the sign at the entrance to the property suggest a governing body of some sort, mentioning a Cemetery committee with officers and trustees, but there is no contact information. 

Grave decor

Note tree stand at top left.
Some graves here are recent, with lots of kitschy mementos. One even had deer antlers nailed to a nearby tree, with a hunter’s tree stand attached to the tree next to it! Deer hunting for food has long been a standard activity of the people who live in the pine barrens. They are for the most part isolated and self-reliant. Many of them work in the local cranberry bog and blueberry farms, and have for decades since the region’s main industries, glass making, lumber, and iron forging went bust.

Reevestown Cemetery is a serene place, that is, if you can get over your fear. Its just a little too quiet. That guy’s shotgun shell mailbox made me think of the scene from the Sopranos where they take the guy out to the pine barrens to kill him, where they try to get him to dig his own grave first. Out here, no trace would ever be found of you. But that’s Hollywood; whereas the pine barrens – and its inhabitants - are real.

Entrance to Reevestown Cemetery

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Winter of Our Discontent (Shakespeare, not Steinbeck)

My artistic experiences this winter (it is still technically winter here in Philadelphia – Feb. 2021 as I write this) have not been one of discontent. Rather, reckless winter has allowed me the opportunity to photograph cemeteries and their statues under a blanket of snow. Standing in a blizzard with an umbrella and camera may seem ridiculous, but I assure you, it is anything but a fool’s errand. Numb fingers are simply a sign of weakness leaving the body.

Tintype Hipstamatic App image

The zeitgeist of a Victorian snowfall creates a mood of singular isolation. And freedom, of sorts - it takes one out of the literal social isolation forced on us by the current pandemic. And Paul Simon was wrong – everything does NOT look worse in black and white.

Why Shakespeare and not Steinbeck? Shakespeare’s lines from Richard III are lines of opportunity, versus Steinbeck’s, which are pure misery. Granted, the euphoria of photographing a snowfallen cemetery in below-freezing temperatures can be quickly replaced by misery if you mistakenly lock yourself out of your warm, running vehicle (which I have been known to do). However, Shakespeare is optimistic about the future. As am I. The playwright is saying that even though we may now be miserable (‘Now is the winter of our discontent’), better days are coming (’Made glorious summer by this sun …’).  (Cue the song, "Better Things" by the Kinks.)

But I digress (which is one of the qualities you find most endearing about me). My limerence with cemeteries is boosted when it snows. It just is. I have to get out there fast, while it is still snowing, if possible. Primae noctis, as it were. Not than anyone else is even considering doing the same thing, but it does give me the feeling of being first in, a unique time in a place where I can be ultimately alone with my passion. And in the middle of a pandemic, its rather liberating to not concern myself with social distancing or wearing a mask.

So would I recommend this nostrum of shooting angels in the snow? Well, it is certainly easier if you live in a polar climate zone. Its not something I can easily demonstrate to you, however. You just need to get out there in your gloves, boots, and hand warmers, and let the snow muses guide you. Helps to have an SUV, too, so you don’t get stuck. 

I photographed graveyards in the snow quite often this winter. The Snow Demons were appeased last year – they made no appearance. Apparently, COVID must have royally pissed them off, because they have been out in full force, whiting out my world since even BEFORE winter began (our first snowfall was on December 16, 2020)!

Please realize that cemeteries are places of respect - an obvious consideration when you are photographing in them. While there may be no one else around you there in the snowstorm, burial grounds and monuments mean many things to many people. Be respectful as you work. And be careful. Don’t climb on the monuments. Don’t lean on them. I’ve seen a person who had a large gravestone fall on her. She nearly lost her leg. It was crushed, but was later saved. Luckily there were several people around to lift the thousand-pound granite grave marker off her. So consider the possibility of a monument falling on you in a snowstorm. Think anyone would find you before you died of exposure or trauma?

Defunct crematorium in a snow squall

The Gear
So if I have not scared you off the topic at this point, let’s talk about the gear. Obviously, you want your equipment to be either waterproof or well-protected. I own neither. Which is why I typically carry only one camera with me, protected by a snow umbrella. I leave the rest of the photographic arsenal in the car, running back to swap them as needed. This way, I’m guaranteed to lose such things as lens caps and filters in the snow.

Cross-processed E6 image

Do I use real cameras or the camera in my cell phone? As time goes on, this distinction becomes less relevant. I do have an old iPhone 6 which I use quite a bit. Not bad images except the battery peters out in the cold. If I use it outdoors in winter, I have to keep it connected to an external battery. The apps are interesting as well, I use basic Hipstamatic and Hipstamatic Tintype in addition to straight shooting. I do drag conventional cameras out in the snow with me as well. Certainly, digitals are easiest to use. However, I’ve been shooting quite a bit lately with a 120mm (film) Holga and running outdated slide film through a Nikon F3 35mm film camera, then cross-processing the E-6 film as C-41 (which is kind of standard practice now, since E-6 chemistry is no longer widely available). I like to surprise myself. Digital can be too exacting. At right, you can see an example of a cross-processed image.

Hipstamatic Tintype App image 

It has not, historically, snowed often in the Philadelphia area (at least during the current geological epoch). So when it does, I attempt to make the most of it. It helps to have a plan. Which cemeteries are easiest to access? Are the roads plowed? Luckily for me, the graveyard at left is within walking distance of my house! I have some go-to locations and some go-to statues that I like to check in with during a snowfall – some take on the white cloak better than others...

You can see the same cemetery angel dozens of times, but there might be this one time, as you approach it in the hush of a snowfall, bootfalls crunching, that you seem to be seeing it as it had looked long ago. The more modern mass-produced gravestones mostly hidden, the bespoke, Victorian statuary gently “shrouded in white, allowing the outlines of something older to emerge.” The quote is from science fiction writer William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition. A strange book to be reading during a pandemic, when old patterns are nowhere to be found, new ones emerging all around us.

Actual lychgate shot with Hipstamatic Tintype App

So if this seems to be a winter of discontent for you because of the new patterns that life has assumed, consider COVID-19 as a sort of lychgate, a gateway to another world. I wrote a blog for the website of New York’s Absynthe Gallery recently, entitled "Artist in Residence," which is about creating art during lockdown in a pandemic. Challenging, to make art in the Time of COVID. But as Gibson says in Pattern Recognition, "There are times when you can only take the next step. And then another.” If you’re interested in seeing how other artists are adapting, the gallery is hosting an online “Drink and Draw” Zoom meeting with many of its artists on March 6, 2021 (5 to 7 pm). I am in their corral of artists, but I don’t draw (I do drink, however, so I meet half the criteria). Demonstrating how I make photographs or how I write blogs would be about as entertaining as watching gesso dry; therefore, I will be in attendance solely drinking and learning. Here’s the link to register:

Learning, you ask? Well yes. One of the best ways for an artist to progress and improve is by expanding boundaries - watching other artists create in mediums other than your own. I leave you with an old image (all that you’ve seen so far in this blog, I created in the past ten months), the Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse. This is in Philadelphia. I was truly honored to have it chosen to represent February in the 2021 fund-raising calendar published by The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Being on the Board of Directors of this volunteer organization and helping to save a formerly abandoned cemetery from total ruin has also been a learning experience. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

"I Returned Your Skulls."

Image by Michael Kauffman
“What the world needs right now is another endless musing on staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic; the C.D.C. has declared these pieces to be a symptom of COVID-19 that can be treated only by gentle snoring.” -  Libby Gelman-Waxner in her New Yorker article “If You Ask Me: The Last Quarantine Think Piece” (May 18, 2020)

While I agree with the above statement, I’m still going to write this blog. As my friend Mike Spak would say, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”

This past summer I was walking up the street toward my house, end of the day, coming home from work. A few neighbors were outside their homes chatting (from an appropriate COVID social distance) – I live on a tiny street of row homes in an old nineteenth-century Philadelphia neighborhood. My neighbor Michael, who lives around the block, addressed me in a relatively loud voice, “Hey Ed, I returned your skulls … left them with your wife.” Ok, that’s a wee bit embarrassing – but in a good way, lol.

I am very selective when it comes to my choice of friends – they have to be anything but normal and boring. And they say the darndest things. One time a few years back I got together after work with a friend to have a beer. We were walking down the street on a Friday evening, lots of people on the sidewalks, summer. I asked him how his day went, as he appeared to be tired out. He sighed and said, “Well, we got all six bodies out of the ground.”  Couldn’t help notice the startled looks we got from those around us! Frank worked in a graveyard, and I knew he was working on a project to move some graves.

Michael, my neighbor, is an artist. He appreciates Caravaggio, a Baroque era painter who seemed to rather enjoy painting people getting their heads chopped off. Some of his art evokes Caravaggio. Over the course of the last few years, Michael and I have each learned a bit about each others’ art. As an aside, I shared with him the fact that I pick up skulls in abandoned graveyards – everyone needs a hobby, right? 

Just to be clear, my skulls are not human skulls. You just don’t run across those as often as you do skulls of other animals - even in abandoned graveyards! 

During the spring/summer 2020 coronavirus lockdown, Michael had been stuck in the house, so he’d spent some of that time creating art. Either he asked to borrow some of my skulls, or I offered them to him, I don’t remember exactly how that went, but he created some startlingly gorgeous photographs with them, which he planned to use as components of larger digitally collaged art work. Michael has a glorious light tent in his garage in which he does digital macrophotography. I was jealous so I had Amazon send me one. Not a garage, a light tent. An inexpensive version of his (mine is shown below).

It was probably in May that I lent Michael my skulls. May was an absurd month, full of fear and coronavirus. Lockdowns and masking. A lot of artists spent this time holed up, creating. In November, Michael shared some of the final results with me, one of which you can see at the top of this blog.

My skulls formerly belonged to an assortment of animals – fox, pitbull, deer, cat, bird, groundhog, etc. They were all found in abandoned cemeteries. I never spent much time photographing them, but after I got my skulls back and saw some of Michael’s preliminary results, I decided to take a stab at it myself. 

Here you see one of my first experiments. This one at left is based on the rainbows everyone had hanging from their homes during the Summer of COVID. Finding and counting rainbows seemed apropos of the time – a way to pretend that you again had some control over your life, and that there was eventually going to be a positive outcome. This image represents both possible outcomes. 

During the lockdown, I was one of the few people allowed on the roads, being a healthcare worker. Every once in a while, I’d stop by a local graveyard to do some photography. Graveyards were one of the only public areas people could visit during lockdown - you were lucky if there was one within walking distance of your home. I wasn’t confined to my house, like most people, but when I was home, I decided to use the time wisely and creatively. Actually, more experimentally and experientially. 

I’m writing this at the tail end of December, 2020. Since March, artists have been lamenting their situation. No galleries or public spaces to display or sell their work. For those who depend on this for income, for a livelihood, this has been devastating. But wait – we all create art in private anyway, right? During lockdown (when was that, mid-March to June?), we were FORCED to work in private, and forced to use whatever we had on hand to create. Hopefully, artists had supplies (yet another advantage of digital over film photography, huh? Otherwise we’d all be stuck with bags of undeveloped film).

COVID is like an entropy puzzle, a puzzle we have to assemble without the benefit of having a picture on the box showing the end result. And just when some of the pieces seem to fit together, they magically change, so they no longer fit. Who knew the pandemic would continue into August, when I began writing this blog? That was two weeks before virtual school began for the world’s children. Distance learning, two words that I am now convinced are mutually exclusive. Now it’s the end of December, 2020, and we don’t even have the border of the puzzle completed. The new normal, life in a pandemic.

As artists, we sometimes need to get out of our old wheelhouse – we need a kick in the ass to get those creative juices flowing. For some artists, COVID is that KITA. It seemed to influence Michael Kauffman’s work – see his gorgeous tombstone image below!

I intended to close this piece by bookending the opening New Yorker quote with these lyrics from the band Cracker’s song, “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now):”

“…what the world needs now

Is a new kind of tension, …

'Cause the old one just bores me to death…”

So that’s good for artists (and maybe others) who needed the COVID KITA to move their art (or their lives) to the next level. However, I watched musician Devin Townsend’s Christmas Concert performance the other day, and this quote from his song “My Life,” is a kinder, gentler way to say goodbye to 2020:

“How long can this life go on? Who we are, what we are. See you on the other side."
- (Devin Townsend - Acoustic Christmas Special (Live 12-23-2020) - YouTube

Further Adventures:

See Michael Kauffman’s artwork on Flickr: Michael Kauffman | Flickr

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Nanny

Mount Moriah gatehouse, by Frank Rausch

Here’s a creepy little story for your Halloween/Day of the Dead enjoyment. Back around 2014, I was leading a photo tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia (that's me in the green hat). Around the time these photographs were taken (by my friend Frank Rausch), a woman around my age (in her fifties) came up to me and shared a fascinating piece of her personal history. I’ll paraphrase:

“When I was growing up, I used to live in that house across the street,” she said, pointing to a house on the corner of Kingsessing Avenue and Cemetery Road. “We had a nanny who used to bring us over to the cemetery. A few days after my First Holy Communion, our nanny had my brother and I dress in our church clothes and she brought us over here to take our pictures. I was maybe eight, and my brother five. I had on a white dress and he had on a little dark suit. She had us lie down in the grass on our backs, right here on the graves in front of the gatehouse. We were holding flowers in our folded hands and she had us close our eyes while she photographed us.”

I was speechless. Especially as I had recently seen the 2013 film documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” ( It’s a glimpse into the life of Vivian Maier, a loner who worked as a nanny decades ago; she was also an amateur street photographer.

Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

I quickly researched Maier’s history, thinking that she may have left Chicago and came to Philadelphia! Having the children play dead seemed like something she might have done. 

Maier was a nanny who cared for children for about 4 decades from the late 1950s through the 1990s. She was an odd loner who photographed urban life - a street photographer. She often photographed her charges, while she took them on outings and for walks through the not-so-nice parts of Chicago. She traveled a bit, so I was rather curious if the woman on my tour had come into contact with her. The woman at Mount Moriah did not remember her nanny’s name. However - she told me she still has the photos! The nanny gave her copies! (If you're out there reading this, I would SO love to see them!)

Vivian Maier’s story was far from normal. Maier was an avid amateur photographer, shooting three rolls of film most days with her Rolleiflex camera. She did this for decades while walking around the cities of first New York, then Chicago. She rarely printed her images, and seemed to have had a compulsive need to document the people around her, doing their everyday things. She caught people in candid, somewhat unflattering poses. She processed her film and hoarded the negatives that she made. At the time of her death in 2009, her life’s work, and most of her belongings, was sold at auction for unpaid rent of a storage facility. 

In 2007, a real estate agent named John Maloof bought the trunk of her film and negatives at auction for $380.  He was intrigued at the vast amount of work, and thought it might prove interesting. Turned out to be a treasure trove of 100,000 negatives and 700 rolls of undeveloped film! As Maloof pored over the work, he quickly realized it was the work of a master photographer. A great artist whom no one would ever have known existed, if not for Maloof’s research, archiving, printing, and documenting Maier’s work in the aforementioned film documentary. Maier was a master of her art, a street photographer extraordinaire with very few equals. Her work is easily on par with that of famous professional street photographers such as Weegee and Mary Ellen Mark. Her posed portraiture (including self-portraits) reminds one of Diane Arbus’ work.

The film Maloof made, “Finding Vivian Maier,” is rather amazing. I highly recommend it. This compelling, haunting, and captivating story shows Maier as a sort of memory hoarder, documenting urban American streetlife as no one else had in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequent notoriety of Maier’s work sparked a renaissance in street photography. 

Photograph by Frank Rausch

Maloof never found Maier, who died around the time he attempted to locate her. Chances are she never would have approved of the world making such a fuss over her work. Like the glimpse of life revealed to me by the woman on my photo tour, Maier gives us a glimpse of how life appeared to her. Turns out Vivian Maier never came to Philadelphia, so the nanny in the Mount Moriah story was some other … person. I almost wrote “oddball,” because, as my dearly departed father used to say, “Edward, we’re all a little bit crazy.”


Saturday, August 8, 2020

New Devils Require New Gods

During the Corona spring and summer of 2020, I felt compelled to mask cemetery statues. A flaw in my personality, I suppose. I didn’t leave the masks on and I did no damage in the act. Initially, I don’t know why I did it. I published a few images and received a handful of comments from upset people. 

Comments like “I was saddened by our beautiful Angels with paper masks covering their exquisite faces - the angels should not be weighted down by human error.”

Exquisite faces, indeed. After months of people wearing masks, I miss all your exquisite faces. I meant no disrespect by masking angels. We created them in our own image, after all. Or more accurately, we created them in our idealized, Western world Christian image. Angels – both male and female, are the supermodels, the Barbie and Ken perfect versions of our white selves. Since we must now mask ourselves and hide our beautiful faces, I wanted to see what these icons looked like, masked. If we must mask, why shouldn’t they? But you know, if we all end up wearing masks for the next year, maybe we NEED unmasked, beautiful statues to remind us of the way things were? Of the goal, the way things should be? Are they a sign of hope? Optimism? Maybe I’m taking this away from people by masking them. 

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”― Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

I suppose I need to be careful, though - blasphemy and heresy are no laughing matter. In past centuries, such an act could get you killed, defacing statues or paintings of the gods, or public figures. But as Louise Erdrich says in her novel, Tracks, (1989, Harper & Row), “new devils require new gods.” I’m not going to define this statement for you right now. Take from it what you will. Perhaps its about our response to the coronavirus pandemic. When I create art, I want the viewer to take what they can from it. Most likely it speaks to them differently than it speaks to me. I have always defined my art as minimally as possible – I want the viewer to find their own meaning in it. I don’t even like to title my photographic images. Even that narrows things down too much.

Erdrich’s novel, Tracks, is about Indian (yes, she uses that proper name) tribes “struggling to keep what remained of their lands” in last century America. Native American land and all other freedoms were slowly taken from them very much like our present freedoms are slowly being taken from us by coronavirus. We are struggling to keep what remains of our world. Big difference, however, is that while the white settlers of this “new” land benefitted greatly from the indigenous peoples’ loss, no one benefits from the loss due to COVID-19. Unless, of course, it is some evil plot hatched by the spotted lanternfly.

Would George Washington Wear a Face Mask in 2020? No!

People thought I would have more respect for angels and other works of art - I might just as well have “purchased a can of spray paint & had [my] way with these historic & immortal figures!” (“Immortal,” let’s come back to that thought later.) One could say the same of the person who doctored up this painting of George Washington, I suppose. But its all about having the freedom to express oneself, to make a point. Here’s an image below that should really rile up the masses. Old folks need to protect them selves from their kids, who may be asymptomatic COVID-carriers. 

One of the problems with freedom is that people are free to believe anything they like. For months, there was no consistent, insistent decree from our nation’s leaders that we should wear face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. Should we or shouldn’t we? We were free to believe whatever suited us. Now, of course, it is becoming quite clear that face masks should have been worn all this time. (Wait – shouldn’t our guardian angels have appeared in masks to carry us to salvation? Sorry, getting a bit sarky there.) 

Tensions Mount 

The raw emotion that has surfaced over my masked statuary is a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Make you think? Make you emote? Maybe you love it, hate it, or are indifferent. Maybe that’s how you also view the whole face mask thing in general. 

The issues people have with wearing masks are multitudinous. George Hofmann in his Psych Central article, The Fight Over Facemasks, mentions a few of these. “The science behind wearing a mask seems pretty simple, and among scientists and doctors there’s near universal agreement that wearing masks will prevent transmission and greatly reduce the number of people who contract the virus.” If you don’t believe this, go watch movies about hospitals and research labs.

Hofmann adds, “That’s why I think there’s a lot more to the anger over masks than respect for the health of others or individual liberties.” People’s anger and rage is evident by the almost daily reports like this, an incident that occurred on July 31, 2020. A customer of a cigar store in Bethlehem, PA, shot at the clerk with a handgun when the customer got upset over the store’s masking policy (link to story).

In this chaotic time - new devils require new gods. New problems require new solutions (one interpretation of this statement). The masking quarrel reminds me of the story of Dr. Charles Meigs, a nationally recognized Philadelphia obstetrician, who in the 1850s singlehandedly transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of his patients. Why? He didn’t believe in washing his hands! He didn’t believe he needed to clean his surgical instruments. He didn’t believe there were such things as infectious diseases. He felt that God was on his side, and he could do no wrong! God, can you believe that? Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that a basic way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene.  (Read the whole Meigs story in my blog post, “Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.”)

Dr. Charles Meigs's grave, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

As I write this in August 2020, we are really still in the discovery phase of this disease, coronavirus. We don’t know how to control it yet, so why argue about face masks? Why not just err on the side of caution? How many of our politicians remind you of Dr. Meigs? How much of our general population reminds you of Dr. Meigs?

George Hofmann offers that the real source of anger is usually hidden behind what we’re fighting over. He opines that “people have felt disaffected and forgotten by the society they see portrayed in the media for a long time.” Sound familiar? As average citizens, we just don’t measure up to the media ideal of ourselves. We are not, nor ever will be, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Hofmann feels that people generally feel ignored, mere background noise. Proles. He says that putting a mask over their faces, “making them anonymous and unheard [literally], can be a source of great anger.”

We created angels in our ideal image – maybe that’s one reason its so hard to see them masked. The goals of purity, perfection, and escape (perhaps only attainable in the afterlife?) all of a sudden may not seem possible. “Immortality,” as mentioned earlier, may now seem impossible. By masking angels, am I symbolically closing the Heavenly Gates on the viewer? Am I suggesting, as John Cale does in his song, Fear, that “we’re already dead, just not yet in the ground…?” 

But I want to end this missive on a high note, something optimistic. How about this: new devils require new gods. Think about that. 

Further Reading:

George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis (2020, Changemakers Books), is available here.