Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Christmas in July

As an explanation for the title of this blog (which I happen to be writing in July), we in the northeast part of the United States equate Christmas with snow (and sometimes snow with Christmas). The wintry image you see here was the subject of an interesting bit of yin and yang for me this past weekend, not just because it looks like Christmas in July.

I had a table set up with my artwork at the annual AGS (Association for Gravestone Studies) conference  (at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey), where I was selling books, prints, and cards of my photographic images. The particular image above was among two dozen assorted cemetery statuary prints mounted in 16 x 20 inch mats (which I sell for about $40). Several people asked about this one – where it was taken (Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, PA), is the snow real or Photoshopped (real), etc. However, two potential customers had diametrically opposite views of the same image, within minutes of each other. Points of comparison among alternatives always exist, but are usually not so evident or obvious. One woman looked at it and visibly shuddered, saying “I  don’t ever want to be reminded of snow. I lived in Ontario for five years and got tired of it really fast.” Soon afterward, another woman came by, fell in love with the image, and bought it. She said, “I’ve never seen snow.

"Bird Girl" cover
The young woman who bought the piece came to the conference from Savannah, Georgia – an area of the country that gets approximately no snow. Since she would be returning home the next day by way of a twenty-hour train ride, she was concerned about the safety of the matted photograph. I packed it in stiff shipping cardboard so she could get it home in one piece. We chatted a bit about Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery and its famous “Bird Girl” statue (a photograph of which was used as the cover of John Berendt’s best-selling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). I learned a couple surprising things from the woman who bought the print:

  1. Bonaventure’s management is not too keen on visitors; and 
  2. the statue is gone! 
Turned out it was drawing too much attention after the book became a best seller and drew too many visitors to the cemetery! Bonaventure had it removed to a local art museum. It's been my experience that cemeteries generally want more visitors these days, not less.

Wikipedia tells us that the title Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evilalludes to the hoodoo notion of ‘midnight’, the period between the time for good magic and the time for evil magic, and ‘the garden of good and evil,’ which refers principally to Bonaventure Cemetery". Yet another example of yin and yang - good and evil - complementary opposites, as it were.

Abandoned grave, Mt. Moriah Cemetery (Phila.)
Most of the cemetery photography that I exhibit and sell is still life. Not all pretty angels, but generally not disturbing images. Many people like that. The snow scene is dynamic, on the other hand. The experience of the two women's opposing points of view got me to thinking about actually using the balance of forces known as complementary opposites. As further evidence, I also had with me for the first time, a portfolio of “Abandoned Cemetery" images. People gravitated to this like butter to a biscuit. Again, opposites. Yin and yang. Good versus evil. Even these seasoned conference attendees, who know a thing or two about abandoned cemeteries, were quite interested in fine art depictions of these sad states of affairs. In the future, I will more consciously include a mix of both static and dynamic, good and evil imagery in my exhibits.

References and Further Reading:
Savannah Attractions
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (The book, by the way, has little to do with the cemetery. I was somewhat disappointed when I read it. Apart from a sex scene in the cemetery, Bonaventure’s major role is to simply afford an enticingly creepy cover for the book.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Wall of Death - Going Public with your Cemetery Art

Abandoned Angel, Mt. Moriah Cemetery
Having just wrapped up a big weekend showing my work at art group InLiquid’s 13th annual “Art for the Cash Poor” event here in Philadelphia, I thought I’d blog about the experience. About a hundred artists participate (both members and non-members of InLiquid), each with a two-by-six-foot table. No single item can be priced above $199 (…for the ‘cash poor,’ get it?). 

Ed Snyder's StoneAngels Art on Display (the 'Wall of Death')
I typically set up my table to display and sell my photographs, greeting cards, and books. You can see my display above, with my wife and daughter mugging to the right. At this event, hundreds  of people will walk by your table each day, increasing your odds of making a sale. Last weekend so many friends showed up, I was truly taken aback. Sometimes you sit at your table for twenty minutes without anyone stopping to look at your work, but this time, I had a steady stream of interested parties – I don’t think I shut my mouth for six hours running.

Angels in Princeton (NJ)
It’s kind of cool that I get repeat customers each year, folks who own several pieces of my work. I appreciate you all coming by, in addition to my wife and all my friends hanging out for moral support (and buying me beer!). It’s also fun to see fellow artists who I haven’t seen in a year. I generally support them by purchasing examples of their work. My wife brought our toddler daughter who referred to all the brightly colored art and displays as "toys." Which it all is, I suppose. 

While the Philadelphia area is brimming with artists talented in many art forms, I seem to have the market cornered on death. This article is accessorized with a few of the images I sold during the show, some as cards, some as prints. I really never know what will sell, so I bring everything! Therefore, the set-up and load-out can be rather daunting - so it’s good that I only do a few shows each year. After cramming it all into my convertible and hauling it back home, believe me, I’m ready for a Motrin Smoothie. 

Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore
One large print I sold was this one at right, which was left over from a solo exhibition I had a few years ago. I love it, but its just so weird - like Snow White's casket. Not something you'd hang on the wall to pull the room together. I was quite surprised that it caught another person's fancy. Who knows what others need in the way of spiritual nourishment?

"Vibrating Angels"

The only two framed images I brought (they're heavy, bulky, and I need to charge more) were the “Vibrating Angels” and “Tombstone Under the Betsy Ross Bridge." A print of the former was purchased earlier this year by Madalen Warhola, Andy Warhol’s neice. I thought that was a good conversation-starter. However, there were many more inquiries as to the story behind the Betsy Ross tombstone, which the woman running the table next to me must have gotten so sick of hearing over the course of the day!

Tombstone Under the Betsy Ross Bridge"
The idea of the headstones on the shore of the Delaware River under Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross Bridge is fresh in people minds due to two things. Last week, San Francisco made national news because tombstones seemed to be "washing up on the beach" of San Francisco Bay. And locally, many people had seen psychic Valerie Morrison's CBS news broadcast a few weeks back about the stones under the Betsy, so curiosity was piqued. One guy even offered his construction company to help move the stones!

I drank minimal beer at the event so I could count change correctly. That's usually key to turning a profit. It also allows me to be clear-headed enough to jot down important notes, e.g. where to find the preeminent private collection of post-mortem Daguerreotypes (assembled over thirty years by a Queens estate sale liquidator) to directions to three abandoned cemeteries I never knew about!

One artist who had a table at the event was an ex-girlfriend. She and her new husband came over and introduced themselves to my new wife. THAT was weird at first, but such lovely people. Everyone was, really. The event organizers were (as always) great to deal with (even when you’ve forgotten to pay your entry fee in advance!). Even my my printer friend from Philadelphia Photographics came by to see all the prints he's made for me over the past few years.

As you can see from the link below to my InLiquid artist's page, not all my work is seriously death-related − I do sprinkle some mirth and frivolity about. I usually have an assortment of non-cemetery greeting cards available, like the one below. It's one of my best-sellers!

Sock Monkey Nativity Scene

References and Further Reading:
Ed Snyder's InLiquid page 

A celebration of t...
By Ed Snyder

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Woodman of the World

It’s kind of unusual for me to write a blog about one particular cemetery monument. However, I stumbled upon one last weekend in North Carolina that I just had to share.

The particular monument in question resides in Elmwood Cemetery in the lovely city of Charlotte, NC (which is right near the South Carolina border). In this land of NASCAR and pulled pork sits the Severs monument – a reddish-brown log cabin carved from one 15-ton piece of granite.

Tree stump "W.O.W." monument
The sculpture is about eight feet high, eight feet long, and four feet deep, belonging to one Henry Clontz Severs (1842 - 1915). Severs was a member of the fraternal organization Woodmen of the World. Although it’s fairly common to see Woodmen (WOW) memorials in the shape of a tree, I’d never seen a log cabin before. What was the significance to Severs? (while tree-themed monuments are not always associated with the Woodmen of the World, Severs’ cabin actually has the circular WOW symbol carved on the back).

According to Wikipedia, WOW was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root. Root, who was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, had founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa, in 1883, after hearing a sermon about "pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families". Taking his own surname to heart, he wanted to start a Society that "would clear away problems of financial security for its members." As I read about Henry Severs, it became obvious how he exemplified these goals, figuratively as well as literally.

Severs was a wealthy Charlotte mercantile businessman, who built a fortune in housing, which may, on the surface, account for his monument being in the shape of a house. But why a log cabin? Though he was a Woodman of the World, that organization typically provided a simple tree stump monument as a benefit to its membership (this program was abandoned in the late 1920s as it was too costly).

As it turns out, Severs was a true pioneer, expanding the city of Charlotte westward by purchasing land and building houses. When he died, he left seventy homes (which made up the section of Charlotte known as "Severville") to his family and descendants. So he, like the pioneer woodmen who cleared away the forest, also worked toward establishing a way to provide for his family and heirs, i.e., easing their financial burdens after his death.

Severs was born to German immigrant parents while they were aboard ship crossing the Atlantic from Germany in 1842. This, incidentally, was no isolated trip. A vast migration of Europeans to the United States occurred between 1820 and 1870, with the largest wave being German (followed by the Italians, then the Irish). The writer Kurt Vonnegut's great-grandparents, incidentally, were among that German wave.

While in his twenties, Severs fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and upon his post-war return to Charlotte, became a successful real estate developer. By the end of his life, Severs had built seventy houses and was one of the most successful businessmen in the city. An account of his life in the History of North Carolina describes him as an upstanding and fair citizen, stating that “no man in the history of the city was more greatly respected for sterling worth of character.

So the fact that he made housing his life, it’s rather clever that he had his memorial carved in the shape of a home, possibly symbolizing his own pioneering spirit with the log cabin design. It also integrates design elements associated with Woodmen of the World. The memorial sits at the top of a small hill and is the centerpiece for the Severs family plot. Many of his heirs also have the Woodmen of the World symbol carved on their headstones, as you can see in the photo directly above. I like the rope handle on the door - it's a nice touch. This would indicate to me that Henry Sever's door was never locked, open to all. This and the fact that he provided for his family in so many ways, make his a fitting story for Father’s Day.

Severs' Log Cabin monument, Elmwood Cemetery, North Carolina