Friday, September 28, 2012

Stolen Art

I’ve been known to exaggerate a bit, the title being a prime example. Let me explain. If you’re an artist who wants to sell the art you create, you need to put it into the public eye. (I make that distinction because there are, in fact, artists who do not want to sell their work and keep it secreted away; there are more people like this than you can possibly imagine!)

So, I have this issue with leaving my work hanging in places and then ignoring it for months. You know, you get wrapped up in other things. Believe it or not, I’ve left my framed and matted expensive cemetery photographs in the same venue for a year, without even ONCE checking the status of the show! (If my photos were children, they would have been legally removed from my custody years ago.) I used to think I was just scatter-brained, but other artists have confessed to the same sin.

Sometimes you get lucky and all your work is still there – and possibly the venue has even sold a few pieces for you. However, there are times when I’ve gone back to the venue and it was closed! Empty! Gone! You wait too long, and you’re screwed. Take my advice − don’t EVER leave a show unchecked for more than two months!

Now of course this is not likely to happen at a reputable gallery which has you sign a contract (which spells out both the artist’s and gallery’s responsibilities) before your work goes up. However, it’s far easier for emerging artists to get shows in coffee shops, book stores, and restaurants.

Galleries typically rotate their shows on a monthly or quarterly basis, so with these venues, you’re held to the gallery’s strict scheduling guidelines. Occasionally, I’ll do a show in a bar or other business establishment because it’s fun and the foot traffic is usually better than in an art gallery (however, your asking prices might need to be somewhat lower). Sometimes the establishment might say, “You can leave your work up until we find another artist.

When such an opportunity presents itself, it’s very tempting to leave your work up for several months. With more potential sales resulting from extended public exposure, why not?  In one instance, I had work hanging in the same restaurant for three years, rotating my work about every six months. It was a great opportunity in a popular location in an affluent neighborhood; they charged no commission and I made regular sales. Unfortunately, I sometimes fall victim to the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. Before you know it, six months or more may have gone by, when you finally remember to go check on your work. One time I went back eight months after not checking a show, and all my work was stacked in the basement, soaked with water, ruined.

The images I’ve sprinkled about this blog today are some MIA (Missing In Action) photographs that I recently lost when a venue that was exhibiting my work closed up shop. Gothic Creations in New Hope Pennsylvania was in business for sixteen years. For the past five, they sold my work, at a commission. I didn’t get a lot of sales, but it was good exposure and my cemetery angels kind of fit in with the Medieval gargoyles in the shop. Foot traffic in New Hope is immense, as it is a tourist mecca.

After I got married in 2008, and had a child in 2009, it became more difficult to make the forty-mile trip to New Hope. The proprietor never answered his phone or emails. If the venue is quite distant from where you live, laziness can set in. Worse yet, after a time you begin to feel embarrassed that you’ve waited so long, and you AVOID making contact!

I decided to make a final trip to Gothic Creations, to collect my work and any monies from sales. I hadn’t been there in over a year and I was not able to reach them by phone or email. Imagine my surprise when I found a DIFFERENT business occupying the physical space! The new proprietor told me that Gothic Creations disappeared overnight, about six months prior. Rumor had it that the proprietor got himself a divorce for Christmas and moved to Germany.

What happened to all my work? I lost eight photographs in 16x20 inch frames and about forty photo greeting cards whose total value was about $1500. Perhaps my artwork now adorns the walls of some burgermeister’s chalet:

(Guest enters burgermeister's art-filled salon, eying pastry on table)

 Guest: "Herr Burgermeister, can this be stollen?"

Burgermeister (guiltily alarmed, whips around to face guest): "Of course not! I bought zem over zee Internet!"

More than likely, all of my work probably ended up in the dumpster behind the Gothic Creations shop. If I had been in closer contact with the proprietor, I probably would not have suffered this loss. While it’s tempting to enter a “Gentleman’s Agreement” with someone who is willing to exhibit your artwork and front sales for you, it’s also very dangerous.

Many people have suggested using ETSY (“the world's most vibrant handmade marketplace”) instead of physically exhibiting my work. The notion of doing all business over the Internet is tempting (and I do plan to become an ETSY artist), but just as hanging your work in venues implies a certain responsibility, online sales demands even greater responsibility, as you are now entering into direct agreements with customers. The Internet also offers greater anonymity, however, allowing you to remain up in the cloud somewhere, just out of reach of mere mortals. Read the cute announcement on the Gothic Creations website, and note there is no way to contact the person/people in charge.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time for a Little Football?

Over the years, I’d driven past a few small roadside graveyards in Conshohocken, PA. This is northeast of Philadelphia, outside the city limits. As soon as you get off the PA Turnpike and head south on Germantown Pike, you start seeing them, quaint little spots that history forgot.  You look at these forlorn little cemeteries and you know for certain that whatever needs to happen next isn’t going to happen here.

Cemetery entrance gate on Butler Pike

One such graveyard sits calmly on busy Butler Pike, nestled between an insurance agency and a car dealership (at Twelfth Avenue). No name is evident, but it’s two-hundred –foot frontage is dressed with a low stone wall and an old iron gate – hardly a deterrent to a vandal or a teenage tryst.  There’s a wonderfully unique miniature castle-sort-of-looking granite monument front and center facing the road. Its bare pedestals once hosted statues or urns, perhaps.

The old cemetery seems very typical of the geographic area, until you walk the length of the narrow, deep cemetery toward its back half. There’s a large grassy gap – maybe a third the size of the entire cemetery − between where the headstones end and two large white marble monuments stand. In this space stood the football tackle practice sled you see in the photo at left.

As I walked out to toward these monuments, I noticed traces of marble headstone bases here and there in the grass. A glance to the right side stone wall of the cemetery confirmed my suspicion − most of the headstones on the back half of the grounds had been removed and were repurposed as building stones for the wall! (You can see these in the top photo beyond the blue pads.)

I suppose that decades ago, this was an old derelict cemetery and the townspeople got together and “cleaned it up.” In so doing, they (intentionally or not) created an athletic field for the Conshohocken Youth Football organization to use for practice. (I assume the blocking sled belongs to them, as they have a facility behind the cemetery.) The young boys must dodge the old marble Celtic Cross and large obelisk as they run around.

As the blocking sled was one of the more unusual items I’ve seen to date in any cemetery, I posted the image (below) on Facebook, and received many cries of dismay. Most were based on the disrespect to the dead, but one posting was quite thought-provoking:
"Probably was done decades ago, but still the students are going to see this and think that it is ok. It's not - we need to find and build respect in our country again …"

While I agree wholeheartedly that we should set an example of respect for our dead, I assume as well that this "repurposing" of the graveyard happened decades ago. The cemetery was probably let go and derelict. As I've said about other forlorn cemeteries in the past, it appears that up until the 1950s, we just didn't care. And I include all our ancestors - we, collectively, just didn't care as much as we do now. Something happened to our sensibilities around the 1950s and we stopped plowing over old moldering graveyards to make parks. Obviously, this sort of thing would not happen as easily today, even if the land was extremely valuable.

So while I find it difficult to be judgmental about what the people of Conshohocken did to a derelict graveyard, I shudder to think what might have been their Plan B.  My knowledge of such things is inadequate and explosive, so I’ll just change the subject.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write a blog about this place if one of my readers (Michael T. Dolan) hadn’t directed me to an article he wrote, which is about growing up near a cemetery and playing football in it with his friends. It really is a wonderful story, having nothing to do with organized sports − in general, it’s about growing up, with the cemetery as the focal point. I highly recommend the reading his essay, “Learning to live in a graveyard.To quote Mr. Dolan, "October’s spirits fill the air, calling us to revisit the cemeteries of our lives, so that we may remember what it is like to live."

As for the little Conshy cemetery in question, it looks like there hasn’t been a burial here since maybe the 1920s, with most of the still-standing stones being much older than that. After a bit of Internet digging, I’ve decided this must be “Old St. Matthews Cemetery,” Just a few blocks away from the newer St. Matthews Cemetery (at Butler Pike and North Lane). Since St. Matthews Parish was founded in 1851, I assume this was the original parish cemetery. The other one seems to have been established later.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ne’r do-wells at the Fan House Graves

To recount last week’s blog, “Fan House Graves,” I discovered (with the help of some friends) an abandoned wreck of a mining operation’s fan house during a routine cemetery run in northeast Pennsylvania. The complex, which had been built in compliance with the Mine Ventilation Law of 1870, housed enormous fans that pulled explosive gases out of the mine and brought fresh air in. The structure, along with the rest of the Dorrance Colliery, was abandoned in 1959.

1796 gravesto
A month or so after my initial trip to Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery and my sighting of the fan house hovering over it (which you can see in the photo above and read about in my blog posting, Fan House Graves), I made the trip back to further explore the fan complex as well as roam around this quaint old graveyard.

I arrived in Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery (est. 1871) around 9:30 on a sunny August Friday morning (this is 120 miles north of Philadelphia where I live, so its no small jaunt). The entrance gate was open and no one was around. I figured that this would be perfect for a little abandoned building exploration. Who would be around? There’s not even a staffed cemetery office. Afterwords, I would roam around the graveyard at my leisure. The cemetery is quite large, and the crumbling brick fan complex is on the downside of a hill, out of view of the traffic on River Street.  

Lower building in the fan house complex, Wilkes-Barre, PA

My car in front of fan house
I drove my car quickly through the grounds, down the washed out road toward the river to the monstrous tree-shrouded old cluster of buildings. Headstones are scattered around the area, some ominously placed right next to the enormous mining structure. Sparsely spaced, some stones may have been washed away in the flood of 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit the area. The coal breaker associated with the Dorrance Colliery (of which the fan house was a part), used to be upriver about a quarter mile. There’s a MacDonalds there now, but I remember seeing the giant black mining structure from across the Susquehanna River when I was a kid. My grandmother lived in a house at the foot of the river dike in Kingston. Her house, incidentally, was one of the first to be flooded when the swollen river crashed through the dike during that flood.

Upper floor with graffiti and old machinery
My mom tells me that my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all worked at the Dorrance at some point in their mining lives. There were many coal mining companies in NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania), but as she says, Dorrance was “the big one.” So the Hillman Fan House, as it is properly titled, has some personal meaning for me. 

Sort of a courtyard in the center of the fan complex

I parked the car near the bottom of the hill where the old graffiti-covered brick complex raises itself slowly out of the woods next to the graveyard. I grabbed my cameras, pushed through the weeds, and stepped into the ruins of the past. Red brick walls and dark doorways were everywhere. Stairs led to upper levels, lower levels, or to nowhere at all – their adjoining walls having collapsed beneath the weight of ancient rusting machinery. I walked through a sort of courtyard covered with weeds, at its center a pile of jagged metal, bricks, and old voltage. Trees cloaked the ruins in a dark shade. I snapped some photos here and there, glancing through the broken walls into upper rooms, in which were mounted motors of various types, their shafts no longer connected to belts or gears.

c. 1980s look at the inside of one of the motor rooms (ref.)

Creepy, is what this place is. On the opposite end of the courtyard, a doorway was visible. Hearts and names were painted in red around it. I made my way closer to the artwork, surprised at how all the vacuous entrance ways around me were just black; no doors, just black void. You couldn’t see beyond any transom, as if the place had secrets it was unwilling to share. I approached the hearts, and began taking some close-up photographs. I read the names, wondering about the young kids who dared bring themselves to such a place – the abandoned fan house behind the old cemetery – to declare their lust for each other.

I clicked away for about five minutes, rooted to the spot. Everything was silent. Satisfied with the capture as I reviewed the images on my camera’s digital display, I looked up to take my next step and … there was a man standing above me on a landing about six steps up! He was no more than twenty feet away, silently watching me, who knows for how long.

In his late twenties, long blonde hair, casually dressed, he did not appear to have slept here the night before. I was stunned and in an attempt to keep my fight-or-flight response under control, I stammered, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.” He responded, “I’m just doing the same thing you are.” (For the record, I saw no camera around his neck.)

That’s when it hit me: − I broke my own basic rules for exploring abandoned buildings:  1) Don’t go alone; and 2) arm yourself. When going solo, I’ll at least carry a baseball bat. But here I was, in the middle of this old castle of a mining complex, behind the graveyard, well out of earshot of any other people on the road at the top of the hill. What was I thinking, that the ghosts of the Molly Maquires were going to guard me?

Visions of the movie Deliverance swam through my head as I nonchalantly turned away and casually yet determinedly made my way toward the light of the graveyard. Was he alone? Who could tell? Was he just exploring the ruins, as I was? At ten o'clock on a Friday morning? He said nothing and I did not look back. I had no desire to be made to squeal like a pig.

My car was parked nearby, which gave me some comfort, so I spent another ten minutes trying to photograph the outside of the fan house through the trees. I couldn’t really do it justice. I studied the ruins for my little buddy, but he did not show himself again. The take-home message here is that I did something really stupid, and suggest that you not do the same.

Feeling a bit safer, I parked the car on the ridge overlooking the fan house graves and began to wander around looking for interesting tombstones. Some of the photos you see here were taken in this area. About five minutes later, slipping into the historical present, I hear music. Guitar strumming, and then a voice. I hoped it was a radio, but then, I was pretty far away from the public road. Workmen, perhaps? As the breeze changed directions it carried the sound a bit clearer, so I turned toward it. I was startled to see a man sitting on a tombstone, singing, and playing a guitar! Not the fan house guy, another fellow. Staring at him, I involuntarily gave a small wave when he caught my eye; he nodded to me.

The scene reminded me of the rockabilly guitar playing zombie in the 2008 zombie/slasher movie, Trailer Park of Terror (you can click on the link at the end of this blog to view part of the scene, but its not for the squeamish). There’s a tense build-up scene where you hear the guitar first, then as the camera pans back to show the trailer park at night, the vocal kicks in and its actually a zombie with an electric guitar singing on the roof of one of the trailers! (I know what you're thinking - "He watches too many movies." In actuality, I don't see nearly as many as I'd like. However, the few I do watch seem to have a profound affect on me!)

I guess I shouldn’t have been so weirded out by someone playing guitar in a cemetery, as I’ve done the same thing. I was inclined to walk the forty paces in his direction and talk to the gent, but I felt that maybe he was doing something very personal, like singing at his dead momma’s grave. Of course, there was always the possibility that he could be dangerous − or worse yet, not really there. So I skirted his perch while taking tombstone photos in the general vicinity. He never stopped playing for the additional half hour I was there.

All in all, a strange cemetery visit, complete with appearances by knaves and rascals, pochards and indiscrets, as the author James Thurber might say. Scary, yes, but really nothing compared to the horrors this chunk of land wrought on people’s lives in the past. As I was contemplating the mining disaster that shut down the fan house and entire Dorrance Colliery, I pictured all the tunnels under the cemetery filled with water. Ten men died in 1959 when the Susquehanna River broke through the Knox Mine upriver. My Mom tells me that my grandmother’s brother Andy “was one of the last men out" before the river broke through. How horrifying is that? Look at this photo of the giant whirlpool in the river caused by the void of the mines below.

Susquehanna River whirlpool, caused by Knox mine cave-in

Reminder of when coal was king
I looked down at the grass absentmindedly as a glint of something shiny caught my eye. I kicked at a chunk of black anthracite coal sticking out of the ground. Not unusual in this area, I used to see coal all over when I was a kid. Picking it out and pocketing the chunk, I viewed it as a lovely parting gift from the ghost of Asa Packer, the founder of the Dorrance Colliery.

Further Reading and References:

Fan House Graves,” Cemeterry Traveler blog posting from September 4, 2012
For something even scarier than a zombie movie, check out this account of the 1959  Knox Mine disaster
Trailer Park of Terror zombie guitar scene

Thanks to photographer Patricia Kinsman for telling me about the Hillman Fan House!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fan House Graves

Like most people, I was born at a very young age. My formative years were spent in NEPA – North Eastern PA – Pennsylvania, that is. Coal was black gold and there were no movie stars. Well, except for that time Sean Connery came to Wilkes-Barre for the premier of his movie, “The Molly Maquires,” which was filmed in Eckley, PA. (Eckley is more or less a shanty town in Weatherly, about ten miles south of Wilkes-Barre.)

So coal was a way of life around these parts from the 1760s to the 1960s; my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all worked in the mines in NEPA. When I was growing up in this area, abandoned coal breakers were commonplace (the breaker was the main structure in a “colliery,” which consisted of a mine and its complex of surface buildings). As a kid, my friends and I played near a hulking, crumbling concrete bunker that everyone called “the fan house.” I had no idea why it was called that, never even wondered. But now, forty years later, I found out why. 

Headstone, Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery  (P. Kinsman)
Some weeks ago, I drove through Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery on a rainy summer morning on my way to visit my mom. A photographer friend of mine, Patricia Kinsman, had posted a fabulous gravestone photo on Flickr about a year ago (see image directly above) - a photo that that she made in this cemetery - so I wanted to visit the place. (Click here to see her entire Flickr photostream). I was intrigued by the low angle she used, which sort of makes the stone look miniature.) 

Patricia described the cemetery as overgrown on a hillside sloping down toward the river. The City Cemetery sits next to the much fancier (and better cared for) Hollenback Cemetery, both of which are on River Street, across from the Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. Easy to find. Supposedly, people used to be buried in the Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery until their families had enough money to give them a proper burial at Hollenback Cemetery! (ref.)

Headstones with ruins of old building
As I drove the narrow road toward the back of the cemetery, it was obvious that some major brush-clearing had recently occurred. Trees had been cut and weeds had been whacked. The rain-rutted dirt road sloped treacherously down toward the river and looped back up the hill. I thought twice about driving my car down there, but the objection was sustained. Shadowing over this small section of the cemetery was the hulk of a large abandoned brick and concrete building. It was barely visible through the trees and you could see graffiti on the caved-in walls. The structure was not visible from the city street above. I took a few photos of the small stones around the building’s foundation and called it a day.

On my return to Philadelphia, I asked Patricia if she knew what the building was.  A fan house,” was her reply, “...a ventilation system for a coal mine. There are giant fans that pulled air out of the coal mine.  The mine is still there, but sealed off.” 

Toppled monument in Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery
So THAT’S what a fan house is! (The fans of which she speaks were actually thirty-five FEET in diameter, and at the time, the largest in the United States.) My mission was clear. On my next visit, I needed to explore the fan house. (I did this a couple months later, getting much more than I bargained for. Stay tuned and read about this hair-raising experience next week!)

Fan inside Dorrance fan house (c. 1980s) (ref)
Schematic diagram of "Baltimore-style" fan house fan (ref)
Patricia’s Dad originally showed her the fan house, knowing that she liked to photograph abandoned buildings. He found these drawings and photos of the original buildings on line. The idea is fascinating, the technology a mechanical marvel at the time. 

c.1980s photo of Hillman fan house, Wilkes-Barre, PA  (ref)
The mining complex, of which the fan house (properly named the “Hillman" Fan House) was part, was known as the Dorrance Colliery. A "colliery," again, was the name given to the mine and all its outbuildings, including the main building, the coal breaker. The breaker was located about a quarter-mile up the (Susquehanna) river.   

Dorrance Colliery coal breaker, Wilkes-Barre, PA, c. 1980 (ref)
Here’s an image of the Dorrance Colliery’s massive coal breaker. The mine itself consisted of ten tunnels, most of which actually went under the river! Needless to say, the mine shafts tunneled under the City Cemetery as well. The Dorrance mining operation ceased in 1935 when the Susquehanna river broke through one of the tunnels.

Dorrance was owned and operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Think about that. It was a tribute to railroad pioneer Asa Packer’s business acumen as owner of the Lehigh Valley Railroad to MINE his own fuel! And then haul it to regions in need of it! The colliery was in operation  from 1880 through 1959 (the year after I was born). Eventually abandoned, the structure was imploded in 1984. Today, the only remaining trace of the 550-acre Dorrance coal kingdom is the crumbling fan house, and the graves that lie in its ominous shadow. 

I find it interesting that the sign at the cemetery entrance indicates that it was established in 1871, and the fan house was (along with the rest of the colliery) was built around 1880. It appears that the Dorrance shafts tunneled under the cemetery which was already in existence. Convenient location, given all the mining-related deaths that occurred during the period the mine was in existence. 

As I mentioned earlier, I did return to explore the fan house, which you can read about next week. All I can say is that I failed to adequately prepare myself. I broke my own rules related to exploring abandoned buildings: 1) Never go alone; but if you must, 2) arm yourself.

1980s photo of fan house with headstone in foreground (ref)

References and Further Viewing:

Patricia Kinsman’s Flickr Photostream
Read about Sean Connery and the movie, The Molly Maquires 
Read about the actual Molly Maquires
Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior