Recently, I was interviewed by The Scene (http://thescene.whro.org), for one of their local artists features. To prepare, I tried to recall my earliest artistic influences. My first exposure to sculpture was Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia. Every Sunday, from toddlerhood until I was 12 years old, my family would take my great grandmother to visit my great grandfather in Elmwood Cemetery. My great grandmother’s name was Essie and one of her favorite things to do was to make fried chicken. Every Sunday visit had to begin with Essie’s fried chicken lunch. Not a fan of fried chicken but I usually survived lunch, and after the oil drenched slightly blackened feast, we headed out to the cemetery. While Essie and my family were visiting my great grandfather’s grave, I would wander the cemetery marveling at all statues, my favorite being the Recording Angel, by William Couper. The Couper Angel is a striking color, and has the soft bluish cast of patinated copper, giving it a strange ethereal quality. This Angel has presence,and seems to peer down at you from its perch. Its life like face draws you in and the intensity is somewhat intimidating. The hands hold a scroll delicately but seem powerful. Of course, I didn’t have the words to express this as a child and imagined the Angel as Michael, the archangel, guarding the way to heaven making sure mischievous little girls didn’t accidentally get in. Somehow I overlooked that the Angel had breasts until I was much older, but in my mind the Angel remained Michael for a long time.
The Couper Angel has stuck with me for such a long time, and even after my great grandmother’s death, and subsequent cessation of family grave visits, I visit it from time to time. The Angel sparked my interest in art, leading me to search of other sculpture like it at the library, and eventually to creating art of my own. When I really started getting serious about art making, the first things I made were winged figures and I relate this directly back to the Couper Angel. Although I did not intend them to be angels necessarily, I did see them as messengers or released spirits. My current artwork has heavy emphasis on the face, especially the eyes, and the hands. I relate this directly to the Couper Angel and want my figures to share the presence that she embodies.
It might seem spooky to have your first art experience from come from a cemetery, since so many folks see cemeteries at homes for the dead. I think cemeteries are really meant for the living and Elmwood was created to be a “tranquil respite from urban life”. Elmwood Cemetery was based on the Victorian romantic idea of death as sleep. The Victorians saw cemeteries not only as a place in which social status could be established by a big ass grave marker, but also as a place to visit, reflect and contemplate, have a picnic, take a stroll, and spend a Sunday afternoon. It is beautifully landscaped and has several large oak trees. It has an abundance of beautiful statuary and eloquent mausoleums. If you visit Norfolk, Virginia, Elmwood is a great place to spend a quiet afternoon. They also offer evening tours https://www.facebook.com/events/447496342091182/. Elmwood Cemetery’s website is http://www.norfolk.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/47.