Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye


Frank Calidonna

Stranger stop and cast an eye

As you are now so once was I

As I am now so you will be

Prepare for death and to follow me.

Common Colonial Epitaph

“Death is the mother of Beauty.”

Wallace Stevens

My passion is funerary art. I study and photograph the artwork produced to honor the dead and decorate their graves. My love for this work is not a macabre fascination. The art associated with disposition of the dead ranges from crude, untutored work to the carvings of Bernini and Michaelangelo. The emotions associated with losing loved ones have prompted many to place major works of art on the final resting places of the dead. Unlike most museum quality work, funerary art is left out in the open where it is exposed to the forces of wind, weather, acid rain, pollution, and the attention of vandals and thieves.

Death and grief are universal human experiences. The sculptors of memorial art freeze in stone and metal the emotions and beliefs surrounding these events. Often this is done with world class artistic skill. It is Art with the capital A. I find the entire iconography of funerary art moving and appealing.

My love and fascination for cemeteries has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. As a child I spent most summers in Utica, NY. Across the street from my Aunt’s home where we usually stayed was St. Agnes Cemetery. Many hours were spent running, hiding, and pretending in my special playground. What more could a kid ask for; stones for a fort, a sarcophagus for a truck, and visiting the awe inspiring monument to O’Hanlon the fireman.

Later I learned of death and loss. I learned about death from the good nuns and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Death was to be feared because if you weren’t good then all of the punishments of hell awaited you. Pretty impressive stuff to a kid.

I learned about grief and loss from my family. I grew up in an Italian-American family and culture. I was taken to many wakes and funerals when I was little. The sadness and loss demonstrated by the noisy wailing and shrieking associated with an Italian funeral were burned into my brain. The ritualized mourning and gross sentimentalizing of the dead was part of that culture. . No matter that much of this was strictly for show, what did I know as a kid? The end of the funeral took place in the cemetery so cemeteries were not only playgrounds for me, but a source of some emotional freight too. In spite of this I still find the atmosphere of cemeteries, especially Victorian cemeteries, as intriguing as ever. The emotional, mortuary excess, the celebration of death, which turns many off, is their precise appeal for me. Funerary art is fraught with expressed feeling.

How do I feel when being stared down by an angel? What emotion is the angel expressing? What beliefs are being declared? You feel many things when being stared down by a winged spirit. They remind you of the fact and the promise of death. You undergo a visceral experience of your feelings and beliefs about mortality and beyond.

How successful do I feel the sculptor is in expressing all of this? How do I feel in response? I also bring to this encounter all of my own sentiments and philosophies of mortality and beyond. The sculptor presents me with a tableau and I react to it. How successful can I be in translating my feelings and beliefs to you, the viewer, through a photograph?

Now it becomes tricky. I am trying to create art by photographing someone else’s artwork. This is my purpose and challenge; to present to you my response through photography, not to steal the talent and sweat of the sculptor.

I have another more mundane, but equally important reason for my photography. Cemeteries are outdoor museums. I am documenting as many at-risk monuments as I am able. Many cemeteries and monuments are endangered or at great risk. Natural weathering, pollution, vandalism, and theft are taking a terrible toll. Cemeteries need our help and I hope that I contribute to the cause by making you the viewer of my work aware of what is out there and what is at stake.

Frank Calidonna

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