A Matter of Permanence
During the era of colonial and early America products were created to last a long time, often beyond the lifespan of the average person. A shop sign, an article of clothing, tools, all had the built in craftsmanship that allowed those things to persevere. Wood, stone, iron, steel and other natural elements were the raw materials used to produce what was needed to fuel the growing American project. Often items would be handed down from generation to generation, and along with a little maintenance, be as useful as the day it was made. Currently we live in an age of disposability with goods and images that bombard the viewer with non-stop progressions of products, trends and entertainments that leave no time for contemplation, or even a return for a second review. The age of bits and bytes has by its own essence made things ephemeral and deposable.What this series of essays attempts to show is that through the artisanship of the grave marker in early America you will garner that sense of permanence. Created with the bare hands of artisans—steel chisels hammered into stone—these markers were the monuments of ordinary people looking for everlasting recognition in a temporal and fleeting world. The ages may have worn away some of the sharp edges and added a patina of moss and lichen, but the original product still exists. How much longer is unknown, but to compared to the products of today, it may be a long time before these markers disappear from our view.
Colonial America: The Artisan and Graphic Design
America in the eighteenth century was a land of immense opportunity for the ambitious. It mattered little if you arrived in these Dutch or British colonies with wealth or not. The lucky few that arrived with money had a head start, but those without had to rely more on their wits, strength, and a can-do attitude. These are the people that left their literal marks in what was soon to become what is known as the United States. Consider a skilled laborer, hard pressed to find work in the old country, scratching together enough money to make the dangerous trip over the ocean to the colonies. He would arrive with the clothes on his back and maybe a few tools to work in his trade. A mason with a hammer and chisel may not find work in his field, but if asked if he could carve a design on a gravestone, the natural answer had to be a firm yes. A healthy mixture of entrepreneurship, ambition, and maybe a bit of desperation could certainly fuel this mason to try his hand at a new, but related endeavor. Amongst the burial grounds of the American colonies, a visual vocabulary of standardized images was already in existence. Images, icons, and typographic treatments that could be readily copied, improved upon, and modified to suit the needs of the family as well as the community. In an environment where almost every endeavor was for survival, the decorative and graphic arts were mostly afterthoughts. These gravestones are a testament to those artisans.
Stone and Steel: A Method of Delivery
Every creative endeavor needs two things: the tools to create a mark and a medium to accept the mark. The question is how long do you want your mark to last? Ink on paper, has a limited lifespan, lasting anywhere from a few months to a few centuries. Paint on a prepared surface also has a limited lifespan, depending on the environment it is kept in. The method of hammering a steel chisel into stone is probably the most secure in keeping an artwork safe, secure, and alive for millenniums. The ancient Assyrians were not the first to carve words and images into stone, but they started a tradition that lasts to this day. How do you recognize an important event, solidify a law, or memorialize the deceased? The answer is the same now as was then: set it in stone. The artisan that creates this work needs to be adept in the visual conventions of that era, but also possesses the strength needed to pound a hammer against a chisel into stone. No easy task since the manual pounding also needed to be disciplined enough to leave beautiful designs and elegant typography. The colonial gravestones were created in rock, sandstone or slate: media that could withstand the elements. Not like marble whose surface weathers away leaving marks often unrecognizable. Lines are drawn, stone is cut. Light varies making the viewing experience change subtly at different hours of the day and at different times of the year. What remains constant is the mark. The mark that is always there to remind us that we too are just passing through.
Wings of Desire
Human beings have always wished they could fly, to surmount their everyday surroundings and communicate with the infinite. To fly meant that you could survey the world from afar and somehow obtain a broader wisdom than what was currently possessed. Ancient Greek mythology has the story of Icarus and Daedalus, a father and son that took their home made wings and flew in the sky. Prudence lead the father to stay away from the sun’s heat, while poor Icarus, full of adventure, flew too close, had his wings melt, and fell to his demise. A cautionary tale that perhaps led to the realization that man was not meant to fly. That of course excluded those non-human beings, the angels.Winged humans have appeared as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, but it was not until the early christians embraced this spiritual entity that it became commonplace. So common that a rare jump was made to continue these “cherubs” beyond the Catholic church and into the protestant religions.Early America was overwhelmingly protestant with multiple sects coexisting together—and sharing the same symbolism. An early Puritan trend favored the more stoic death’s head, but as America found itself in the early stages of the Great Awakening, it embraced a friendlier, more humanistic winged cherub as a guide from our temporal existence to a more spiritual afterlife. The cherub was complacent, sometimes smiling, and with its wings had the ability to fly. The ability to help the deceased spirit fly as well, and thus obtain the broader, universal wisdom we constantly seek, but often alludes us.
The British and the Dutch
Stereotypes exist for a reason. The character and qualities of a group of people take on a similar and obvious identity, and for better or worse, retain those traits as its own. A stereotype can be useful in helping to identify how and why certain groups did certain things in certain ways, especially in cultural areas like the visual arts. The Dutch settled in the new world, called their home New Amsterdam, and thrived. Based on centuries of being the underdog, fighting the Catholic church, and embracing capitalism as a new secular religion, they brought to the new world a free enterprise system of self-reliance and can-do spirit. The British took over without bloodshed or incident. Residents woke up, did business as usual, life went on. The more reserved British had the same protestant point-of-view and perhaps brought more order to this “anything-goes” part of the colonies. As different as the two people were, the similarities may be more than originally thought. Gravestones, one of the few examples of public-oriented art brought together the motifs and icons that were embraced by both cultures. The death’s head, harsh and conservative, a throwback to the American colonies’ harder lifestyle gave way to a more optimistic cherub. The New York area will find graveyards exclusively Dutch or British as well as co-mingled with variations of the winged cherub, happy, sad or indifferently carrying out the work of assisting the deceased to heaven. What were differences in life now are similarities in death. The icons embraced by different cultures—however different—show their belief that we are all equal when we arrive at our final destination.
Typography: Conventions and Liberties
The art of creating letters has long been relegated to the specialist who has the focus to obsess over hundreds if not thousands of minute details involved in making each form. Starting with the ancient Greeks and moving forward to the refinements of Rome, alphabets found their way from crude geometric lines to the elegant shapes that have become the letters that we know today. Thicks and thins, serifs and swashes added to readability and comprehension.It was the renaissance type designers that codified templates for easily readable letters with improvements added with each successive generation. These letters became the standard for any design project that needed language and explanation. If an artisan were to create a document, a sign, or in this case a grave marker, the letter forms were already built into his consciousness, and easily transferred to the medium of choice. The marker on the next page was carved in 1691 by a local artisan whose work displays a form of visual and conceptual continuity that could only have been rendered by hands that have done this many times. The image is simple and raw compared to today’s standards, yet it has an aura of grace and permanence that was needed for a monument. The type, however, is more labored and course. The lines are far from the vertical and horizontal shapes required, the spaces between letters are inconsistent and the basic letter is mangled and choppy. Not exactly the standards of the professional letter carver - but done with great enthusiasm and energy that most likely pleased the client, brought on more work and enriched our cultural heritage.
To understand a work of art the first task is to take an inventory of what you see before you. Basically, look at the artwork and make a list of each and every item that is before you. Then determine what is the most and least used of these items. What do you see as the most prevalent image in that particular, or group of particular artworks. This objective task is performed without opinion or bias. The preferred vocabulary of gravestone motifs among the colonial American population was limited to a handful of items. The next task is the interpretation of this list. A skull and bones has an obvious meaning: “mors vincit omnia” or “death always wins” and this is what you will look like someday. However, in ancient societies the skull was also seen as a symbol of immortality, objects like crystal skulls represent life and the honoring of humanity in the flesh and the embodiment of consciousness.A cherub has a history of millennia to back itself up. Uplifting and positive, an aspect of the faith of Christians that life exists after death. The wings of the cherub look back to an age when one thought that after death the soul would leave the body in the form of a bird. Consequently, the bird becomes a symbol of the spirit, a “holy spirit”. Birds have also been thought of as mediators between the humans and the gods whom the birds fly so near to in the heavens. An interesting hybrid is the skull with wings, embodying the idea of death and transcendence. A parting of ways from our temporal existence towards a more spiritual existence. A soul can now be alive in perfection instead of living within an unclean body, filled with desires.Flowers of great variety were employed as motifs: a belief in renewal, spring rebirth after natures cyclical sleep, and of course, the natural beauty we all innately understand. Ancient cultures viewed flowers as earthly forms of the gods, and were worshipped as such. Flowers were also thought to keep away evil spirits. From a more practical level, the fragrance of flowers kept the smell of a decomposing body away from our noses. Perhaps the carvings of these flowers kept the deceased always fresh.
Modern Art and Design
By the very nature of ones time, art is modern, either by unconscious default or by conscious decision. Preceding 1900 the quest for modernism has always been how to improve what has come before whether through a realist point of view or an abstraction of reality, the quest has always been to move forward. In the early twentieth century certain artists looked back in time as well as abroad to so-called primitive cultures for inspiration. The modern art of Picasso actually was a look backward away from modernism. His great affection was to strip away his classical training and reveal the raw style inherent in the untrained. Now step back in time to the days when America was the colonies of other nations. The two accepted forms of public art, store signs and gravestones, were created by artisans usually with a bare minimum of training. Some became adept enough to open shop, and establish themselves. Away from the centers of high art, American craftsman developed a simplistic style that may have more honesty than the modern artists of the early twentieth century. Without art schools, life model studies, self-criticism and reflection, these artisans created works that have more in common with primitive cultures than first realized. The rounding of the face, the contour lines that connect the eyebrows and nose, the simple shape of the eyes, all show off the economy of design that the modern artists strove for. What came naturally to one became a historical appropriation to the other. If art is an indicator of a societies authenticity, perhaps the colonial America artisan is a truer example than the twentieth century modernist.
Journey into the Past: You Are Your Ancestors
The uncovering of personal identity is a pursuit common to many people. It helps give them understanding of who they are, where they come from and maybe why they behave and act the way they do. Genealogy companies now can trace your roots back centuries and pinpoint exactly where your ancestors come from. The settled American people only go back a few hundred years with most knowing only as far back as their grandparents. Constant new arrivals to this country continue to add to the mix of cultures that eventually blend into the fabric of society, bringing with them new backgrounds and customs. A hundred years ago most American could trace their roots to Europe, finding easily identifiable signs and markers to reinforce their heritage. But not so much anymore.Finding the clues of your past has become an increasingly difficult task. Finding what you want can take years of dedicated research and analysis. A good place to start for most Americans are the graveyards of colonial and early America. Specific information regarding your own self may be a difficult task, but the satisfaction of learning about your general heritage—a collective consciousness—can be easily understood if you just take the time to look, analyze, and understand that these images are not difficult to find and in a way, represent you. Not the individual you, but the you that is made up of all the backgrounds, cultures, attitudes that define the American people. Take some time to look around. What you learn and discover about yourself just might amaze you.
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