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Making Art among the Dead

CAS alum may be country’s only cemetery artist-in-residence


The tiny boy kneels, chin on chest, clutching a book. Roberto Mighty positions his video camera at the crest of a small knoll, perhaps 10 paces from Frank Ernest James’ memorial—this boy is stone, not flesh and bone—and takes some footage, then halves the distance between himself and the statue for a closer shot, finally homing in from practically on top of the figure, his camera’s gaze lingering.

Sweat spangles on Mighty’s face in the sunlight of this warm day, but no mind: the memorial in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery has become a magnet for him and his lens (this is his third visit to the spot in recent months). “I just find it heartbreaking,” he says of the piece, one of many children’s gravestones and markers sprinkled throughout Mount Auburn that serve as grim witness to the rampant childhood mortality in the decades following the cemetery’s 1831 opening.

There are many artists in residence at Mount Auburn; painter Winslow Homer, poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Amy Lowell, and novelist Bernard Malamud are among those buried here. Mighty remains above ground, and he is apparently the only officially designated artist-in-residence at an American cemetery. (Neither officials at Mount Auburn, nor at the American Institute of Commemorative Art, nor at two other prominent burial grounds—Arlington National Cemetery and Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery—know of any other cemetery artist-in-residence, which appears to be a universally novel concept; Britain appointed its first one only last year.)

Mighty’s appointment, lasting through next year, will produce a multimedia project of video and film, still photography, music, and other audio. To be displayed in Mount Auburn’s visitors center, it will cover the iconography and physical environment of the cemetery, along with the stories of perhaps 15 people, famous and not, buried here during the last two centuries. Candidates include Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Malamud, the author of The Natural, Dorothea Dix, the 19th-century mental health care reformer, George Angell, founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Peter Byus, a Virginia slave who escaped to Boston and whose tombstone depicts a man bursting out of chains, and Harriet Jacobs, another escaped slave, who wrote one of the first accounts of the brutal existence of female slaves. Other notables interred here include sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy, politician Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.

An early video inkling of the project on his website attests that Mighty aims to capture more than the sad stories of Mount Auburn. He also wants to showcase the beauty of an iconic place that was designed to blunt death’s sorrow. At its consecration, it was the first cemetery in the country with a landscaped garden, a departure from the starkness of the traditional church graveyards. Plaques on the obelisks guarding Mount Auburn’s entrance proclaim it “a memorial to the dead and a place of inspiration for the living.” The cemetery attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year.

Mighty says he is humbled by his unique residency. As for Mount Auburn, “We are thrilled,” says Jenny Gilbert, the cemetery’s senior gifts officer. Thanks to a grant, the cemetery was able to create “an opportunity to have an artist participate in our project to study the cemetery’s most significant monuments,” she says, documenting this old history using new media. Mount Auburn hopes to be able to appoint future resident artists, she says.

Before the project, Mighty’s only visit to the cemetery had been for an acquaintance’s funeral many years ago. Now few people rival his intimacy with these 174 acres, which he prowls at all hours, hunting for compelling sights and sounds. It’s a daunting challenge, and not just because of the vast acreage to explore; he must take care to follow rules and not tramp on any of the 98,000 graves or touch the often-fragile tombstones. Those restrictions can put off-limits certain spots that might enable his cameras to capture a great scene. “Sometimes it’s hard to get the shot I want and still be mindful of the sensibilities,” he says, adding that he’s passed on some shots that he would have otherwise taken.

Only living creatures the resident coyotes and wild turkeys

Roberto Mighty, multimedia artist, artist in residence, Mount Auburn cemetary, Cambridge Massachusetts

Mighty is especially moved by Mt. Auburn Cemetery’s memorials to dead children.

Mighty is here before dawn as well as overnight, when the only living creatures he sees are the resident coyotes and wild turkeys. “I do a lot of long exposure and time-lapse photography,” he says. “The animals come out at night and the early morning, so I do lots of recordings of animals.” Their sounds can be creepy in the dark, he confesses, but otherwise, he finds this abode of the dead quietly tranquil at night. “Part of the reason why this cemetery was built…was to achieve a triumph over the gloom of death,” says Mighty. “It was consecrated for that purpose, to make it a garden where people would stop thinking of death as gloomy and see in it the possibility of rebirth and beauty.”

You could say that multimedia renditions of nature are a specialty of his. Mighty is an artist who hikes for his supper, his CV brimming with works capturing the natural world, from the Harvard Forest, in Petersham, Mass., where he also was artist-in-residence, to his hometown of Newton, Mass., where he found both ecological and spiritual purpose in rotting tree trunks for his project Trees of My City: Dormancy, Death, Decay. It’s All Good. His love of the outdoors is the product of a childhood spent partially in Alaska—his father was stationed there with the Air Force—where camping, hiking, and fishing were as integral to growing up as school.

His love of art (he has a master of fine arts degree from Lesley University) likewise dates to his childhood, when in grade school he would fill pages with poems and stories. He played guitar in a high school band and was also the group’s sound recorder, the start of his multimedia interest. His artwork taps his education at BU, where he majored in history, a reflection, he says, of his passion for storytelling: “Most of my art projects involve history. Taking pretty pictures, whether motion pictures or stills, is just one part of my project. It’s not enough. What’s really important to me is the interpretation of everything that we have here” at Mount Auburn. The interpretation offered by his project will depend crucially on the featured individuals he selects, for through their stories, he says, you glimpse the story of the United States, particularly the nation’s diversity.

“I’ve seen headstones that have Stars of David on them,” he says. “There are people buried here of Armenian extraction; there are African Americans; a friend of mine who is from China is interpreting the symbols on some headstones of Chinese people who are buried here for me. There’s a headstone of a Persian woman.” He’s collaborating with an amateur historian to help research the history.

The many children buried here tell Mighty, a father himself, another story. The same day he paid his third homage to the Frank Ernest James memorial, he steered his Acura four-door to a 10-foot-tall obelisk protruding amid a cluster of tombstones for the Noll family, one of whom died at age four. Atop the child’s rectangular inscription stone is a carving of a little boy, reclining with his head on a lamb, which evoked for Mighty “peace and a blessed future in heaven.” A brother buried nearby was only a year old; his monument depicts the dead child on a bed while an angel kneels next to him, gazing benevolently.

“The very fact that this family would have two children dying that young seems somehow inappropriate and wrong,” Mighty says. “Well, right now, in some parts of the world, there are people that don’t have access to common medications.…There are children dying at very young ages due to malnutrition or who knows what. So I think that these aspects of the human condition…haven’t changed one bit. They’ve just been relocated from one area to another.”

The cemetery, in short, also tells a story of the contemporary world.

“Even with all the inequities of life, somehow it’s comforting that we all have to die,” Mighty muses. Having lost his mother, an aunt, and an uncle in recent years, he also finds the project therapeutic, helping him “to process all that, in an odd way. It’s personal. I’m not at the mercy of it now.”

Mount Auburn Cemetery “was America’s first garden cemetery, and a lot of thought went into that,” he says. He pauses for a moment, scanning his surroundings of green and the voiceless monuments to the departed. “It’s beautiful.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Making Art among the Dead

  • Anne Boyd on 10.05.2014 at 3:34 pm

    Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, BC has an Artist-in-Residence program and Paula Jardine has been the Artist-in-Residence there since 2005. Her bio says that she is also Artist-in-Residence in Royal Oak Burial Park in Victoria. She recently received the “Community-Engaged Artist” award from the City of Vancouver. http://paulajardine.com/bio.htm

  • Paula Mickevich on 10.05.2014 at 4:47 pm

    It’s the bassinet gravestone that always gets to me.

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