Photographer Dick George has an eye for the strange, the illusory, the easily overlooked. Traveling in the rural southwest five years ago, the Arizona-based artist found himself drawn to an unusual subject matter. In dusty towns with names like Gila and Dona Rosa, George discovered dozens of rural graveyards filled with handmade grave markers. Some of the markers were as fragile as a tiny crucifix crafted from clothespins and glue; others as strangely grand as a life-size cross covered in a glistening armor of beer can pull-tabs.
Where many would see only quaint, aging relics, George saw art. He began taking pictures. The result was a traveling exhibit of black and white photos called Descanse en Paz (rest peacefully), now showing at the San Bernardino County Museum, and closing this weekend.
Designed as a contemplative space, the atmosphere of Descanse en Paz is so vigilantly respectful it manages to retain the feeling of a gravesite while avoiding even a hint of the ghouly vibes you might feel if you were actually stepping on somebody’s grandmother. Make no mistake: there’s a lot of death in the air, so if avoiding Joe Black is your thing, keep your distance. But if you’re into art that’s both historical and deeply personal, this tenderly-crafted 60-photograph exhibit is definitely worth a look.
Poignantly, many of the gravesites George photographed house children and infants. His photo “Broken Heart” (2003) depicts a heart-shaped stone grave marker. Broken in half, the stone is inscribed, “Paulito, who died in infancy.” Another photo shows a wooden crib used to mark a tiny grave in Valencia County, New Mexico, most likely in the 1930s or ‘40s. The artist notes that, several decades later, someone is still tending this gravesite, cutting back weeds and delivering new plastic flowers.
Following a custom common in many Latino cultures, a lot of the grave markers include beloved items once owned by the deceased. In “Running Shoes” (2003), it’s a pair of sneakers that belonged to a 10-year-old deceased boy in Texas. In “Motorcycle” (2003), it’s an old cruiser rearing up from the concrete slab that covers the grave; a sprinkling of beer cans are embedded in the cement as well, forming a tribute which, one can only imagine, the deceased would have loved.
While some tributes feel almost whimsical, others carry far different emotions. Grave markers are often lightning rods of our deepest emotions for those who have passed, and among those photographed by George, some throb almost palpably with mourners’ feelings of loss, devotion, longing, and grief. One marker, a homemade concrete cross covered in peeling white paint, reads simply “God bless you mom” in large block letters. Another was inscribed some time ago with a rage-filled salvo at the deceased, only to be painted over later, perhaps penitently. Another, an amalgam of fake ferns and handcuffs slung around a cross, seems full of emotion, but enigmatically so—was the deceased a criminal, or a police officer? And what up with the ferns?
Many of the markers are delicate and hastily-fashioned. The most fragile of these is a cross scooped out of the dirt by hand. Another is formed of two sticks; a less observant visitor might have stepped on it instead of photographing it.
But many of the markers were constructed painstakingly over a period of hours or even days, proving George’s point that, for mourners, this is “an art of devotion.” His photo “Free Form” (2005) depicts a giant and intricately-constructed cross made of dowels and wood blocks that have been glued together and spray-painted silver. The cross seems to lunge upward, the undulating pieces glinting in the sunlight like flames.
But even the most formidable markers are remarkably ephemeral, constructed of homespun materials and unguarded by any official preserving body. It’s easy to understand why George felt pulled to preserve this vanishing tradition through photography. Collectively, the handmade grave markers are at once so beautiful and so tenuous, you almost want to throw your arms around them, to shield them from weather, from vandals and thieves, and time itself, which will wipe them away as easily as wind moves dust. You want to protect them in death, as those to whom they pay tribute could not be protected in life.
Descanse en Paz at the San Bernardino County Museum, 2024 Orange Tree Ln., Redlands, (909) 307-2669; www.sbcountymuseum.org. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$6. Curator Michele Nielsen will present a gallery talk at 2 p.m. Saturday that will include a tour of the exhibit and a discussion of cemetery art in the southwest. Closes Sunday.