I heard her voice – excited and breathless – and saw her waving her hands to catch my attention: all in my head, of course. Leaves crunched under my boots as I walked, stopping at each grave stone, waiting to sense a presence, and then moving on to the next. It was a large white obelisk marked “Olive,” the only word still legible after 170 years of erosion.
“Quick! Take it!” she cried, as if I were photographing her, or sketching her portrait. Take her likeness, I thought. I felt her anxiety, as if once her name were completely worn away, she knew she would be utterly forgotten.
I traced the remnant of a word with my finger. “Wife.”
“Buried by a loving husband,” I thought.
“Yes.” She seemed very still.
“Age 27 years,” I read. “Young.”
She seemed to be sitting under the nearby, ancient tree, dressed in a white gown with the full skirt and petticoats of her era, waiting for someone, perhaps the husband who had buried her.
My mind was flooded with stories as I draped the silk over her monument and began moving my fabric crayon over the raised letters. Did he remarry and move on? Did he die somewhere else? Away at war? Are they forever separated? I'll never know. I can only imagine these things. Perhaps I am imagining all of it.
But I see Olive in my mind's eye: dark hair, fair skin, pretty, young, and patiently waiting under the tree by her tombstone at Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio.
My desire to take the likenesses, as it were, of the long dead may seem strange to some. My father died when I was young, but I have sensed his comforting presence as long as I can remember. Perhaps this closeness with one spirit helps to develop the ability to sense the presence of others. I am no medium, and I never see the dead with my eyes, but I sometimes hear their voices and see their faces in my mind when they are present.
As I enter a cemetery, I proceed slowly. It feels like most of the dead are slumbering, and I wait to be called by someone. I've noticed whenever there is a persona involved with a piece, the work will go more smoothly, and the finished silk will have a strange and unique beauty.
As I meander through the old sections of cemeteries, I watch for tombstones with optimum potential: raised letters, large graphics, and less erosion. Once I have developed a sense for who wishes to be remembered, I will usually complete the work using imagery from other grave stones, asking permission first of anyone who might linger. For example, with Olive, I used simple, floral designs to complement her sweet, endearing personality.
Respect is my ultimate goal, along with remembrance. This is why I choose the oldest sections of cemeteries, making sure all markers were placed prior to WWII. What a horrible thing it would be to find a tombstone rubbing scarf for sale on Etsy of your beloved family member's head stone.
I am often asked how I came up with this idea. I had wanted to create my own textiles, and purchased Habotai silk, fabric crayons and rubbing plates. The plates did not interest me, however, and my supplies sat unused. This autumn, I went on the annual leaf gathering walk with my children. We bring the fallen neighborhood leaves of maple, elm, and oak home, and make leaf rubbings with crayons on paper, just like I remember doing in primary school. I realized I could do this with my silks and fabric crayons, and enjoyed the process of imprinting something real – contact with nature, more than just design.
When I began trying to think of something for Halloween, I realized I could use the same technique with tombstones, as I had done with chalk and paper in my youth. On my first cemetery outing, I wasn't sure what to expect. The call of the dead surprised me, but it felt comfortable. I enjoyed spending time with them and flexing my 6th sense, or imagination, whichever it happens to be.
Sometimes I worry I might bring someone, or something, unfriendly home. After returning from my first visit, I felt a little uneasy, but decided to ignore it. I reasoned that any spirit so closely attached to a location wouldn't be able to stay with me for long. When my children came home from school, my oldest son, who has always been sensitive, walked into my studio and asked, “Who is in here?”
“Just me,” I replied.
“Oh. I heard someone say hello to me, and it wasn't you.”
“Was it a woman's voice, or a man's voice?”
“A woman's.” He looked around as if he might find someone else, sure of his senses, but then shrugged and walked away.
I never told him where I had been or what I had been doing.
I had been to Hannah's grave that day, and I wondered if she might have followed me home, curious about my activity at her grave site. I feel she didn't stay long, though. Once the oil from the crayon has dried, the spirits seem to rest again, perhaps more content to be remembered a little longer.
You can read more stories and see more tombstone rubbing scarves on my blog: creatrixjane.blogspot.com.
Scarves are available at my Etsy shop: creatrixjane.etsy.com.
Note: Alissa is a member of our Fiber Focus group on Ning. Visit her page for more photos of her work. She also started the knitting group on Fiber Focus. Fiber Focus is a gathering place for people who are passionate about fiber art and its place in the world. Many of us are artists with stores on Etsy, but we also have interior designers, collectors and just people who want to be around fiber art discussions. We welcome new members!
The slide show below is of more of Alissa's work:
Find more photos like this on Fiber Focus