Photographs and Illustrations by Gary Perrone.
About a year ago I began cycling around Titus County, Texas. I could drive two hours east of Dallas and be transformed. My good friend who lives there had mapped many of the county roads and we have spent many hours riding them since. A typical ride takes us about 35-40 miles in and around Mount Pleasant, which is roughly in the center of the county. Any direction will lead us through dense forests of tall pine trees where the aroma is sometimes so powerful it can make you stop, stand there and just breathe it in.
During cold weather the evergreens give the area a lush quality even though other plants are dormant. Cycling past them on those chilly afternoons I sometimes look over at the sun-warmed needles and imagine a cozy sanctuary on that thick carpet of tan. Barbed wire and rattlesnakes keep me moving, as will the intense heat of summer. And this is Texas, meaning most of the scenery we pass is inaccessible to us. The rolling fields, pastures and immense forests are usually fenced and part of a ranch, farm or other private property. Acres upon acres of land, which are owned by petroleum, gas and mineral interests are equally inaccessible.
Our rides take us through several towns we have come to know quite well like Cookville, Omaha, Talco and Winfield – all of which have populations well under 5000. Franklin County, to the west, is frequently on our route and we are no strangers to nearby Mount Vernon and Hagansport. No matter where we ride, at some point we must stop and rest, even if briefly. We would keep an eye out for suitable places to rest alongside whatever road we were riding on. Barbed wire presented some challenges in that regard and many times what appeared to be a place of shade and repose turned out to be less than inviting.
Visiting the Dead.
I came to realize the countryside was dotted with cemeteries. My cycling buddy was familiar with many of these and we began stopping at them to break. The first was Nevills Chapel, the location of my buddy’s family burial site. He pointed out various dead relatives, including his uncle who was killed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. At one end of the beautiful hillside upon which this cemetery resides are monuments and markers that predate the 20th century. My friend sensed my interest in the carvings and inscriptions and suggested we visit a site that was older still. That led us to the Greenhill site, which intensified my fascination.
It has never been my intention to be a photographer or to use photography as the end result of my creative process. I am a painter and I wanted to do some work in watercolor as a break from abstract acrylic painting. At most sites we visited I took pictures of what I considered visually noteworthy with the idea of creating a series of art pieces. Of the most interest to me were the unmarked cairns, toppled gravestones and weatherworn carvings. Many times the condition of these markers was the thing that fascinated me. A distinct sense of being forgotten is prevalent at these sites where the monuments succumb to the ravages of time, lichens and vandalism.
These sites are almost always accessible as people must be allowed to visit the deceased. Some have been inactive for years and there is no discernible path. One of my favorite sites is Barrett. I wanted to know what made Barrett different from Piney and Lone Star, other sites I had visited. Getting to Barrett requires a five-mile trek on FM 1734 along an endless cornfield after which one can find the well-marked and gated entrance. Most of the time the gate is locked but the nature of the fence on either side makes entry with a bike easy. We have come to learn the guardians of Barrett keep the entrance locked to deter vandals who have desecrated the property in the past (we have the utmost respect for the sites we visit). Beyond the gate a trail proceeds through tall trees for about a quarter mile. Barrett is located within the boundaries of a former Winfield coal mining operation. The trail enters a short tunnel above which runs a road used by mining company vehicles. Exiting the tunnel, the trail extends another quarter mile up to the summit that is the Barrett site.
These are very special places. In each can be found monuments to Woodsmen of the World and references to the International Order of Oddfellows (IOOF). I remain amazed at the number of children who perished and intrigued by dates from the Civil War and earlier. The ancient stones are rife with the characteristics of the carver. One can see uneven lines of text and back slanted letterforms – yet a mastery of form and technique in those as well as in angelic statuary, whimsical structures and the precious carvings of small animals and birds. In the quality of family names and blocks of text one can see near perfection as technology advanced at the turn of the 20th century. While carving was still done by hand, stencils and air-powered tools made the process easier, and harder materials such as granite came into use alongside the progress of equipment.
The carvings and symbology of the past are only part of the intrigue. Graves marked only by small, upright stones are numerous. At several sites graves lie just outside the fenced in boundaries. For whatever reason, some persons were not allowed to be buried within the cemetery. I cannot help but wonder who these individuals were and why were they so shunned? The Texas Historical Commission estimates roughly 50,000 historic cemeteries located all over the state. A large number are considered unknown or unregistered.
An historic discovery in Sugar Land, Texas:
Curating the Panes.
The first part of my watercolor series consists of twelve panes that focus on monuments and markers from seven sites. There are twenty sites we visit regularly and each has a distinct atmosphere. As I mentioned some are off the main road and others are adjacent to major roadways. Over the past few months I zeroed in on particular details that convey to me certain emotions. Abject grief and the pain of loss. Faith and redemption. The joy of life and the tragedy of death. Futility and loneliness. Upon entering these sites it is difficult not to feel, or at least be aware of these things. At the same time, signs of life are all around – the big sky, trees, flowers both wild and artificial, a profusion of birds and insects – and the wind singing and sighing.
What I find most difficult is not to be moved by the sights and sounds of these places that have become sanctuaries to which I can return at will. Wandering among the graves I find myself compelled to read the inscriptions and examine the carvings. The most mysterious are the ones that are barely legible. I never disturb the bright green and aqua lichens that nearly obliterate the lettering on some and I am captivated by neon ochre blooms on a toppled stone encrusted with a patina of black fungus.
The daylight also varies from site to site. Some are heavily shaded while others are devoid of vegetation but for a single tree. The variations in light lend the stones an ethereal quality that I felt would be best exemplified in watercolor. In curating my own reference photographs I not only came to focus on the effects of light and texture but also on perspective. Also, I wanted to try and capture the antiquity of these objects that proudly stand, largely forgotten.
Part of my appreciation for these places comes from my passion for both typography and stone carving. From this perspective I take notice of the quality of incisions and subtractions in the stones. Inversely, the process of building up an image through washes and color somehow puts me in touch with the original carving process as the image emerges. Likewise the attention to grass, stone and debris seem to align me with nature and its ceaseless attempts to reclaim everything that seems permanent.
It is marvelous to come across these places that appear out of nowhere, full of beauty and history. It is a pleasure to wander around and learn who lies beneath. Their names call out and draw me in. I soak in their ages and their eras and wonder who they were and what they went through. I think about transformation when I come to these places. The transformation of life and death of course, but mainly life. I see how a place can transform my life and my creativity in profound ways when I open my mind and be aware. – GP
Life as an artist depends upon generating revenue from art
and related services. I welcome replies, inquiries and opportunities.
I am currently working on new acrylic paintings that explore the color spectrum.
Paintings available to purchase may be viewed at saatchiart.com.
Thank you very much.