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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Original Sculpture Garden

Crown Hill Cemetary Gate, Indianapolis, Indiana
When one wants to see great art from the past, the natural inclination is to visit some big metropolitan art museum. Each major city in the U.S. seems to have one. Some, of course are bigger and better than others, and all have their different strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses of most major art museums is their sculpture collections, especially work from previous centuries. Often steel and concrete abstractions may dot the grounds while inside, there's a solitary nude perhaps, but for the most part, that is the most part. But there is a place in many large cities where you can go and see often some of the best carved works of art created in the past hundred and fifty years--your friendly, neighborhood cemetery. While many small-town "graveyards" as they're often called, offer nothing more in the way of art than a mind-numbing array of nearly identical, twentieth-century, granite lumps, those in bigger cities are more diverse. Indianapolis' Crown Hill Cemetery is a typical example.

Photo by Mark Sean Orr
Orphan Annie from the grave of poet, James
Whitcomb Riley who created her.
As cemeteries go, Crown Hill is not that old--a mere 147 years. Originally, it was a small, tree-shaded knoll on the outskirts of town, thought to be the highest point in Marion County.Today, its 555 acres has a population of almost 190,000. And it's also the home of some of the best sculptural efforts to be seen in the Midwest. One of the most intriguing is a bronze statue of a woman in mourning created by the noted sculptor Ruolf Schwarz from Austria. Most monuments are more symbolic. Among the graves of President Benjamin Harrison, poet James Whitcomb Riley (above, left), and bank robber John Dillinger, can be found doves (symbolizing love and purity), broken columns (symbolizing a life unexpectedly cut short), open Bibles (often found on the gravestones of the clergy) and life-size angels whose outstretched wings point the way to heaven. One monument bears a carved painters palette marking the grave, not of a famous artist, but the final resting place of one who merely found pleasure in painting.

The recently restored life-size sculpture figure
of young Corliss Randall Ruckle, who died
in 1889 at the age of twelve.
A hundred years ago, a "picnic in the park" might mean a quiet summer's afternoon dining informally from a blanket spread near a departed relatives grave. Today, even in the most beautiful weather, the tree-lined avenues that give access to the burial plots and the acres of outstanding sculptural art are largely deserted. Today, the descendants of those buried here often live in distant cities, but even those living nearby prefer the "Golden Arches" to the three stone arches that mark the main entrance to this beautiful, megalithic park. Apart from its sculpture, Crown Hill is also something of an architectural sampler as well. Here can be found faithful examples of Classical, Gothic, Egyptian, Romanesque, and yes, even Modern styles in the 57 family owned mausoleums with their ornate bronze doors, marble columns, and stained glass windows. It may be a bit eerie toward the waning hours of the day, but the next time you want to see outstanding sculpture and architecture, don't fight the traffic to go downtown. Instead, pack a picnic lunch and head for the biggest cemetery you can find. It's far more "restful." Who knows, you might even find your future place of rest.
Photo by Mark Sean Orr
The Lady of the Hill

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