Artist Bea Nettles uses photographs of names from gravestones to create poetry for her book projects. Her most recent book “Head Lines: Worlds Warning” is a chronology of the COVID-19 outbreak. Nettles found this name in a cemetery in Rochester, N.Y., and used it in her “Head Lines” book.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – HUNTING GOODENOUGH DAYS aptly describes what I am doing during the isolation of 2020. These words are surnames found among the 7,000 headstones that I have photographed during my travels to cemeteries seeking new names that are parts of speech – words that I can use to create poetry for my visual books that investigate language, history and life’s events.
Bea Nettles in her studio.
I just completed writing my version of the COVID-19 outbreak: “Head Lines: Worlds Warning.” The surnames NOVEL, CORONA, VIRUS, MALADY, MASK, LEVELS, FIASCO, TWEET, FURLOUGH, SCIENCE, DOOM and HOPE were all particularly evocative in the creation of this recent book.
How do I find these amazing names? Sometimes I do extensive preparation ahead of time using online databases, looking for names that I haven’t already located. Other times, I just take my chances. I carry a PDF on my cellphone so that I can see if a name is already on my list. This was how I found GOODENOUGH in Rochester, New York. Let me take you along.
I have limited time, as I am in town for the opening of my retrospective at the Eastman Museum. (It is currently at our Krannert Art Museum.) I am walking through ankle-deep February snow in Rochester’s historic Mount Hope Cemetery. It is overwhelmingly large so I pace the rows, scanning several at a time, wishing I had days to spend there. I spot the stone from a distance, delighted by my good(enough) luck.
Returning home, I add this image to my list, and a few months later the idea to write about the “head lines” occurs to me. I organize the poem chronologically, following my rules: only surnames, correct spelling and, hardest yet, using proper grammar.
It also is important to me in my projects with gravestones for there to be a conceptual reason to be writing with them. I have composed poetry about the seasons; American history using surnames of people who contributed to the history of a place; a poem about war and peace using only veteran’s headstones; the myth of Persephone; and Dante’s journey to the Inferno. Often a new name will suggest the next project.
My essentials include my cellphone camera with its ease of use and GPS; word processing for alphabetizing; digital tools that allow me to edit photographs for clarity; and the software critical for designing these books. Once the poetry is written and the pages of the books are printed, I fold and bind them in my studio. In this case, it has been fairly straightforward, a move from headstones to “Head Lines,” with the creation of a news diary.
My parting wish is TRULY HOPE YOU FARE WELL TILL SAFER DAYS DAWN.