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Artwork connects the dead and the living

St. Agnes Cemetery’s ‘Living Room’ dedicated to hosting work of local artists

St. Agnes Cemetery Historian Kelly Grimaldi opens up The Living Room for local artists to display their work for 60 days right next to the cemetery's main office.

St. Agnes Cemetery Historian Kelly Grimaldi opens up The Living Room for local artists to display their work for 60 days right next to the cemetery's main office. Photo by Zan Strumfeld.

— While The Living Room is St. Agnes’ most recent installation, highlighting art at the cemetery itself is nothing new. The cemetery will be holding its sixth annual photography contest this year, in which photographs of the cemetery are displayed at the Empire State Plaza Concourse. Last year, Grimaldi started Art Appreciation Tours, taking a group of people around some of the 114-acre cemetery and discussing the significance of gravestones, mausoleums, cemetery iconography and symbolism. Afterwards, the group has a Victorian-styled picnic at one of the cemetery’s open areas.

“Stylistically things changed over the decades. A lot of it was related to people’s attitudes towards death. You don’t see skull and crossbones on a gravestone anymore. You see something more that’s kinder to the eyes,” Grimaldi said. “You’re not seeing death so much as you’re seeing remembrance and honoring the people that are buried there by beautiful angels, saints.”

Purchasing mausoleums, Grimaldi said, has become outdated at the cemetery because they are no longer feasible money- or space-wise. But some of the 150-year-old cemetery’s mausoleums are works of art themselves, Grimaldi said, including a replica of the Parthenon.

“It’s absolutely magnificent. Great attention to detail. You’re just not going to find that type of work anymore,” Grimaldi said. “What we have is works from art from the past that should be discussed.”

Connecting art and graves might be an eerie pastime, but Grimaldi said the trend is beginning to catch on.

“People are starting to become more aware of these 19th century cemeteries as being outdoor museums,” Grimaldi said. “There’s an awful lot of things to see … not only are you seeing artistic conventions of the past, but you’re seeing how they changed through the decades and what’s popular now.”

Karen A. Hummel, an artist from Columbia County, has three of her pieces is “Celebrating Spring” that focus on nature. This summer, however, she’ll be teaching a figure drawing class right in the cemetery, using the angels and statues as references.

“Kelly approached me with the idea and I was totally onboard because it’s such a unique way to express and bring attention to that beautiful cemetery,” Hummel said. “It’s a new way to view it … it doesn’t always have to be a sad occasion.”

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