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"Cemetery sculpture is an under-appreciated art form," says DU's Annette Stott, who studies burial monuments. Photo: Matt Suby

He loved horses, his daughter said, almost as much as he loved his kin. That might have been an exaggeration, but Addison Baker’s fondness for horses was undisputed. When he died in 1884, Baker’s family erected a life-size statue of his Arabian stallion, Frank, on his burial plot in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery.

Carved in Italian marble, the Baker monument illustrates the role of funerary sculpture in honoring life while making an artistic statement. That dual role is exactly what interests art Assoc. Prof. Annette Stott, who studies funerary sculpture and incorporates it in her teaching.

Although modern American society eschews cemeteries as morbid, in the late 1800s cemeteries functioned as public parks. Families gathered to picnic and visit the gravesites of their loved ones, providing the impetus for even middle class families to beautifully memorialize those who had passed on.

Realizing that monument makers’ bodies of work remain largely intact in their original settings, in the late 1980s Stott took her Winthrop University art students to examine monuments in a nearby cemetery in Rock Hill, S.C. Today, Stott’s DU students avail themselves of works in Denver’s Fairmount, Mt. Olivet and Riverside cemeteries.

“Students can study the sculptures’ forms and techniques while debating their roles in popular culture and art,” Stott says.

In the late 19th century, she explains, fine artists individually crafted cemetery sculptures such as Addison Baker’s horse. Other memorials were mass-produced by skilled stone carvers. (Because of the difficulty and expense of getting stone quarried and transported down from the Rocky Mountains, Denver’s early settlers could more affordably order marble or granite monuments from catalogs and have them shipped from the East Coast or overseas.) The carvers who toiled on assembly lines chiseling out identical forms, such as the Virgin Mary, didn’t consider themselves artists, and their work wasn’t marketed as such.

“They sold Mary by the linear foot,” Stott says.

“Cemetery sculpture is an underappreciated art form in a category of its own — not exactly public art because it’s created to remember a specific person or family, yet the public is free to enjoy it,” says Mindy Besaw, MA ’02, a curatorial associate at the Denver Art Museum and one of Stott’s former students.

Stott’s research takes her to cemeteries throughout Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, where she scouts for visually interesting sculptures of the 1870s to 1890s. “I’m most interested in what everyday people chose as markers for those they loved — and why,” Stott says. It can take months of digging through state archives, probate records, insurance documents and census reports to find the manufacturer and the family connected to a monument. It takes more sleuthing to discover motivation. Stott has written to everyone in a town with a particular last name to find descendants whose family lore might provide clues revealing the mystery behind a memorial.

Although cemetery monuments are highly personal choices, they are cultural ones as well, reflecting attitudes about death and the afterlife. In the 19th century, Stott says, death was ever-present. Mortality rates were high, and children were particularly vulnerable. Commonly used images — souls traveling to heaven, biblical scriptures and angelic beings — revealed deep-rooted religious beliefs, Stott explains.

One of Stott’s favorite monuments is a memorial for babies and young children she calls “baby in a half shell.” Intrigued by the use of the seashell motif in Rocky Mountain cemeteries, she has been pursuing its source.

“The image has roots in pagan and Christian traditions as well as children’s literature,” says Stott, who is continuing her research while on a yearlong sabbatical. She plans to publish her research in a book, tentatively titled Rocky Mountain Cemeteries: Sculpture Gardens of the Old West.

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