Francis Y. Duval and Ivan B. Rigby worked together creating photographs, plaster casts, exhibitions, journal articles, and a book about early American gravestone art for over twenty years. Ivan Rigby taught industrial design at Pratt Institute of Art, where Francis Duval was one of his students.
Duval suddenly passed away in 1989, after falling while trying to rescue a kitten. In his memory, Rigby donated their collection to the American Folk Art Museum, and also published the following recollection of their work together in the Association for Gravestone Studies' Markers IX, in 1992:
RECOLLECTIONS OF A COLLABORATION
A Tribute to the Art of Francis Duval
Ivan B. Rigby
with Katherine M. Noordsij
For over twenty years Francis Duval and I dedicated ourselves to preserving images of early American gravestone art in photographs and plaster casts. Our collection spans the entire period of this art form and includes representations of most of its themes and designs. We exhibited our photographs and casts in several states and published a book. Early American Gravestone Art in Photographs, and a variety of illustrated articles in various journals, including the journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Markers. After Francis died in the spring of 1989 the board of AGS asked if I would prepare a retrospective of our work to be published in Markers. My niece, Katherine, who was close to both Francis and me during these years, has helped me. I am grateful for this opportunity to share the story of our work and describe the unique legacy of a talented and dedicated artist, Francis Duval.
What follows is a description of our twenty-year collaboration that took us throughout the eastern United States to photograph and make plaster casts of the finest examples of early American gravestone art that we could find. I have included in this article some of the photographs which were published in our book, and these are so designated in the captions. Space does not permit reproduction of all of our favorites, but others may be found in the book on pages 17 (bottom), 25, 40 (top), 62 (bottom), 71, 72, 79, 80, and 103.
Karl Erickson, one of the students in my design class at Pratt Institute of Art in the late 1960s, introduced me to making casts of gravestones. In the Industrial Design Department at Pratt we worked with a soft, reusable, oil-based clay to make industrial product models. At the end of the spring semester the school discarded that year's clay. Karl had taken some home during the summer to make impressions of various relief images such as
those on coins. He then began experimenting with impressions of gravestones in a local churchyard. When school started in the fall he showed me his work and asked me to help him refine his technique. I began to accompany him on trips into the country on Saturdays to find suitable gravestones for making impressions. Our first impression is shown in Figure 1, a rare image of the ark of Noah. The crude edges of the cast show our yet-to-be refined technique.
The work fascinated me. I had studied sculpture and model making in school. During World War II, I was assigned to a unit that made three-dimensional models of areas of Paris, Normandy, Sicily, and other strategic sites in Europe, using RAF photographs. After World War II, I taught three-dimensional industrial design. My own projects included sculptures in bronze, plaster, and cloth stretched over three-dimensional shapes. I was also interested in primitive art and the art of children. While in Europe during the war, I saw examples of African art in Paris and Brussels. My first trip to Mexico exposed me to the beauty and richness of pre-Columbian sculpture. For years I repeatedly returned to Mexico to study pre-Columbian art as well as the later art in the cathedrals and churches. I had two exhibits at Pratt of the photographs from Mexico, one of which included photographs of the collection of pre-Columbian art from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Not long after Karl and I began to make impressions of gravestones, Francis Duval, who had also been my student at Pratt, saw our work and asked to accompany us. Francis, a French Canadian from Montreal, was the son of an automobile dealer. When growing up, he developed an interest in automotive design, which led him to study industrial design at Pratt. After his graduation he worked primarily as a photographer for pharmaceutical advertising. Francis was very bright and interested in many subjects: classical music, French popular music, history, furniture, films, cars, cooking, and always cats. He needed to be moving; unlike me, he could not sit quietly to read or listen to music. He was driven to work relentlessly; his energy was limitless, enabling him to accomplish an astonishing number of projects and satisfy his drive for perfection in all he did.
Francis also found the work with photographing and making impressions of gravestones fascinating, and thus our creative partnership began. When Francis began accompanying us on our trips, he introduced some ideas that helped us improve our mold-making technique. To make a mold, we would cover the entire stone with clay, a small portion at a time, carefully pressing the clay into the depressions in the design. Our thumbs got a workout! But the trick was to remove the finished layer of clay from the stone so that the edges of the stone would be cleanly captured by the mold and the sheet of clay would not break. We also had to find a way to keep the mold intact during the trip home, where it could be used for casting. Francis developed a method to remove the mold and transport it. To reinforce the clay, he used a sheet of metal mesh, known as hardware cloth, slightly larger than the area of the stone. He secured the mesh onto the surface of the clay so that it extended beyond the edges, and after removing the wire-reinforced clay mold from the tombstone, he placed it on a sheet of plywood. He also built wooden racks to hold the sheets in the back of the car while we carried them home. Figures 2a - h show us in the process of making such a mold.
One variation he tried with success was to make aluminum foil molds of the stones; we used a heavy foil made by Reynolds that held its shape when removed from the stone (Figures 3a and b). The resulting cast then has a foil surface. When someone from the Reynolds company saw our work, the company donated a large roll of this heavy foil for our use.
We worked when we could on our new interest, and in the early 1970s, after I retired from Pratt, we were able to devote our full attention to what turned out to be a twenty-year career. Our major objective was to preserve the art of these gravestones in photographs. In the graveyards, however, the stones were often partially obscured or in distracting settings. The casts were therefore primarily a vehicle to enable us to photograph these beautiful designs in studio-controlled lighting. But making plaster casts of stones was fascinating work, too, capturing their three-dimensional nature and their texture. Protecting and preserving these sculptures was always very important to us. We liked to call graveyards "museums without walls," but these
museums cannot safeguard the stones from the weather, vandals, or lawnmower blades. Already some of our casts are the only complete, three-dimensional images remaining of the original stones, and the number will inevitably increase as the originals deteriorate and disappear. Once we were able to preserve the stone as well. When we found the stone shown in Figure 4, another of the rare representations of Noah's Ark, it was already showing signs of decay. Sometime later, Francis and I encouraged the Essex Historical Society to move the stone into its museum in Essex, where it has been preserved.
The early designs and the lettering on the gravestones were our main interest. Our study of the tombstones in Ohio and Pennsylvania is perhaps our most significant contribution to the preservation of tombstone art. Their handsome lettering and the variety of motifs involving trees are the unusual and distinctive features particularly characteristic of these stones (Figures 5, 6, 7, and 8).
Our work began with and always involved exploration. We selected graveyards which we saw in books and photographs, or that friends had recommended. Sometimes we would just drive to a town and ask if the area had any old tombstones. Our trusty vehicle was my 1971 Pinto, which we loaded with all the equipment we needed for our work: clay, wire mesh, brushes, plywood carrying sheets, stacking frames for the molds, cameras, tripods, mirrors for reflecting light, film, bug spray, first-aid kit. In general, we took exploratory trips that we recorded photographically for later study, and then we returned to make final photographs or casts. But geography and circumstances sometimes forced us to make our only and final recordings in a single visit to a graveyard.
Our exploration and collecting led us on trips that added up to over 60,000 miles before we published our book in 1979, and we continued traveling until the late 1980s. We covered the New England states, then ranged south through Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. We also went west through Pennsylvania and New York to Ohio. Our collection includes stones from graveyards in all of these states. If we were taking an exploratory trip, we would review a graveyard quickly for stones with interesting designs or lettering, which we photographed for future review. We could photograph throughout the year; mold-making was reserved for warmer months so that the clay would stay soft. If we were taking final photographs or making molds, the preparation process was the same and always time-consuming. Each stone had to be prepared: loose debris carefully cleaned from the surface, grass, weeds, and other obstructions around the bottom cleared away. We used Kodak Tri-X and Panatomic-X film and Hasselblad cameras with a variety of lenses and with several backs so that we could take both color and black-and-white photographs. Often one of us would photograph, while the other was constructing a mold.
We took extraordinary precautions not to damage stones when we made molds. We examined the stone for cracks, flaking, or other defects that would make the stone vulnerable to the process of covering it with a layer of clay, which is then pulled away from the face. If the stone passed the initial tests, it had to be carefully cleaned, using only water and soft brushes — no chemicals or soap or abrasives. After the mold was finished, we made sure that no trace of our work was left. We cleaned the stone again to remove all the clay bits from the stone's surface and removed all our of debris from around the stones.
Back in our studio we made the casts and prints that we used in our exhibits and publications. This work required a lot of space. Some years ago I had bought a carriage house near Pratt. A large, two-story square brick building, it had a roomy two-bedroom apartment on the second floor with a spacious garage on the first floor. This first-floor space became our studio. The front, with double swinging garage doors opened onto a Brooklyn street, the back opened onto a small ivy-covered courtyard. It was airy, light, and roomy, although sometimes uncomfortably cold in the winter. We used it as our darkroom and to make and store our molds and casts. And we always shared this space with a cat and often more than one, for our neighborhood was full of strays which we would domesticate and keep if we could not find homes for them.
We had the photographs professionally developed, but Francis did all the printing, using Agfa paper. Our studio contained an enlarger and a dryer; we made prints in various sizes, but preferred 9" x 12" and 16" x 20" prints. We mounted them on cardbord with our mounting press. We mounted color transparencies in 2-1/4" x 2-1/4" glass slide mounts.
Whenever we made molds, we made large batches of plaster-of-Paris, pouring it into the molds in two layers to allow us to embed a wire in the cast for hanging the finished piece. When the desired thickness of plaster was poured into the mold, the mold and plaster needed to set for several days until almost dry and hard before removal. The removed casts were stacked with layers of cardboard between; one mold could make more than one cast.
When we had finished with the mold, we stored it on plywood in a rack. After the casts were completely hard, we examined them for any flaws we had introduced while making the mold. These we filled with plaster and blended with modeling tools to duplicate the texture and shape of the original design. We wanted the original to replicate the texture, shape, cracks, and imperfections of the existing tombstone.
Our work was consuming and satisfying. Neither of us could have accomphshed what we did alone, but together we had the resources, the equipment, the techniques, the time, and the mutual support to make a contribution to the preservation and appreciation of early American gravestone art.
We had our share of adventures looking for graveyards and trudging through them to find their treasures. Once, when Francis was helping me back out of a side road by a small graveyard, I drove over his foot. On another trip, I smelled a flower blooming near a gravestone we were working on, and a bee stung me on the nose. A wasps' nest on the back of one beautiful stone kept that piece out of our collection. During one of our winter trips we were stranded in an out-of-the-way inn for two days until the roads were clear enough to go home. On another occasion, we left the backs of our cameras, and thus all the work of the day, in the graveyard. We did not realize we had left them until that evening. We returned two days later with little hope of
finding our film, but it was still there, and our photographs were saved.
In Maine we found a graveyard close to the Atlantic shore line that was half a mile from the battleship Ancon, which housed a military school. This was the same flagship that had carried me during World War II from Norfolk to Sicily, where we were being sent to support the invasion.
Our favorite sign was located at the end of a small road into a graveyard; it read, "Dead End." An epitaph that Francis liked so much that he wrote a note concerning it to the AGS Newsletter (Winter, 1982) was on a horizontal stone displaying a skull. The stone, he wrote, "displays a most inventive skull design, a kind of Picasso approach two centuries before the fact, and the epitaph reads "ALL MUST TO DUST."
People enjoyed helping us to find graveyards and carry out our work. Friends and relatives invited us to stay with them while we explored the range of graveyards in their areas. My sister Polly in Ohio and my sister Josephine and sister-in-law Bee in Tennessee fed and housed us many times over the years (Figures 9, 10, and 11). Friends in Massachusetts and North Carolina also opened their homes for us. Even strangers helped. In one New England town, where we were stopped puzzling over the map, a policeman led us to the graveyard. To get to a graveyard encircled by a golf course and almost impossible to reach in Rumford, Rhode Island, the manager of the course lent us a golf cart (Figure 12). In a remote spot in a Connecticut graveyard located on a steep hill, a little boy about five years old found us — he had to crawl through the underbrush to reach us — and we spent the entire day together. After we were done, he invited us home to meet his mother, who gave us all tea.
From the beginning Francis and I wanted to share the richness of the gravestone art. Our photographs and casts were created to display the texture and design as fully as possible. A technique devised by Dan Farber, and shown to us by his wife, Jessie Lie Farber, was to use a mirror to reflect sunlight on tombstones that were shaded, or facing away from the light, and thereby to extend the length of a photographic day. This technique enabled us to preserve photographic images of many more gravestones. We made casts from gravestones that could not be photographed well and used studio lighting to capture the depth and beauty of the carving. And so our articles and books contain photographs of the full range of stones we saw. Those with black backgrounds were taken of casts in our studio.
We had many opportunities to share our work with others. Planning, writing, and laying out the articles and exhibits consumed Francis's entire creative attention. His love of design and his obsessive love of detail ensured that each production was in itself a work of art. At the end of this article is a list of our publications. We also had exhibits in Ohio, New England, and Pennsylvania. These exhibits included our casts as well as photographs, adding a three-dimensional representation.
Early in our collaboration we began meeting others who were also interested in gravestones. In 1974, for example, we met Dan Farber in a cemetery. Shortly thereafter Dan and his wife Jessie introduced us to the Reverend Ralph Tucker, who told us where to find many beautiful stones. In 1977 these people and others with similar interests decided to structure their informal network into a formal organization. Francis and I were fortunate to be among this first gathering, arranged by Peter Benes, that resulted in formation of the Association for Gravestone Studies, described in the introduction to the first issue of Markers, the journal which this group published in order to document their research findings and encourage the preservation of gravestone art. This meeting began a long and valuable association. The friends we made in AGS continued to inspire and help us. We enjoyed and studied the books by Peter Benes, especially those containing the line drawings of details from gravestone carvings. Dan Farber's photographs showed us many of the more interesting stones in the region. Francis was equally willing to share his findings with his colleagues; he was known for his generosity with his time and his wealth of information, even drawing
maps to lead people to graveyards. The members of the society recall with delight and admiration the many elaborate slide presentations and exhibits that Francis put together for the Association's annual conference. He originated the conference "late night slide show," which often continued into the early morning hours. He also enjoyed making Christmas cards from photographs of favorite stones, which he sent to his colleagues and friends (Figure 13).
Francis was much involved in the design and content of the first issue of Markers; the logo, a stylized rendition of a gravestone design (Figure 14), was his creation, and he designed the entire layout, setting a high standard for future issues. We contributed one article, "Openwork Memorials of North Carolina." Although his work on later issues was more limited, he continued to work with the editors and contributed many photographs and articles to both Markers and the AGS Newsletter. At the time of his death he was developing a series of guides to New England's choice graveyards, two issues of which have been published by AGS.
The generosity and care of the friends we made during this period continued to nurture our work. In 1989 Francis fell while trying to catch a cat which needed to go to the vet. The fall fractured his hip, and in spite of immediate hospitalization, complications from the fall caused his unexpected and untimely death.
Soon after the death of Francis, Dan and Jessie Lie Farber encouraged me to offer our collection of photographs, casts and other work to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. The Museum gladly accepted our offer. The collection will go far toward making the Museum a leading center for the study of early American gravestone art. A significant donation of gravestone rubbings has been made by Susan H. Kelly and Anne C. Williams. Among other holdings are several gravestone molds cast by William McGeer, an actual early tombstone, and a major collection of mounted photographs from Dan and Jessie Lie Farber. In addition, the 1400 original glass negatives made by Harriette Merrifield Forbes of early American gravestones have been promised as a future gift from the Farbers.
An inventory of our collection has been prepared by the Museum. Full cataloging of the entire gravestone art collection will be undertaken as soon as funds for additional library staff become available. Funds are being sought to insure proper preservation and storage for the photographic materials, which are kept in the special collections section of the Museum's library. Our books have been incorporated into the library's collection; the casts are housed with other Museum properties. A future exhibition under Museum sponsorship is anticipated. It is gratifying to know that the product of our many years of work has found a permanent home, where it will be available for study and research by social historians and genealogists as well as those in the art world.
List of Articles Written by Francis Duval and Ivan Rigby
1. Early American Gravestone Art in Photographs (New York, 1978).
2. "Grave Portraits: Early New England Gravestone Carvings," Clarion, Spring 1982, 44-49.
3. "Silent Art of our Past," American Art Revieiv, Vol. 3, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1976) 78-85.
4. "Stonecutters Art Exhibit: the Recording of an Endangered Art Form, the Gravestone of the Past," Monumental News-Review, Nov. 1973, 10-13.
5. "American Folk Art in Stone," Print, Vol. 28, No. 2 (March-April 1973) 62-67.
6. "Inscriptions of our Past," Visible Language, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 1974) 136-150.
7. "Early American Gravestones: The Iconography of Mortality," Lithopinion, Vol. 10, No. 3, 48-63.
8. "A Bicentennial Project," Hasselblad, Vol. 1, No. 1, 22-29.
9. "Sermons in Stone," Photographs illustrating articles in FMR, No. 6 (Nov. 1984) 11 1-138.
These books and articles are catalogued, shelved, or filed in the library of the Museum of American Folk Art. These, plus the other books and articles donated by Ivan B. Rigby, make up over sixty percent of the library's holdings.