- Exhibit: "earth.sky"

- Genre: Multimedia installation: Site-specific video, audio, music, text & voice

- Location: Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

- Dates: May 9th and 10th, 2015

- Info: http://mountauburn.org/2015/roberto-mightys-earth-sky-exhibition-planned-for-cambridge-open-studios/#more-26183

--------------------------

It has been a little over a year since I began roaming historic Mount Auburn Cemetery with video cameras, still cameras and digital audio recorders, looking for compelling stories about some of the people interred here since 1831.  Most of the inscriptions are terse:

MARY A. COOK

MAR. 21, 1832

MAY 25, 1905

MOTHER

But others tell a story. The monument to Peter Byus reads like the preface to a novel:

IN MEMORY OF PETER BYUS

BORN IN HAMPSHIRE COUNTY VIRGINIA. A SLAVE.

AT THE AGE OF ABOUT THIRTY-SIX

HE FLED TO BOSTON, FOR FREEDOM. WHERE

HE RESIDED FOR THE LAST THIRTY YEARS, OF HIS LIFE.

HE DIED THE 27TH OF FEBRUARY 1867

AGED 66 YEARS.

HE WAS A SINCERE CHRISTIAN, A TRUE FRIEND AND AN HONEST MAN.

Peter Byus’ narrative is further fleshed out by his last will and testament, a document that lives on to this day. It bears wrinkled, yellowing witness to a uniquely American journey. The language of that time is poetic, philosophical and thoughtful.

March 25, 1867

"I, Peter Byus of Boston in the County of Suffolk and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, being in feeble health, but of sound and disposing mind & memory, also - conscious of the uncertainty of human life, do make, publish & ordain - this my last Will & Testament…”

Against all odds, Byus becomes a man of means.  Like many people who expect to pass away, he arranges to leave some funds for a relative. But pause here, dear Reader, and consider the implications of this bequest.

“I give, devise and bequeath to my brother Alfred Brown the sum of five hundred dollars, and as my said Brother is now in one of the Southern States & either a slave or lately emancipated, so there may be some difficulty in communicating with him…”

Byus goes on to specify items and funds from his estate for his friends and for the woman who nursed him during his illness. But throughout his will, he is mindful of those less fortunate than he.

“I give, devise & bequeath all my furniture, books & all articles of use & ornament to the Union Mission & home for little wanderers in Baldwin Place, to be used & appropriated, so far as may be, for the benefit of Children of Color…”

Byus can’t forget the millions of recently freed slaves. People who, like himself, had been sentenced to a lifetime of chattel slavery solely by accident of birth.

“All the rest and residue of my estate I give and bequeath to the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society to be appropriated by them to the use and benefit of the most necessitous of my own race and color.”

Throughout, Byus’ final document shows his enduring religious faith.

“& I am grateful for this day of apparent deliverance of my race in this Country from the degradation and barbarism of slavery and I am grateful to my God, that after having been a slave myself for thirty seven years, that my deliverance was effected and that I have been enabled to save something that I can leave behind me to aid in the blessed work of elevating & saving those of my Brethren whom the Providence of God is now emancipating.”

I have filmed and photographed Peter Byus’ monument in the heat of Summer, a blizzard of winter, and in Spring and Fall. It never fails to break my heart. For my multimedia exhibit, “earth.sky”, I asked Tyrone Latin, a gentleman with a fine voice, to come to the studio and record excerpts from the Will. In the finished piece -- one of eighteen created exclusively for this project -- we hear Latin reading Byus while these images float by on three screens. Please come and share in this experience on May 9th and 10th. Details below. -

Video Preview: https://vimeo.com/120302725

Special Thanks: Stephen Pinkerton, Docent, for original historical research and image of last will and testament

------------------------------------------------------------------------------On May 9th and 10th, as part of Cambridge Open Studios, Mount Auburn Cemetery will be presenting a weekend-long preview of earth.sky, a site-specific multimedia installation for Mount Auburn’s Story Chapel, consisting of synchronized high definition video and audio projections onto interior architectural surfaces within the 19th-century structure.

In earth.sky, audiences experience a uniquely emotional, historical journey through landscape cinematography, high-fidelity audio, music, and photography, while hearing the inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking and often uplifting words of individuals interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery from its inception to today.

Story Chapel will be open to visitors from 12 – 6 p.m. on May 9th and 10th and I'll  be on site from 12 – 5 pm during the earth.sky installation. All are welcome. This project is supported by a grant from the Cambridge Arts Council.

###

Roberto Mighty, MFA

Artist-in-Residence, Mount Auburn Cemetery 2014-2017

• Online Gallery: http://roberto-mighty-rjj1.squarespace.com  

• getting.older. multimedia Installation 2015

• earth.sky  multimedia installation Mount Auburn Cemetery 2015, 2017

• Wind, Sand & Stars  Truro Center for the Arts Gallery at Castle Hill 2014

• Massachusetts Convention Center Authority Lens of Society 2014

• Trees of My City, Scandinavian Cultural Center 2013

• National Science Foundation Screening 2013

• Harvard Fisher Museum, Multimedia Installation 2013

• Artist-in-Residence, Harvard Forest 2011-2012

• MacBeth, Actors Shakespeare Company 2012

• Zalmen Or The Madness of God, The Lab at Harvard 2012

• Lesley University Gallery, Multimedia Installation 2011

• Trees of My City, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University 2011

 

 


Roberto Mighty is a filmmaker, new media artist, fine art photographer, educator and musician who uses storytelling, art and interactive technology in his work. He is Artist-in-Residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Adjunct Professor at Emerson College's Department of Visual and Media Arts, Visiting Artist at Truro Center for the Arts, and teaches private multimedia workshops across the USA live and online.

Posted
AuthorRoberto Mighty

Artist-in-Residence Blog: Harvard Hill

October 30, 2014. In Mount Auburn Cemetery, at the plot known as Harvard Hill, just after sunrise on a windy day, the autumn leaves rush and weave among the monuments, float gently down to the ground, and collect atop the gravestones. This is one of the cemetery's higher elevations. I've brought my digital cinema setup here to capture the spirit of an event that took place almost 155 years ago.

December 1st, 1859. A rainy day. A promising young man -- a medical school student -- is laid to rest in a grave on the very edge of the Hill, far away from the future cluster of white marble spires to classmates who will live natural lifespans. These days, the brown, crumbling headstone is mostly unreadable on one side.  Luckily, in a book published in 1881, Moses King provides us with the original wording:

EDWARD THOMAS DAMON,

A GRADUATE OF THE

CLASS OF 1857.

 

BORN 19 April 1835

DIED 30 Nov 1859

AGED 24 Years.

Oh, but there is much more to this story. A dread disease. Poorer people suffer the most. Hospitals overwhelmed. Cries for quarantine. Public panic. A young person cut down in the prime of life. A refusal by some to touch the body.

Ebola, West Africa, 2014? No. Smallpox. Boston, 1859.

According to the 1861 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, volumes 64-65,  “The Epidemic of Smallpox, 1859-1860”,  “...in the twenty-two years from 1839-1861, smallpox has caused fourteen-hundred and ninety-one deaths, and has been epidemic four times. The last epidemic began in January, 1859.” Damon dies on November 30th of that year. Wayland, his home town, refuses interment in their soil. He is buried at Mount Auburn the very next day.

One of Damon’s friends remembers that burial. FromReport of the Class of 1857 in Harvard College; prepared for the twenty-fifth anniversary of its graduation" published in 1881:

"Thursday morning (December 1) was appointed for the burial of our friend. As a few of his friends gathered at the chapel at Mount Auburn, one could not but imagine the drifting clouds and falling rain were sent in unison with the sadness of the day to them. His father, mother, sisters, and other relatives and friends from Wayland were present; Rev. Dr. Huntington, Drs. J. and M. Wyman, Dr. Nichols, nearly all of his associates in the Medical Class here, and, of our own Class, Bullard, Clark, French, Morse, and Smith. Dr. Huntington's service was short and simple: a few selections from the 'Book of Life' and a touching prayer, — touching to all of us, I think; for all present were either attached to or well acquainted with the dead.”

While researching this piece, I come upon historical photographs of smallpox victims. Profound disfigurement precedes a painful death. The images are, even now, hard to behold. One can see why it was truly a dread disease. According to one contemporary journalist, even the gravediggers refuse to fill in Mr. Damon's grave. His classmates throw dirt upon the casket.

On this day, with my hi-tech cameras and digital audio recorders, working alone in the bright sunrise of crisp New England Fall, I think about the victims of Smallpox. And Leprosy. And AIDS. And Ebola. And all the plagues and scourges from antiquity to modern times. They are as much social catastrophes as medical occurrences. According to news reports, one of the most agonizing aspects of today's West African Ebola epidemic is the fact that victims and their loved ones, in the last days, are denied the comfort of caresses. Hasn’t this always been the case, everywhere in the world? But in the end, death provides surcease from even the most horrific trials. And those who survive go on with their lives. Some are lucky enough to build memorials to their dead.

Damon’s classmates thought he contracted the disease in November, 1859, while tending patients at the smallpox quarantine hospital on Rainsford Island, in Boston Harbor.

November 20, 2014. I cannot find an affordable charter boat to land me on this long abandoned drumlin, so I do the next best thing - I film it at sunset from a passing ferry. On the cold, windy deck, I set my camera to catch the treetops, the shoreline and the setting sun, and imagine the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Bostonians sent to this isolated rock to die in agony and never return home. And the brave doctors, nurses and medical students who crossed these frigid waters to tend their contagious smallpox victims. 

From "The Mount Auburn Memorial" Dec. 1859

“Stricken while in almost perfect health and manly strength, by a disease which, in his family, has almost always proved fatal, and which brings terror and dismay in its train, he was attended by his classmates of the Medical School, with a devotion, more worthy of the name of heroism, than what we read of in battles, or that fills the pages of history, and which does them honor as gentlemen, and proves them worthy of the high profession, into which, if their lives are spared, they will soon enter.”

My thoughts drift to the unsung, knowingly unprotected West African nurses and doctors who face certain death to tend their patients. And to our brave doctors, nurses and medical students from Boston who travel halfway around the world and expose themselves to help rout this latest plague.

December 1, 1859. At Damon’s burial, a natural phenomenon is seen. It is taken as a sign from the heavens. The graveside eyewitness account continues:

“As the preacher ceased, and raised his head to pronounce a benediction on the living, the sun broke from the clouds and illumined the face of the speaker; giving him an expression of tranquillity, which we may make into an omen, that, after the tears and the sorrow, there shall be found peace and an unspeakable joy.”

December 1st, 2014. This morning, after researching Damon's life and times for two months, I’ve returned to his grave, on the 155th anniversary of his burial. As I take motion and still images, my only companion is a massive Great Horned Owl. I’ve never seen one in real life before, and take a photo. I motion to a passing Birder and point up in the tree that overlooks Damon’s grave. He smiles in delight and snaps several images of the owl. For a moment, I’m sorry I brought it to his attention. I feel like the owl and I were sharing this commemoration, and I just invited a stranger to the party.

What does Edward Damon's headstone say on the reverse side? It is still legible today. We should all be so lucky in the end.

TO THE MEMORY

OF

EDWARD THOMAS DAMON

THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED

BY HIS CLASSMATES AND FRIENDS.

Many thanks to Pauline DiCesare for bringing Mr. Damon to my attention.

--------------

Roberto

Posted
AuthorRoberto Mighty