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Grave Images: San Luis Valley: San Luis Valley
Grave Images: San Luis Valley: San Luis Valley

Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009
180 pp., 45.00

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Crystal Downing

Love and Death

Photos by Kathy Hettinga.

People often laugh when I tell them that I spent part of my honeymoon in a cemetery. Visiting a charming town along the rugged northern California coast, my newlywed husband and I realized we could learn something about its history simply by wandering through the graveyard. Indeed, the tombstones told us that the village was settled a century earlier by Russians who had lost many of their children in the same few months. Reflecting heart-breaking loss, the gravestones memorialized the love of the living—themselves long dead—still speaking to honeymooning visitors reveling in their own inimitable love. Death and love seem unlikely allies until one visits an old cemetery.

Decades later I am still married to the same man, our love well-worn around the edges—like old tombstones. And we still visit village graveyards, relishing them as containers of social history and of love. Occasionally I wipe away tears over a family that lost three children within several weeks—even though it happened over a century ago. The first time I saw fresh flowers at an 1856 tombstone, I suddenly realized that family love can embrace the never-met. I even take sad delight in cemetery fashion, some graveyards specializing in markers adorned with hand-carved lambs, others demonstrating a proclivity for draped urns. I am touched that many places in my home state of Pennsylvania put their cemeteries on the best real estate in town, often on a hill with a spectacular view. Location, location, location: the location of love.

I was profoundly moved, therefore, when I read Grave Images: San Luis Valley, by artist/designer Kathy T. Hettinga. Filled with stunning photographs, the book memorializes the valley in Colorado where Hettinga grew up, got married, and reveled in newlywed love until she lost her young husband in a tragic farming accident. Clearly a labor of love, Grave Images is an encomium to the beauty—for those with eyes to see—that graces death.

Kathy Hettinga has long been known for award-winning art about death. In several shows she has displayed eight-foot-high photographs of dead birds, computer enhanced so that every feather stands out in vivid detail. The images are truly beautiful, the birds' closed eyes and curved claws seeming to invite the viewer's tender touch. Friends of the artist, in fact, warn about dinner at Hettinga's house, for one never knows what might be found in the tomb of her freezer: a dead shrew or vole, perhaps, awaiting resurrection in her art.

Resurrection, in fact, is what Hettinga's art is about. Grave Images alludes to Hettinga's hope in Christ as she works to resurrect the beauty of the San Luis Valley in southwestern Colorado: a place marked not only by the death of her young husband decades ago, but also by the dying of its first Spanish visitors centuries ago. After narrating the sorrowful tale of her husband, Hettinga recounts the history of the valley, from its original Native American inhabitants to 19th-century settlers drawn by stories of 360 days of sunshine per year. What the settlers weren't told is that the high-desert valley, surrounded by sublime mountain peaks, often registers the coldest temperatures of any place in the continental United States. The valley is therefore littered with abandoned buildings: grave images of human hope subverted by the bleak beauty of the land. Hettinga enhances the beauty with artistry that makes even weeds look lovely, her lens—both of eye and of camera—capturing subtleties of light and color in artfully composed shots.

She is especially interested in the Christians that settled the valley, drawing attention to the area's quaint churches, many having been crudely built by poverty-stricken immigrants. Her photography, however, transforms the hokey into the holy. Around and beyond these churches are the literal grave images—those in cemeteries—that Grave Images most powerfully resurrects. Due to the austere living conditions of many valley inhabitants, numerous grave markers have been constructed by bereaved family members with materials at hand: marbles pushed into hardening concrete, plastic flowers stapled to carved wood, painted bowling balls and bricks, hand-carved stones, plastic Madonnas, dime-store heads of Christ. Though some observers might dismiss the memorials as tacky, Hettinga captures the love behind and the beauty within the forms—a beauty enhanced by the wearing of time. One striking photograph shows a plaster crucifix molded around a wire frame; as the plaster disintegrates, rust from the wire stains the cross blood-red.

This is much more than a pretty picture book. Hettinga's narrative histories are meticulously researched and powerfully articulated, as though in recognition that—as with etched tombstones—the verbal is as much a memorial as the visual. We read that the San Luis Valley contains the oldest town and first organized church in Colorado, as well as the grave of Robert Ford, the man who murdered Jesse James. But we also read wonderfully poetic passages by authors like Wendell Berry and Willa Cather, as well as by Hettinga herself.

Relishing every page, I thought of a poem by California poet Robinson Jeffers, "To the Stone-cutters." It begins, "Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated / Challengers of oblivion." After describing the demise of stone memorials, Jeffers aligns stone-cutters with poets, ending with these hopeful words: "Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found / The honey of peace in old poems."

Grave Images offered me the honey of peace this past February as I flew to Colorado for a memorial service honoring the woman who became my second mother on my wedding day. That mother's dying words, as she embraced the peace of resurrection, could summarize the inspiration behind, and within, Grave Images: "I love … love … love …"

—In Memory of Morena Holmes Downing (1916-2010)

Crystal Downing is professor of English and film studies at Messiah College.

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