Artist Madelyn Roehrig at Andy Warhol’s gravesite
I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph and no name. Well, actually, I’d like it to say “figment.”
Last week on August 6, over 60 people stopped by Andy Warhol’s gravesite at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Bethel Park, PA to celebrate the artist’s 84th birthday (photos below). Several visitors were from the area, while others came from as far away as Paris, France. Many talked on video wishing Andy a happy birthday, while others told stories, created birthday cards and drawings, and enjoyed a decorated banana birthday cake delivered by a local supermarket. Silver star balloons were released into the sky, accompanied by musicians Dave Olson on the bagpipes, Mimi Jong on the erhu (a stringed Chinese instrument), and a Celtic folk singer strumming his guitar. Pink clouds turned into night skies and we all had to say our goodbyes to Andy, leaving lighted candles flickering on his grave.
My ongoing art project, Figments: Conversations with Andy, is now in its fourth year. Filling a need for people to talk with a famous artist they feel connected to through time and across cultures, the project documents people playing out their fantasy about their “best friend forever, Andy” as they write notes, leave objects, or talk to the deceased Pop artist in videotaped segments captured at his grave. Warhol never got his wish about his tombstone in the quotation above, but in Figments, he becomes a real figment of many people’s imaginations, as they talk with the artist about their feelings, hopes, desires, and whimsies. These one-way communications served up to the Pop icon are themselves figments, and who knows what he would think about the outpourings if he were with us. But this is what I think—he would certainly be recording all of it for posterity with his cameras just as I am doing.
THIS THURSDAY: Real to Reel Documentary Series
Don’t miss the screenings of two movies that are part of the broader project at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Oakland branch) this Thursday, August 16 at 7 pm. Each movie documents a single year of visitors and gifts at Warhol’s gravesite.
Conversations with Andy on NPR
Visit the NPR website to read more about the project, listen to my interview on Morning Edition, and see one of my art videos featuring objects that visitors have left near Warhol’s grave.
Conversations with Andy on Facebook
Follow the project through daily postings and photographs of the gravesite on Facebook.
Call Andy’s Hot Line
For those of you outside of Pittsburgh or anyone who can’t attend the events at the gravesite, the Hot Line is a way for you to connect with Andy. Leave him a personal message and it will be collected as part of the project: 412.508.9245.
A Little More History
Visitors bring gifts for the gravesite throughout the year.
My own conversations with Andy began in 2005 when I was preparing work to be shown at the Harlan Gallery at Seton Hill University. Back then, my work responded to the pervasive stream of violence in America that comes into our homes daily via television news. But I also was responding to Andy’s “Death and Disaster” series—images of car crashes and the electric chair which he found in newspapers and which were the basis for his silkscreen paintings.
Visiting his grave (which is near my house) I felt a need to talk with Andy about my projects. As I stood in the quietude of the cemetery contemplating Andy, violence, death, and my art, ideas came to me that found their way not only into my Seton Hill project, but into many other artworks as well. Whether or not I was having a one-way or a two-way conversation, my time spent at Andy’s grave was fruitful. Figments: Conversations with Andy began as my final MFA project at Vermont College.
In 2009 I started documenting people talking with Andy at his grave in Bethel Park, PA. So far, I’ve videotaped more than 200 individuals: They are passionate, contentious, funny, or sincere, with a blend of wisdom and whimsy. There’s the ukulele and tuba band, Uke & Tuba, who play their “Ballad to Andy Warhol”; a young graduate art student who describes a devastating art critique; and people celebrating Andy’s birthday dancing to the Sissy Bounce. Local Andy impersonator, Paul LeRoy Gehres, discusses being sued for creating art, and daughters of one of Andy’s 1940s Schenley High classmates plant a tomato plant next to his tombstone. A woman brings Gas-X to settle Andy’s stomach, and a man describes his love relationship gone bad—in a cell phone message on the “Andy’s Hot Line,” which I set up for people to leave their thoughts (see above).
In addition to those who talk and create at the grave, visitors leave objects of affection for the artist. Since I’ve kept count, there have been more than 100 Campbell’s Soup cans (Tomato is of course the favorite), numerous Coke bottles, Brillo boxes, flowers, golf balls, ceramic angels, religious figures, rosaries, Gas-X, white wigs, stuffed animals, vegetables, fruit, donuts, beer, magazines, coins, and a plastic penis. Many people also write notes to Andy, using the stationary I make available at the site. So far, I have collected over 600 notes to Andy by visitors from far and wide including some from China and Russia. If you’d like to be part of the project, the next event will be this Halloween (2012). For more info, contact me at email@example.com or follow the daily postings on Facebook.