Scott Covert isn’t the place he needs to be for our interview. “He’s in all probability in a graveyard someplace,” sighs his PR. Cemeteries, in spite of everything, are this artist’s stomping floor. Covert makes work out of tombstones.
When he reveals up, we discuss in regards to the final graveyard he visited: Edgwarebury in Edgware, London. Its most well-known resident is the singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011 aged 27. Her headstone, like many Covert goes to see, was festooned with flowers left by well-wishers. Covert did what he all the time does: he took out a chunk of canvas and an oil stick, then made a rubbing of the phrases on the stone. The day prior to this, he had visited Bunhill Fields in Islington, making a rubbing of William Blake’s tombstone on the identical canvas. “They’re each poets,” he says. “I’m going to place them aspect by aspect.”
That is Covert’s artwork: he travels the world, particularly his native US, looking for the graves of the well-known and notorious, the nice and the infamous. There’s a Warholian really feel to his oeuvre: he likes to say it’s pop artwork meets summary expressionism. Covert, who has been plying his craft for greater than 35 years, is in Britain for the first-ever present of his work right here. Entitled C’est La Vie, the present is at Studio Voltaire in London, its gallery partitions lined with particular person grave rubbings organized to resemble an unlimited mausoleum. And what a set of persons are remembered right here: Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart, Max Issue, Farrah Fawcett, Patsy Cline. In all places you look, there’s one other huge identify recalling one other huge life.
Generally, as with this choice, Covert creates a single identify on one piece. Different occasions, and most curiously, he juxtaposes names on the identical canvas. With Winehouse and Blake, he’s bringing folks collectively in dying who he thinks might need preferred to fulfill. Different occasions, he’s motivated by a way of irony: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 after being convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, are positioned alongside Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev. Conservative writer Andrew Breitbart, in the meantime, shares a canvas with Gianni Versace’s assassin Andrew Cunanan.
Covert, 68, grew up one in every of 4 youngsters in a Catholic household – his brother is a priest – in New Jersey. He dates his fascination with dying to when he was eight and at his grandfather’s funeral. He can nonetheless bear in mind how the physique regarded, mendacity in a darkish brown casket, carrying a navy blue go well with. After that, Covert determined he wished to be a mortician. “However as a substitute,” he says, “I grew to become a wild little one in New York. It wasn’t straightforward rising up homosexual in New Jersey: I moved to New York in 1973 and I went dancing each night time and I made pals.”
Though Covert studied artwork a bit, principally he centered on what he thought he wished to do: performing. However taking part in elements introduced an uncomfortable realisation: he hated it, hated being checked out, hated being the centre of consideration, hated working with different folks. As an alternative, he purchased some human skulls from a pharmaceutical firm, then painted and gold-leafed them. Loss of life, by now, was closing in: this was the Eighties and Aids was at full pelt. “My pals have been dying round me,” he says. “I’d get up each morning and study my physique for the primary indicators of Kaposi’s sarcoma.”
In 1985, he visited the grave of one in every of his heroes, Florence Ballard, a founding member of the Supremes. “I’ve all the time beloved the Supremes,” he says. “I’d sing alongside. My brush was the microphone. Florence was the tragic one: kicked out of the group, alcoholic, useless at 32.” He took a rubbing of the phrases on her headstone, and when he confirmed it to his good friend, the actor Cookie Mueller, she mentioned: “Give up performing, hun. That is what it is best to do.” His life since, he says, has been a tribute to Ballard: “I need her to know she was beloved.” His Instagram account is known as The Lifeless Supreme.
As of late Covert can do his analysis on-line, however within the early days it was extra sophisticated. “I’d spend days within the New York Public Library, going by means of obituaries and discovering out the place folks had been buried. Then I’d name the funeral residence, inform them I used to be Liza Minnelli’s assistant – ‘That’s assistant with a Z!’ – and clarify that Liza wished to go to the grave, and will they inform me the place it was?”
But when the web has been an enormous assist, one other development has been a catastrophe. “It breaks my coronary heart once I hear somebody has been cremated and their ashes scattered,” he says. Paul Newman, his favorite actor, was one, Janis Joplin one other. After which there was the information that the Paris graveyard the place Oscar Wilde lies had determined to cowl his stone with a clear barrier, as a result of so many followers have been kissing it. “I felt as if he’d died over again.”
Covert all the time information the identify and the dates on a headstone, sometimes discovering one thing else to incorporate. Generally, it’s non secular: US actor Barbara La Marr’s grave says, “With God within the Pleasure and Fantastic thing about Youth”, whereas Jayne Mansfield’s notes, “We Reside to Love You Extra Every Day.” Andy Gibb’s makes use of one in every of his track titles (“An Eternal Love”) as do these of Frank Sinatra (“The Finest Is But to Come”) and Sonny Bono (“And The Beat Goes On”). In the meantime, Florence Lawrence, who died in 1938, is immortalised as “The First Film Star”.
On a extra lighthearted observe, whereas monitoring down one other grave, Covert got here throughout the phrases “I Advised You I Was Sick” on the stone of BP Roberts, who died in 1979. “Roberts wasn’t a star and different folks have this on their stone,” he says. “However I imagine this was the primary time these phrases have been used on a monument.”
Like many who select to work round dying, Covert is clearly somebody who enjoys life, however isn’t afraid of dying: “It makes residing extra fascinating.” Now that he’s in Europe, he’s making all types of plans: he needs to go to Morocco for novelist Jean Genet, and might’t wait to get to Switzerland for artist Paul Klee. Earlier than that, nonetheless, he’s heading for Derek Jarman’s grave in Kent and is planning to go to Paris however he doesn’t need me to share whose grave he’ll be looking for, as generally the authorities attempt to cease him. That occurred on the Winehouse grave.
“Somebody who labored there came to visit and mentioned: ‘Do you’ve got permission?’ He mentioned: ‘It’s disrespectful.’ However I’m not hurting something. I all the time go away the grave tidier than once I arrived. And whereas I’m working I discuss to the useless particular person. I inform them what I’m doing.” Typically, he says, the one technique to work is as speedily and as surreptitiously as attainable, in case he’s requested to go away.
The farthest Covert has travelled looking for a headstone was Cairo for the Shah of Iran, Moscow for Khrushchev and a tiny village in Switzerland for Richard Burton. His favorite cemetery is Woodlawn within the Bronx. Filled with spectacular sculptures and large monuments, it’s the ultimate resting place of Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and Miles Davis.
He is aware of the place he’ll find yourself: a cemetery by Lake Michigan, the place his household has a plot. And if anybody needs to make a rubbing, he says, they will go proper forward. “I’ll undoubtedly have one thing rubbable on my stone.”