Artist Roberto Mighty finds stories at Mt. Auburn cemetery
Tonight, the moon blazes, carving the cemetery into silvery landscape and opaque shadows. Scenes of darkness and light inspire Mighty, the first artist-in-residence at the 183-year-old cemetery.
As he sets up his tripod near a gravestone at the corner of Magnolia and Citron Avenues, he hears a coyote yip. Crickets call, cars speed, planes thunder. Later, he will record these noises.
Mighty is taking moonlit photos of the gravestone of Peter Byus, a little-known escaped slave from Virginia who fled to freedom and settled on Beacon Hill. Byus worked as a tailor, and in his will, he left money to find his half-brother, still a slave, and buy his freedom.
“I’m going to get this cross in the foreground,” Mighty says. “He was definitely a Christian.”
Mount Auburn originally decided to hire an artist, paid for by a grant, to document the conservation of the memorial for Amos Binney , a cofounder of the Boston Society of Natural History who died in 1847. The memorial, created from soft Italian marble, is scheduled to include cleaning, shoring up, and conservation with lasers.
But cemetery administrators admired Mighty’s earlier work, especially a multimedia art exhibit he created at the Harvard Forest, and decided to ask him to expand the project to include the entire cemetery, said Bree Harvey, vice president of cemetery and visitor services.
“I love the idea of continuing the idea of what Mount Auburn has done since its founding, which is provide a place of beauty to inspire the living,” she said. Mighty, a Newton resident who teaches at Emerson College and Boston University, is creating a multiscreen digital multimedia installation. He is calling it “earth.sky.”
Mighty, who is 59, will spend 18 months at Mount Auburn, the country’s first garden cemetery, which changed the way Americans thought about death. The city graveyards had grown packed with tombstones and bodies, so crowded that people feared the water supply would become contaminated.
At Mount Auburn — whose original 72 acres had been called “Sweet Auburn” by Harvard students — the dead were buried beneath trees and beside flowers, in dells and near ponds. This would be a place of comfort.
After mourners lingered at their loved ones’ graves, said Joseph Story, the cemetery’s first president, at its dedication in 1831, “We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.”
Story, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, was grieving the death of his 10-year-old daughter from scarlet fever.
Mighty, who arrived at the cemetery early this year after considerable personal loss — his mother, aunt, uncle, and a close friend died in the past five years — has found his own comfort here. He is not religious, but he finds some peace in the memorials, especially those from the 1800s, that speak about an afterlife.
“It’s not like suddenly my core beliefs have changed,” Mighty said. “They haven’t. But there’s something very hopeful about it.”
It is impossible to spend hours surrounded by nearly 100,000 graves and not feel a personal connection to death. Mighty has been pulled to one grave, a woman born the same year as him. He has a 21-year-old daughter, a senior at Yale, and the cemetery’s many monuments to children — a tiny bassinet, a child with a bent head, chubby arms wrapped tightly around a book — are poignant.
Mighty, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and on an Air Force base in Alaska, studied history at Boston University as an undergraduate and received an MFA from Lesley University in 2011. Over his career, he has produced audiobooks for publishing houses and worked in television and video. He is also working on a multimedia project on aging called “getting.older” that he expects to finish in 2016.
This isn’t Mighty’s first project that contemplates death. In “Trees of My City,” a media installation he created in 2010, he considers dead and dormant trees. The project was inspired by his mother’s death, his father’s illness, and his daughter’s imminent departure for college.
At Mount Auburn, Mighty is less interested in telling the stories of people memorialized by grand monuments, like Ralph H. White, the owner of R.H. White department store, which was later bought by Filene’s.
“He probably got a lot of attention in his life,” he said. “I don’t begrudge him that. I love to deal with graves of people who were unknown and not wealthy. I feel closer to those people.”
So he spends his time researching people like Byus, whose half-brother remaining in slavery was never found. Byus left the rest of his money to the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society, created to help and educate former slaves.
In his final project, Mighty will combine images of Byus’s memorial with the voice of an actor he hired to read part of Byus’s will.
The cemetery is more diverse than many people realize. “I’m looking at the graves of Persian people, Chinese people, Jewish people, African-Americans, Boston Brahmins, and all sorts of Americans,” Mighty said.
He craves solitude at the cemetery, uninterrupted by birders peering through binoculars or tourists studying maps of the labyrinthine paths. So he uses his special privileges as artist-in-residence to open a locked side gate when the wrought-iron front gates are locked for the day. The security guards know to steer clear.
One morning, a few minutes after 5, he stops at the side entrance and presses a button on a remote control until the gate slides open. Once inside, he drives around, looking for a scene that moves him. The mornings are best for animal sightings.
“I had a little staring contest with a coyote once here,” he said. “I blinked. The coyote wins every time.”
At Auburn Lake, he parks and steps out onto the grass, still soggy from the previous night’s rain. The last of the mist is evaporating. Mighty hears a sharp cry. “That’s a hawk,” he says.
He sets up his tripod and attaches his camera. He looks through his lens at the pond, where a fountain pushes water toward a ring of lily pads. “This is what it really looks like,” he said. “But I’m not interested in what it really looks like.”
He lowers the shutter speed to reduce the light in his photos until the view he sees there matches the image in his head, darker and more mysterious.
“This is one of the most photographed places in America,” he said. “There’s no need for me to come here and take yet more beauty shots of the cemetery.”