Today’s post is a bit different because I’m not featuring a cemetery. I want to share with you a visit I made to sculptor/stone carver Walter S. Arnold’s studio back in November 2018 when he was working on a double tree grave monument. Such monuments were quite popular from the 1880s to the 1930s but faded from the modern cemetery after that. I’ve seen my fair share of single tree monuments over the years, especially those done from Woodmen of the World patterns. But double trees like the one pictured below are a lot less common.
I stumbled across Walter’s work on Facebook and was intrigued that a modern-day sculptor would take on such a project. So I was excited when I learned that because my husband’s grandmother would be celebrating her 90th birthday in November that year, we were going to Chicago to celebrate it with her. Walter’s studio isn’t far from the western suburbs where Chris’ family lives.
I reached out to Walter via Facebook and asked if I could visit his studio. I was thrilled when he agreed. I’m not sure most artists would be open to some strange cemetery junkie from Atlanta barging in on their work space, but he kindly did.
From Chicago to Italy to D.C.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Walter started carving when he was 12. He spent a lot of his free time as a preteen and a teenager looking at details of the city’s old architecture and hanging out in museums. He knew he wanted to learn more about the craft from people who’d been doing it for generations.
Not knowing anyone there, at age 20, he headed for Pietrasanta, Italy to do just that. The carvers who took him under their wings told him if he wanted to see what was possible in this medium, he had to visit the monumental cemetery of Staglieno, two hours north in Genoa. So even in his early days, Walter’s work was influenced by cemeteries.
I asked Walter if he could speak any Italian before he got there and he said no. But it wasn’t really necessary. He learned by watching and doing. As a result, he got a hands-on education that’s impossible to receive in a college classroom.
By 1980, Walter was back in the United States and had earned a place on the team doing work on Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral. Although construction began in 1907, work had started and stopped several times due two World Wars and other events. New elements were being added. Walter became especially adept at working on gargoyles and grotesques then, as this fun photo from his web site below shows.
After his work in D.C., Walter returned to the Chicago area and opened his own studio. He’s not a sculptor you can put in a box and his work shows that when you scan his web site. Sculptures, architectural elements, fountains, and yes, memorials and monuments are among just some of the works he’s created.
Getting to the Root of the Matter
Walter had done one other double tree tombstone and a short double stump marker before this one, so it wasn’t a totally new world for him. I don’t know all the details but this is the basic story. Holly Parker approached Walter about creating a monument for her and her husband, Stephen, who died unexpectedly in 2015 at age 59. They both admired tree stump tombstones, and she wanted Walter to create one that told the story of their many years together.
The old tree markers featured traditional symbols like ferns, acorns, flowers, and ivy. Once in a while a dove or a squirrel might be included. Holly wanted some special features that were more modern. A picnic basket, books they loved, a violin, a tabby cat balanced on the shared branches. Stephen was blind and used a cane so Walter included that as well.
In October 2018, the 10,000-lb. block of Indiana limestone arrived at Walter’s studio. He soon had it pared down to 6,000 lbs. to work with in the coming months as the trees took shape. At completion, the monument would weigh around 3,300 lbs.
Walter showed me the small clay model he made to work from in the early stages of the project.
He also had a sketch to guide him as well.
Scenes From a Marriage
When I visited his studio in November 2018, Walter was in the early stages. The element he’d begun to work on was the Chicago Cubs baseball hat perched on the left-hand tree. Stephen was a huge Cubs fan and the couple attended many games together. Because Stephen was blind, he liked to follow the game’s progress on a radio he brought with him. That, too, was put into the design.
On the finished piece, the Cubs hat looks like this. I’m using one of Walter’s Instagram photos to show you.
I think one of my favorite elements is the picnic basket with the teapot. Walter even included a sandwich! He posted these photos to Instagram while he was still working on the trees in the studio.
There are several animals included in the monument: a cat, a squirrel, lovebirds, and a crow. The picture below was taken after the monument was installed at Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery where Stephen is buried. This memorializes a couple who were life long lovebirds, and her favorite curious tabby is observing the birds.
Here’s a side view of the cat.
Then there’s that squirrel.
Walter included a bunch of poppies as well.
Walter points out in his photos on Instagram that in the past, many such monuments had very little in the way of a foundation underneath them. Sometimes it was only a few pieces of flagstone buried in the ground. Over time, settlement, softening of the soil after heavy rains, and shifting, a number of them have fallen. Sometimes people mistakenly think it’s from vandalism, but more often than not it is for the reasons Walter mentions. I’ve included an example below.
To make sure that doesn’t happen to the Parker monument, two cubic yards of reinforced concrete base were poured for a four-feet deep foundation, extending well below the frost line to ensure long-term stability. The base of the stone is 4’6″ x 2’6″, and the concrete extends one inches larger on each side. A stainless steel stabilizing pin is also holding it in place.
The Finished Work
The double trees tombstone was finished and installed in September 2019 at Bohemian National Cemetery, located fittingly near the “Beyond the Vines” Chicago Cubs fans columbarium. I’ve visited BNC before but that was back in 2015. Hopefully, some day I can return to Chicago and see the Parker monument in person. But I can tell from the pictures that Walter did exactly what Holly hoped he would: tell the story of their marriage through a collection of elements in a beautiful way.
You might be wondering how Walter carved this. Was it all done with hand tools? He does use pneumatic carving devices attached to hand tools at times, something the old masters did not have. But much of the detail work was done by hand with chisels, points, and hammers that he’s acquired over the years from different people in different places. Some even have the names of the former owner’s on them, people who once held them to make beautiful objects like Walter does today.
An Art Form Worth Saving
Walter hasn’t forgotten his days in Italy and the Staglieno cemetery. He became increasingly concerned about the neglect and deterioration he encountered at the cemetery. In 2010, he and his wife Fely formed a non-profit organization American Friends of Italian Monumental Sculpture (AFIMS) to work with the city of Genoa, and find donors to help save these irreplaceable works of art.
In recognition of this work, in April 2019 the City of Genoa presented Walter with their highest award for those who help support and promote their ancient city, the Grifo d’Oro. Previous recipients include architect Renzo Piano, musician Peter Gabriel, Shimon Peres, actress Vanessa Redgrave, and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Walter is on the quiet side, but I feel like I got to know him a little better after spending time with him in his studio. He’s serious about his work but he also gets a great deal of joy from facing the challenges it can present. He’s aware that he’s one of a rapidly shrinking group of craftsmen in the world doing what he does.
In the end, Walter is leaving behind art that will endure long after he’s gone. Years after someone else is handling the chisels and hammers that he held, his skill in stone will continue to tell stories many people can see and treasure.
Thank you, Walter.