Art of the Catacomb Process
Copyright © 1978 - 2008 Mark Roberts and Denise Rouleau. All Rights Reserved. No unauthorized reproduction of materials
Mark and I began working together when he asked me to build some alligator figures for the “Lives of the Saints" series. This led to experimenting with mummy forms for an old type-face tray and eventually evolved into the four year collaboration, "Art of the Catacomb." The body of work explores the practice and concept of burial, how both the perceived and true nature of our ancestors influence how we live today and imagine tomorrow, and the notion of the individual as a solitary and social entity.
The Catacomb Process and Development
Ranging in size from under a foot to twelve feet, the framework of the catacombs consists mainly of vintage printer cases whose original function was to organize typeface for printing presses, a technique practiced for centuries and rendered obsolete in the digital age. The boxes are disassembled and reworked into unique pieces of architecture to house mummy-like figures. The clay mummies transform the letter-press cells into a labyrinth of colors and forms. We create the figures in low-fire terra cotta and white clay. The mummies may be glazed or undergo a salt-firing, but in most cases are washed with multiple applications of paint and distressed to give them an aged appearance. We also moved from printer trays to carving out our own wooden catacombs, which take on a more totem-like structure.
For inspiration we look to instances through time that move us and offer enduring connections between the past and present. Even within any theme, however, we want the figures to maintain a sense of ambiguity and detachment from any fixed identity. Our culture's fascination with mummies derives from, in part, the sense of a mystery to unravel; They prompt us to question who we are and how we will be remembered.
Individual Identity and Humanity Subsumed
Catacombs are elaborate systems of interconnected passageways. One of the most disorienting and introspective experiences I have had was when I visited the Paris Catacombs where about six million unmarked skeletal remains line the tunnels for miles. There were so many that it was hard for me to see them as individuals. Stalin once said, "the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." Numbers can be numbing. I can't imagine making a million mummies, but our piece, "Crucifixion," holds almost a thousand; Even within such a large composition, each figure has its own character and importance while remaining interconnected within a complex structure of relationships which invites exploration.