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Art in a Grave Place - Roy Dixon

posted on July 25, 2008 at 10:36 AM

Roy Dixon is an artist who makes granite come to life - astributes to the dead. He makes personalized tombstone designs. This storyoriginally aired on Iowa Public Television in 1998.

Morgan Halgren: For Roy Dixon, having one foot in the grave isn't enough. As a monument artist, he insists on throwing in his mind, body, and soul, all of which are reflected in his work.

Roy Dixon: A lot of people hug me when they see the stones. Some people just burst out crying. How I hope that people would react is that they tell me that it's the nicest thing that they could have done for the person that they loved.

Morgan Halgren: If you stop by Burlington’s Leyda, Burrus, and Metz Monument Company, you might catch Roy out front, faithfully tending to his weighty works of art. And while these granite canvases average 500 pounds apiece, it's Roy’s devotion to each grieving family that seems to make the heaviest impact. Known for working 20-hour days, this self-taught artist promises his stones will be the most beautiful in the cemetery. And until he's delighted both his customers and his conscience, he can't bear the sight of his own reflection.

Roy Dixon: One time a family came in and they approved this stone that I did, but I had been up for about 40 hours with no sleep. And when I had finished the stone, I was tired. And I got up the next day and looked at it again, and I just couldn't let it go out in the cemetery. So I did the stone completely over from the start.

Morgan Halgren: In the longer version of this story, Roy bought a new stone out of his own pocket, spent three days etching it, and then hauled it out to the cemetery himself. Once there, he used a sledgehammer to dislodge the earlier-approved stone. This, after dragging the 300-pound portrait 75 feet to its final resting place.

Roy Dixon: That's really the only one that's ever really cost me. I don't like mediocrity and I hate it in myself. I won't accept it in myself. When I die, people aren't going to remember if I returned my library books on time. The only thing that's going to matter is the work that I’ve left behind.

Morgan Halgren: Stepping into Roy's workshop, you're simultaneously struck by the captivating qualities of the granite and the irrepressible thoughts of death. And while the atmosphere would seem to discourage puns, you can't help but wonder if the phrase "caught between a rock and a hard place" was coined to describe the life of a monument artist.

Roy Dixon: This job can be sad sometimes. If I spent my time thinking about dying and stuff, I’d be a nervous wreck. But I don't think about the people as being gone. I just try to think of a way to bring them to life.

Morgan Halgren: As Roy works, the graveness of the situation is slowly chipped away. In time you'll find this serious artist may also be one of the most amusing, a talent he illustrated even at age four when, after scribbling all over his bedroom walls, he signed his name to his crayon creations.

Roy Dixon: Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I was going to be an artist. I just didn't know I was going to do it on monuments. I sold my first painting when I was seven... A picture of George Jetson. The person that ran the store about three blocks away from us bought the -- he gave me sixty cents worth of candy and gum and a quarter. It was pretty neat. My art teacher -- we had competitions and state contests and things like that in school. And I’d enter those and I’d win them, and he'd still give me a "b" because he didn't think I was doing my best.

Morgan Halgren: Walking through this Burlington cemetery with Roy is like stepping into an art museum. And as far as some critics are concerned, his monumental works are the best in the industry. His customers, however, are less impressed with his perfection of pointillism than with the way he carves their memories into stone.

Roy Dixon: This guy was in France during World War II, hand drew this valentine, and sent it to his wife. She carried it with her for 50 years. She told me that this wren had landed on her window and was there, like, every day, and she thought it was his spirit visiting her. She didn't know I was going to put the wren on there, so I thought it would be neat if I put the valentine in the wren's mouth.

The person that I did this stone for was killed in an arson fire. There's psychology to this art. Sometimes people feel guilty. Maybe they didn't get a chance to say good-bye like they wanted to. Or maybe there was an argument and they hadn't spoken to each other for a week and then the person died. And so this is a way for them to say some things to their son or daughter or husband or wife that they didn't get a chance to say.

It's kind of tough doing stones for kids. That's the hardest part. This boy here, the one with the bat, his little brother is still living, and he posed for the picture of the catcher. It makes him feel closer to his brother too. This woman came by and she looked at the stone that I had on display. And then she looked at me, and then she just started crying. That's really gratifying to know that somebody who didn't even know your son was crying for him.

People just can't bear the thought, I think, of their loved ones being gone forever. They need something that they can touch and take care of and talk to. That's the whole reason behind these.

Morgan Halgren: after 15 years and more than 1,000 monuments, Roy admits he still can't deal with the idea of his own death. He's sure of one thing though... He'll be taking his artistic secrets to his grave.

Roy Dixon: sooner or later I will do my own stone. I said this before, I say it all the time -- if somebody sticks one of those old, gray monuments over me, I will haunt somebody. I will.


Tags: art artists Iowa