Scott Covert is merging onto the expressway after leaving the Westwood Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles. At the moment, he's too excited to talk.
'I'll call you back in five minutes,' he says. 'I just got Truman Capote and I'm so happy.'
The visit to Capote's grave signified the end of a cross-country odyssey that took Covert to the tombs of such disparate famous figures as Dred Scott and Mary Kay Cosmetics founder Mary Kay Ash. Covert drove more than 14,000 miles in less than a month in order to create the paintings of celebrity headstone rubbings that make up his new show at the Craig Smith Gallery in Harbert, Mich.
Covert stumbled into a career as a grave-rubbing artist in the mid-1980s during a visit to the grave of Florence Ballard, one of the original members of the Supremes. A longtime admirer of Ballard, Covert made a pilgrimage to Detroit to pay homage to the singer, who died at age 32 in 1976.
'But when I got to the grave I realized I'd forgotten to bring my damn camera,' Covert said. 'So, I got a piece of paper from my car and made a grave rubbing. When I looked at it, I said, 'Oh, this is genius.''
The project that grew out of that experience—named 'The Dead Supreme' in honor of Ballard—launched Covert's art career. He began traveling to cemeteries around the world, draping large canvasses over tombstones to capture the epitaphs of such famous figures as Frank Sinatra, JonBenet Ramsey, the Shah of Iran, Emmett Till, Marilyn Monroe, Cole Porter and Anwar Sadat.
Covert specializes in frottage, the technique of creating a design by rubbing a paper or canvas against another object. After priming a canvas with acrylic paint, he uses oil-based crayons to rub inscriptions of tombstones onto canvas.
Some paintings showcase a single celebrated figure. Judy Garland, for example, has her own canvas. Her name, birthdate and date of her death stretch across the white canvas like a grim marquee, decorated only with a mad scratching of black crayon and a spray of glitter. Other paintings feature a collection of deceased individuals who are connected with each other through a profession, such as sports or music. But many of Covert's most popular paintings mix the names of dead celebrities who had only a tenuous connection in life. The pairings can be funny, poignant or just plain weird.
One of Covert's personal favorites is a painting that combines the grave rubbings of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy family matriarch Rose Kennedy, who share a loose link through Cold War politics. A painting, called 'Screaming with Laughter,' mingles names of dead comedians with famous murder victims. Another pairs red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy with the Three Stooges.
Covert, who was part of New York's East Village art scene in the 1970s, began selling his frottage paintings in the late 1980s. He had studios in Paris and New York until 2001, when demand for his work collapsed.
'No one wanted a gravestone on their wall after Sept. 11. I went broke,' he said. 'So I moved back to Michigan to regroup.'
Covert relocated from 'a nest of lesbians in Beverly Hills' to his mother's hometown of New Buffalo, Mich., about 60 miles east of Chicago, and set up a studio in Michigan City, Ind. Covert's work caught the attention of Craig Smith, who operates galleries in Harbert and Union Pier, Mich.
'No one has ever seen anything like Scott's work before,' Smith explained. 'He has taken pop art and married it to an abstract expressionistic action style of painting. It's very unusual to find an artist who combines those two movements in one painting and who does it as well as Scott.'
Covert's new show at the Craig Smith Gallery features more than 30 paintings created during his recent cross-country safari. During the trip, he made dozens of rubbings, including those of baseball's Roger Maris ( Fargo, N.D. ) ; author Sinclair Lewis ( Sauk Centre, Minn. ) ; murder victim Teena Brandon, the subject of the movie Boys Don't Cry ( Lincoln, Neb. ) ; Tennessee Williams ( St. Louis ) ; Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Maybelle Carter ( Henderson, Tenn. ) ; William Faulkner ( Oxford, Miss. ) ; actress Greer Garson ( Dallas ) ; Margaux and Ernest Hemingway ( Ketchum, Idaho ) ; Jimi Hendrix ( Seattle ) ; and heiress Abigail Folger ( Colma, Calif. ) , who was murdered by the Charles Manson gang in 1969, along with Sharon Tate.
'I always get a Sharon Tate [ grave rubbing ] when I go to California—always!,' said Covert. 'I loved her. I knew who she was before she was dead. I worshipped her.'
In Garden City, Kan., Covert visited the graves of the Clutter family, whose murder was immortalized in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Near Leavenworth, Kan., he added the names of the Clutter's killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In California, he completed the canvas with Truman Capote.
'I didn't know if I'd be able to get [ Capote ] ,' said Covert, 'that's why I was so thrilled that I did.'
Many cemeteries like Westwood, where Capote and scores of other celebrities are planted, refuse to tell visitors where the famous dead are buried. At some cemeteries, Covert walks for hours over acres of corpses, searching for famous names on tombstones. Through his travels, he's met many other people who like to spend time at cemeteries. Often, it's through these cemetery junkies that he learns where the bodies are buried.
'It's like a cult. There's a whole underground community of people who like to go to cemeteries,' said Covert. 'I met this guy at Rita Hayworth's grave ( in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, Calif. ) . He cleans the gravestones of these old actresses. It's more of a devotion than a hobby. He bought his grave plot just because it overlooks Mary Astor's grave. He knows where everyone is buried. He asked me, 'Do you know where Mitzi Gaynor's hairdresser is buried?' He knows that type of stuff. When I met him at Rita Hayworth's grave, I knew we'd be lifelong friends. But then I lost his phone number. A year later, I ran into him again at Bela Lugosi's grave. He's friends with all the old stars. He took me to Loretta Young's funeral.'
Some stars are beyond his reach, however. They are either buried in cemeteries that do not allow tombstone rubbing or, like Johnny Carson, they have been cremated and their lives have not been commemorated with a grave marker.
'I almost cried when I found out Christine Jorgensen was cremated and scattered in the ocean,' he said. 'It broke my heart. I really wanted the first man who became a woman.'
'The Dead Supreme' runs though Nov. 26 at Craig Smith Gallery, 13648 Red Arrow Highway, Harbert Mich.
For more information, call the gallery 773-750-7528, or visit www.scottcovert.com as well as www.craigsmithgallery.com . Craig Smith Gallery hours are Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you want something closer to home, one of Covert's works is currently being exhibited at Plan B Gallery, 7453 Madison St., Forest Park. Call 708-488-1833.