Art exhibit tells story of Eloise Cemetery

It's not easy to find the Eloise Cemetery, nestled among some pine trees off Henry Ruff in Westland's south end.

But somehow Andrea Irwin did when a day trip to visit antique stores along Michigan Avenue was short-circuited by a power outage.

When she saw the cemetery, she immediately thought of her friend Martine MacDonald who, she knew, was doing drawings of Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Wyandotte.

It led to a conversation about their collaborating on an art project related to the cemetery and ended up as a multi-media exhibit that opens later this month at the Downriver Council for the Arts in Taylor.

"It was like something out of the Twilight Zone; if the power hadn't gone out, I wouldn't have gone there and I wouldn't have had a conversation with Martine," Irwin said. "I feel some of those souls wanted their story to be told."

The goal of the exhibition is "to give some honor to these individuals who, when they were alive, were marginalized," said MacDonald, the DCA gallery education coordinator.

Titled "Resurrected Voices: The Eloise Cemetery Project," the exhibition will feature 40 pieces of original artwork, while the opening ceremony Thursday, Oct. 19, will include poetry readings and music, also related to the cemetery and those who were laid to rest there.

It's a collaborative exhibit involving the DCA, the Artists Collective, Downriver Poets and Playwrights, Friends of Eloise and the Wayne County Council for Arts, History and Humanities.

MacDonald and Irwin in April put out a call to artists to participate in the project. Artists were asked to respond to individually numbered grave markers.

The group met at the cemetery on four Saturdays in June through September, uncovering grave markers and producing rubbings that could be used in the final work, which also will help promote the efforts of the Friends of Eloise to restore and identify the gravesites.

"It's a very beautiful spot, but you'd never know you're in a cemetery," MacDonald said. "There's only these four- by six-inch stones made out of cement. Some are still standing, some have sunk into the ground."

More than 7,000 people are buried in numbered graves in the cemetery. They were all residents of the Wayne County Infirmary, which became known as Eloise because of the name selected when a post office was set up in the complex in 1894.

The artists visited the Westland Historical Museum and Eloise Museum in the Kay Beard Building, one of the complex's last remaining structures, and looked over the death certificates of Eloise residents buried in the numbered graves in preparation for the show.

"We wanted to know how they lived, who was represented by the marker," MacDonald said.

Jo Johnson, a member of Friends of Eloise, worked with the two women and admits she wondered how they were going to pull off the multi-media show.

"I was puzzled how it would work out, but it looks like it's all coming together," she said. "Now, it's exciting, a wonderful idea. They so dedicated."

Johnson plans to be at the opening ceremony and will bring Eloise history books and notecards to sell. The money will help further the work of the Friends of Eloise which just sent in the money to purchase a historical marker for the site.

MacDonald's artwork honors two young girls, both age 6, who died within days of each other in 1924. One died of cholera, the other from complications of emphysema.

She's using vintage paper dolls from the 1920s for the piece, which will be the width of the grave markers, but instead of six inches long, it'll be more like two feet.

Irwin is honoring Bitty Hughes, the first mental patient at the hospital. Described as simple-minded, she was placed at the hospital by her family when she was in her 30s.

"She believed everything she saw was hers," Irwin said.

Irwin has been working on her piece all summer. She focused on Hughes' face and her artwork is reminiscent of an Andy Warhol piece -- four panels each in a different color. Hughes worked in the kitchen so Irwin will have forks, knives and spoons dangle from the portraits on cords matching the color of the piece.

On opening night, the DCA gallery will be open 5-9 p.m. The reception will start in the gallery, then shift at 7:30 p.m. to another building on campus for the music and poetry readings.

Since the music and poetry are only part of the opening night ceremony, copies of the poems will be included in a notebook that people will be able to read and there also will be tape recording so they can listen to what was said opening night.

The opening ceremony also will include an outdoor display of luminaries decorated by members of the community. They will light the walk from the gallery to the WCCC building, where the poetry readings and musical performances will take place. After Oct. 9, the luminaries will be moved inside and become a part of the exhibition.

"Anyone can put out a luminary, we're hoping to light 300-500 on opening night," Martine said. "We're also praying to the weather goddess to have no rain." | (734) 953-2112

Originally published October 1, 2006


Artists Andrea Irwin and Martine MacDonald show off one of four Andy Warhol style paintings Irwin has done as part of the Downriver Council for the Arts exhibit, "Resurrected Voices: The Eloise Cemetery Project." The two women are curators of a multi-media exhibit that honors the more than 7,000 people buried in the cemetery.

A participating artist placed a flower near one of the graves in the Eloise Cemetery to paint for the show.