Scott Covert’s tombstones act as printing plates

Artwork is graded with text – names, dates of birth and death, along with scribbles and strokes of paint. A celebrity name, such as comedians Lenny Bruce or Jack Benny, may appear.

The 70-year-old Covert’s first solo release was released this month in the UK. His artworks are colorful tombstones, which he says “act like printing plates”, drawing on his influences from 20th century abstraction, Pop Art and celebrity deaths.

Covert has always been fascinated by death. growing up he wanted to be an undertaker. He had his first experience of death seeing his grandfather in an open coffin at the age of eight. “It scared me – but my mother was very good about what death is – and she took advantage of this time – to teach me about it.”

It wasn’t an easy childhood in Edison, New Jersey. “It was a nightmare growing up gay there. I was tortured.” But New York wasn’t far away, and Covert escaped to the Big Apple at 15 “with some other misfits” and discovered a place far more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.

Scott Covert, Until now (yet), c. 1990–2022

She ended up dancing every night for the next 25 years and studying art at Indiana University, learning how to stretch canvases and begin painting.

Covert became a fixture of the East Village art scene in the 1970s and 1980s, co-founding Playhouse 57 with drag performer Andy Rees at Club 57 – the underground hangout of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ann Magnuson.

Covert spent a few years working as an actor and drag queen. “I was gorgeous!” Covert says jokingly. She was more of a character with little influence than Bette Davis. However, Covert’s love affair with the theater came to an end. “I hated it and never wanted to act again. I had a hard time memorizing lines. I like being alone – you can’t get into trouble.”

With the AIDS crisis in New York, Covert lost many friends to the disease. But he decided to turn this terrible period into an artistic endeavor and began rubbing famous tombstones.

The artist was introduced to the art of engraving at an early age. At the age of about 11, Covert was taken from his school to do grave scrubbing as a class exercise. But it wasn’t until many years later that this would become his life’s raison d’être.

The life of an artist can be very isolating, so enjoying your own company is very important. It was in 1985 that Covert decided to scrub the tombstone of Florence Ballard, who was a founding member of the Supremes. She had a tragic life, dying at just 32 of a coronary thrombosis.

Scott Covert, Lifetime Drawing, Dr.  Bob and Bill W., Green undated Courtesy of the artist

Scott Covert, Lifetime Drawing, Dr. Bob and Bill W., Green undated Courtesy of the artist

From that first headstone rubbing at Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery, Covert never looked back. “The second color made it pop, and when I looked at it, I heard that little bell that Gertrude Stein writes about. I’ve been doing it ever since. That’s what you have to do.”

Covert has spent most of his life on the road. he says he doesn’t stay anywhere except with friends. Looking for tombstones is his obsession. Before the internet, finding where someone was buried was difficult, so Covert called funeral homes. For graves where people had died long ago, the artist spent time researching the library.

With the encouragement of his friends, Covert moved on to the next rub, blues singer Billie Holiday, who lies in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. The artist added Holliday’s etching to his first by Florence Ballard. Added to this was a rubbing of Houdini’s grave in a Jewish cemetery near Cypress Hills in Queens.

Scott Covert, Lifetime Drawing, Frank Sinatra in many colors, undated Courtesy of the artist

Scott Covert, Lifetime Drawing, Frank Sinatra in many colors, undated Courtesy of the artist

During the 1980s, Covert moved into the famous Chelsea Hotel, where many literary artists stayed, including Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and Quentin Crisp. It was here that Covert says he had his first studio, using the hotel to store his canvases. However, he still keeps canvases in his car, some dating back to 1996.

The tombstone works like a printing press’s plate, Covert says. “I never make a rub to use as a template. Every name in every work is a direct rub from a stone. The pieces are about being there and making the visit. Each mark of paint on the canvas represents a life. “

It was in Los Angeles, with its cemeteries full of movie stars, that Covert developed his process. He usually works on 12 to 14 artworks at once, and the teams have become more involved.

There are themes centered around the beautiful and the doomed, like Tragic Blondes, “It’s so Hollywood,” she says. Teams include Marilyn Monroe, Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick and Nancy Spungen.

Scott Covert, Lifetime Drawing, Valerie Jean Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol), Pink, 2021 Courtesy of the artist

Scott Covert, Lifetime Drawing, Valerie Jean Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol), Pink, 2021 Courtesy of the artist

Other groups include cast members from The Wizard of Oz or major American composers. No grave is too far or too remote for Covert to travel to – he sees the journey there as part of the artistic process. Richard Burton’s tomb is in the tiny village of Celigny, near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, while the farthest tomb Covert traveled to was that of the Shah of Iran in Cairo.

Covert says he doesn’t keep written lists of the headstones he wants, but keeps them all in his head. It has an internal map, once on the road, of a route that leads to a list of graves. He sounds like a very focused collector when he talks about his next project. He is focused on doing Europe next and wants to visit Derek Jarman’s grave at Old Romney Church, Kent.

Scott Covert, Until now (yet), c. 1990–2022

Scott Covert, Until now (yet), c. 1990–2022

Fortunately, the Covert enjoys driving. “I can drive 14 hours straight,” he says. He has put 188,000 miles on his car since 2015. “Traveling is all part of the art.” His Instagram page, The Dead Supreme, is an incredible catalog of all the tombstones and locations he’s visited.

With so much time spent in cemeteries, it’s surprising that Covert doesn’t believe in the afterlife or, indeed, ghosts. As he says: “I’m not afraid of death. It makes life much more interesting.”

Studio Voltaire, London, presents a major exhibition by the American artist, his first solo show outside the US, which runs until March 24, 2023.

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