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How to Break into the Boy's Club of Carving at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

How to Break into the Boy's Club of Carving at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

LA Weekly

Marina V. Shifrin

December 21, 2015

Aside from a flesh-toned Band-Aid on her left index finger, you’d never guess that Caroline Jones spent the past few months in a cemetery carving a four-ton piece of marble into a monument.

“I refer to it as a monument because its more than a headstone,” Jones says. “It’s a four-piece dedication. I know monument is a bit grand, but tombstone is a bit dour, and headstone doesn’t describe the whole.”

A tall blonde with an athletic build, Jones is striking. She meets me at an empty restaurant, lit with the same string of white globes that seems to adorn every 20-something’s backyard these days. Jones comments on the place's charm and I'm instantly enamored with her lovely British accent and self–effacing humor.

“You’ll have to water me down,” she says, worried she’s gone on too much about herself. But her journey's been far too interesting for that to be the case.

It begins in Spain, where Jones, a self-taught painter who circumvented college, made a living by selling paintings on the street. Her life in Europe came to a devastating halt when her fiancee died in a motorbike accident.

“I had to face death at such a young age that it’s not such a scary thing to me. I lived through losing a loved one,” she says.

After her fiancee’s death, Jones packed up and moved to Hong Kong — as far away as she could go with her U.K. passport. She spent the next 10 years traveling, learning and immersing herself in Asia. Her life was warm, colorful and filled with exotic locales bursting with creativity.

In 2001 Jones followed her new husband to London, where she instantly felt out of place, despite being a native. According to Jones, her contemporaries were doing a lot of conceptual art, which left her feeling irrelevant. Around the same time, she suffered multiple miscarriages. I wouldn’t normally share such a private detail on someone else's behalf, but the miscarriages were what led Jones to sculpture.

She discovered sculpting during a girls weekend (“Well, it was really more of a week,” Jones interjects her own story.) in Pietrasanta, a town on the coast of northern Tuscany. Pietrasanta is specifically known for its marble. Michelangelo is said to have been the first person to discover the beauty of the local stone.

Jones bought a suitcase and filled it with tools and marble, which she carted back to London.

After seeing how much she enjoyed working with the marble, her husband suggested she go to art school for the first time. So at 32 years old, Jones began her degree in ornamental and architectural stone carving at the City and Guilds of London. Around the same time, she became pregnant.

“I know this sounds” — she pauses to wave her hands around her head, denoting craziness — “but as life was growing in me, I connected with pulling life out of those stones. It’s more organic than painting. Sculpting has a physicality. You reach a connectedness with yourself.”

In November 2005, Jones, her husband and (now) two kids, moved to Los Angeles, where she began making connections within the artist community. One of those connections, Russell Erickson, would become instrumental in her future work at the cemetery.

Jones met Erickson at Art City Studios, a stone yard filled with sculptors, students and sculptures, in Ventura, California. In 2014, Erickson invited Jones to come to the J. Paul Getty Museum to help out with the Canterbury Cathedral exhibition. This is where she connected with Anna and Boris, her future clients.

The clients, one of whom works at the Getty, lost their mother, Shifra,­ last January and wanted to do something extraordinary to commemorate her life. Their grandmother, who survived her daughter, bought a plot in the iconic Hollywood Forever Cemetery in the late ’90s. This was just a few years after brothers Tyler and Brent Cassity bought what was at the time a decrepit cemetery for $375,000. The Cassity brothers then spent millions fixing up the cemetery, helping it become the outdoor-movie-indie-band-lavish hotspot we know and love.

Although the Hollywood Forever Cemetery has been Jones’ office for the past couple months, it is not where her work started. Instead she began with a series of sketches, attempting to get the essence of Shifra.

“Drawings and samples and ideas flowed, the tree was a symbol that emerged almost immediately. I made a [tree] that spoke of both strength and beauty, and came from the strata and color blooms inside the stone itself,” Jones explains.

After many hours of immersing herself in the family’s history, Jones discovered a Pink Rosa Portugal marble, which became the canvas for Shifra’s legacy.

She found the stone at Canoga Park's Dodd Marble and Stone, which Jones describes as “a graveyard of marble stones. “The resting place of a container shipped over from Europe 20 years ago. Dodd himself is well into his autumn years and remains as untended as his lost marbles.”

After agreeing (then disagreeing, then agreeing again) on a price for the stone, Jones hired a forklift driver to get the 4-ton piece to her work space in Art City Studios.

“Set in stone” is an idiom for a reason, and Jones spared no precautions when it came to preparing to carve the pink marble monster she had procured for the job. She built a maquette, a scale model in clay with an exact rendering of the image. The writing on the stone is a combination of Hebrew and Russian, neither of which is a language Jones was familiar with, so precision was key. Once she got the maquette approved by the family, she was able to begin work.

Jones spent three weeks carving, drilling, cutting and sanding.

“I worked until my arms and hands swelled with bulging muscle that shook from the pounding vibration of hammering and chiseling, from angle grinders and skill saws, I worked until I could stand no more, and would drive home in a cloud of dust, falling asleep as soon as I had showered,” she says.

After she was done with the majority of the carving and shaping, Jones transported the marble to Hollywood Forever, where she completed the finishing touches, including carving and sandblasting the lettering.

On the outside, nothing about Jones or Shifra’s monument fits with the Hollywood Forever Cemetery narrative. Traditionally an in-house crew of men works on the grayish-black headstones in the cemetery. Jones, who towers over the weathered crew, was the only female (that we know of) who was able to penetrate the boys club and contribute her own dedication to the deceased. Her light-pink stone looks nothing like the grayish black ones that line the plots. In a way, Jones’ idiosyncratic existence is fitting for the place.

The 62-acre cemetery is depressing yet beautiful, an oxymoron with echoes of tears, music, traffic, celebrities and death reverberating off the mausoleum walls. It is many things, but traditional is not one of them — just like Jones.

Before we part ways, I ask to see some photos of the stone in its early stages. Jones excitedly pulls out her iPhone only to realize the screen has frozen. She furrows her brow, raises her hand and smashes her phone against the table.

“Don’t worry, I do this all the time,” she tells me, reacting to my gasp.

A couple more table-rattling bangs and the phone unfreezes. Yup, she’s definitely a sculptor, I think to myself. The photos were wonderful.

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