Tag Archives: mausoleum

“All he did was a little respiration work.”

This statement comes from one of many student essays on the case of a self-taught restorer of stained-glass windows who extracted a sagging Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum, refurbished it, and sold it to an antiques dealer (and fence) who was already under surveillance for trafficking in stolen art. For the story, you can seek out the several entries I’ve already done for sentences dealing with the case. Here’s one to get you started.

My student here is defending the window thief, one of the options for the assigned essay. She just has a strange idea of what he actually did.

It’s only a typo. Or a misspelling. Or a bad word choice…

by way of which she turned our lad from a crooked craftsman into a fitness trainer, health-care worker, or yogi.

She could have said “repair work.” She could have made a somewhat ambiguous choice and said “reparation work”—that would have gotten by. The assignment sheet, which includes a case summary, uses the word “restoration,” which, to anyone even remotely familiar with antiques and art, is the most accurate choice of the three: it describes his intention, his process, and his product.

He was a lover of Tiffany’s works, a self-taught student of the windows especially, and also a student of stained glass construction and repair (one adult-education class and then more self-education). In his job of cemetery caretaker, he noticed the forgotten mausoleum and its sagging window. Time is not kind to stained-glass windows: as the came (the lead that holds the pieces of glass in place) expands and contracts during years of summers and winters, it becomes stretched and sometimes brittle, and the glass thereby becomes looser in its setting. Given enough time, the window can release the glass fragments like a hand opening and scattering so many coins, and what was once a pictorial or decorative work of art or high craft is transformed into a meaningless pile of shards.

The window in question was nine feet tall and proportionately heavy. He painstakingly removed it, took it home, and spent six years restoring it. Where pieces of glass had been lost or cracked, he sought out and purchased appropriate replacements. He replaced the came. When a client of his purchaser’s asked if a rising sun could be inserted into the scene (said client was a “Japanese collector,” which may explain his whim), our craftsman refused to violate Tiffany’s design. The finished window fetched him $60,000 from the fence; the Japanese client in turn paid $240,000 for it. And the craftsman was arrested for (and convicted of) trafficking in stolen art, grand larceny, and perhaps vandalism.

His defenders among my students said he was a hero, saving a work of art from certain ruin and enabling it to be seen again (the purchaser reportedly gave or sold the window to a Japanese museum). Or he was a good man, heart-broken to see something beautiful decay. Or he was an art-lover whose passion had overcome his reason. Several students pointed out that the window was, in effect, worthless before he restored it, and so the charge of grand larceny seemed inappropriate.

This particular student wanted to know what the man had done that was all that bad. After all, he hadn’t harmed anyone or anything. All he did was…yes, alas, a little “respiration work.”

We are left with the picture of a man crouched over a window, or kneeling before it, breathing on it. The breath of life, perhaps? Was he sighing, panting, gasping, holding his breath, blowing dust away? All of these would qualify as respiration work, I imagine. Hard to imagine how any of those activities would do much for a deteriorating stained-glass window, though. Could he have been some kind of “window whisperer”?

If she didn’t know the word “restoration,” and didn’t notice it used repeatedly on the assignment sheet and therefore feel compelled to look it up, surely she did already know the word “respiration.” Where was the internal editor that should have asked “BREATHING??? What does that have to do with it????” and driven her at least to reread the sheet? I am sure she did not mean “breathing,” in any of its forms. Even if he was INspired by Tiffany, the fact that he was REspiring at the time is totally beside any rational point.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that we did a lot of small-group work with the drafts of this essay. Unless “respiration” was a last-minute addition during the polishing of the final draft, more eyes than hers gazed upon it in its little sentence and noticed nothing amiss.

Or else perhaps someone in the peer process suggested the word? If that was the case, though, where (again) was my student’s internal editor to ask “Are you out of your mind?”

As for me, when I read the paper I laughed, shook my head, wrote “wrong word” in the margin, took a deep breath…and moved on.

“The artwork that was placed there for deceased loved ones was put there for a reason.”

My student is clearly indignant that the lover of graveyard art appropriated some objects from the cemeteries where he was employed.

I know she was indignant partly because the phrase “___ for a reason” is usually spoken in tones of indignation: “I told you not to touch the stove for a reason, Missy!” “I give homework for a reason, young man.” Implied is “for a very GOOD reason, and now you know, don’t you?”

And so I’m confident that indignation, rather than complete obliviousness, has produced this seemingly circular sentence. “For deceased loved ones” isn’t quite the reason the artwork was “placed there,” although it is perhaps the occasion, or the practical purpose. In the case of the assignment, she’s discussing a Tiffany window that had graced a family mausoleum until, neglected and evidently forgotten by any remaining kin, the mausoleum lost part of its roof and the walls began to shift, and the window itself sagged out of its frame, its glass stress-cracked and its leading weather-softened. The art-lover removed the window, took it home and restored it, and then sold it to an antiques fence (and was caught in the trap set to catch the fence).

Once upon a time, the window was put into the mausoleum, and the mausoleum was “placed there” to house the beloved remains—that is, the mausoleum was “for” deceased loved ones, and the window was part of the edifice. Both window and mausoleum commemorated the dead. But, at least according to western belief, the dead weren’t likely to be able to admire the window or the handsome stone-and-mortar work; they weren’t likely to celebrate being laid on shelves instead of buried in the ground, either, or consciously bask in the pools of colored light. What, then, could the “reason” be for erecting a lovely little building and installing a window made by a famous (and fashionable) artist?

The reason must have been multidimensional: to honor the dead (not merely to deposit them); to comfort the surviving family that they had “done right by” their forebears; to console and delight survivors when they came to lay wreaths or to bring more company to the deceased; … and to impress passersby with the dignity and wealth of the family.

In the context of the story, one might question the success of the installation. The mausoleum was in what the news report called a “neglected corner” of the cemetery, where passersby would be unlikely. The tomb itself was in a state of neglect and decay, meaning that the family had died out, moved away, or just forgotten about it: at any rate, nobody was laying wreaths, adding new “loved ones,” or stopping in for some private grieving. Nobody among the living was enjoying the window as it inched toward disintegration. No aspect of the reason was being fulfilled.

If I had been writing the essay, I might have followed the sentence with a discussion that went in exactly that direction: for a reason, but the reason is long forgotten. I probably would have been sad rather than indignant, and I probably would have been arguing that the theft hurt no one and should not be prosecuted as a felony. I believe such a case can be made.

My student didn’t go in that direction, though. She wrote her statement, and then she put her figurative hands on her figurative hips and went on to argue that no one had the right to take the artwork away, since it had been put there “for a reason.” She didn’t go into the reason at all, and she didn’t meditate on the pitiless tooth of Time and the decay of all earthly things.

This was, after all, comp class, not lit or creative writing.

And because she did NOT go into the reason, I suggested in my comments that the sentence was somewhat circular (or self-reflective) and seemed to belabor the obvious rather than making a point.

If students would come to office hours, so many interesting conversations might occur! But at the end of a paper in a stack of 40 papers, a sentence or two in cursive (which I write but which many of my students seem unable to read) can’t do much. I write my comments for a reason, but I’m not sure that the reason is fulfilled.