Music by Joseph Thompson.
“Here is a beautiful, impeccable tombstone. How odd! But here is a gorgeous example of marble carving from the late Nineteenth Century. And it had this perfect little lamb with little ears still intact! It was just this very beautiful, sweet object.
“I’m Alexandra Grant and I’m an artist here in Los Angeles.”
Hi. I’m Didi Beck. I’m an artist and I tell ghost stories.
I kind of have a sixth sense—I’m very intuitive.
I’ll get this feeling that something I can’t explain is true, but I don’t know why. And for me, it’s not that different from the feeling I get when an artwork resonates with me.
Alexandra Grant bought a tombstone in Buffalo, Wyoming over a decade ago. Last summer, she debuted her film, Taking Lena Home. It follows her journey from LA to Nebraska to return the tombstone to its rightful owner.
She tells me her story at a downtown café.
“Taking Lena Home is a documentary I made literally upon learning that the beautiful piece of folk art that I’d owned for 11 years was the tombstone of a little girl named Lena Davis. When I learned accidentally that it was stolen from a rural homesteading cemetery in Nebraska, I to jump in the car with the stone and return it to the people it belonged to.”
Alexandra grew up traveling the world with her family. Every time her mom returned from a trip, she would bring back a piece of folk art, like a Nigerian palace door or an indigenous pot. So she was curious about where the tombstone came from.
“I, in a very naive way, really believed the story I was told about the stone when I bought it from the antiques dealer—that it was from a ranch in that part of Wyoming, that it was desacralized. It made me feel it was possible to own it as an object of folk art. And it never occurred to me that that story was not true.”
On the way to Nebraska, she stopped in the Wyoming town where she bought Lena’s tombstone. She stayed at the Occidental Hotel where Dawn, the owner, had a special room in mind for her.
“She said that there were two rooms, and that one was the artist’s’ room. So I went upstairs to the one room that she thought I should stay in. I walk in, and every hair on my body raised. It was so uncomfortable. The bed was on a raised pedestal and the bath was on a raised pedestal, and I pretty much flew back down the hall. I went to the second room and I thought, ‘Ok, this will do.’
“I went back [to Dawn] and I said that I’d chosen Room 4 over Room 32. She said, ‘Well, why didn’t you choose Room 32? It’s the artist’s’ room.’ I told her that it was haunted. She looked at me with this devilish look and said, ‘Oh, you felt her!’
“She said from the minute she purchased it, one of the old-time cowboys came by and asked, ‘Have you met her yet?’ The rooms at the front of the hotel were a brothel. They think it’s a daughter of one of the prostitutes.”
The ghost that Alexandra felt was not Lena. But that feeling of knowing something else was there made her think about why people make art.
“We think about art and the purpose of art, which is to ask difficult questions. But it’s also to connect us to things that we see and don’t see.
“Most artworks and most meaning actually is about time travel. When we talk about what is a ghost?—it can be a literal presence of a particular spirit. But I also think, at a different level, we’re talking about meanings traveling over time. Who knows what an object’s meaning will be in 100 years? We can’t control that.
“I function in this day and age as an artist, but I understand that an object I make might have a completely different effect 20, 40, 50 years from now. I think that the stone shows that. It functioned as a tombstone, then a piece of folk art, then it returned to being a tombstone. This thing that is a static object—the meaning of it switched as the audience shifted.
“I would say that I’m not sensitive to all objects or all people. But certainly if there’s a connection, I can easily read the story of a person.”
After her experience at the Occidental Hotel, and the connection she felt with Lena’s tombstone, I had to ask— “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I think it’s not a nuanced enough word for the kinds of experiences one has. Do I perceive things that other people haven’t seen? I think so, absolutely! Do I think that there are ghosts, in terms of the presence of ancestors and spirits? I do. I don’t see this kind of belief as any different from philosophical belief of parallel universes or how perception works.
“As I’ve become an adult, I’m less interested in being very specific. Less about the words and more about how we impact each other. How do we, through ideas, symbols, energy, touch each other’s lives? For me, it’s the quality of that that is the most important question. Is there a way to live through storytelling, through symbolic creation, where you can impact people in a way that can better their lives?
“I am very interested in how the idea of the ghost functions. That ties back to the possibility that we as artists can function in a ghost-like manner, which is to remind people of things that are not there.
“I want to live like a ghost. I want to be light in touch, but really here for a specific purpose. In a way, the ghost is me. Right?”
Some quotes condensed for clarity.