The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cool Thesis of the Week: Transforming Russian Graves into Artists’ Books

“Samizdat,” a portmanteau literally meaning “self-published” that was applied to carbon-copies of censored materials that dissidents made and circulated in the Soviet-era. 

Cemeteries spark a morbid curiosity in many people and move us to ponder the lives of the dead. Tombstones reveal limited information about the deceased, which leads us to wonder – how much of our identities can we leave behind after we die?

Such curiosity was the starting point of Rose Lewis’s ’13 interdisciplinary Russian-Art thesis on Russian graveyards. Lewis, who is working on her thesis with Russian Professor Alyson Tapp and Art Professor Geraldine Ondrizek, became interested in cemeteries when she studied in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2011. While wandering through a graveyard near her apartment building, she noticed that many of the tombstones were engraved with photos. “Some would be portraits of the dead. And others would be generic pictures of stuff they were interested in–like, if this person was interested in soccer, there would be a big soccer ball engraving on it. It was almost like clip art,” Lewis explains.

From there, Lewis was awarded a grant from the Russian Department to study Russian gravestones in cemeteries up and down the West Coast. Her extensive research culminated in her thesis. The project will have a Russian literary element, exploring how popular Russian literature has dealt with graveyards in the past, as well as an art history element that explores Russian book art.

Lewis’s thesis will take the form of a series of books, which she hopes to bind with red leather and turn into a kind of “gift set, like the ones a lot of Russians like to keep in their houses.” The content of the books, however, will be varied. Each of the six volumes will contain photographs and research on a different West Coast cemetery, all of which have large Russian burial grounds.

The cemeteries, including Lone Fir in Portland and Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, each have a distinct style that Lewis hopes to communicate in her writing and art. For example, the book on Lone Fir will actually be a box containing pressed flowers, while another will be typed with a Cyrillic typewriter in order to look like a “samizdat,” a portmanteau literally meaning “self-published” that was applied to carbon-copies of censored materials that dissidents made and circulated in the Soviet-era.

Lewis emphasizes the importance of the format: Each of the six volumes will be outwardly similar yet drastically different on the inside to reflect the nature of the Russian gravestones themselves. “Gravestones that are about different people are in the same format,” Lewis says, “so externally the books look all the same–but internally, they all have very different content.”


Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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