By Ruth Ellen Gruber
I just came across this fascinating article, about the process of creating a gravestone memorial, on a public radio station in San Francisco — How do you Capture a Life in Stone? Blending Artistry and Culture to Honor the Dead.
The author, Melanie Young, speaks with gravestone carvers who work today in the area — including one immigrant from the former Soviet Union, who explains the technique used there, which includes detailed etched portraits of the deceased and other sculptural forms.
Leon Radar opened Art in Stone in the 80s during a wave of Russian immigration. His son, Michael, immigrated with the family and he explains, “The Russian Jewish community, they’re accustomed to what they saw back in their homeland and they didn’t have anybody to manufacture it for them.”
Leon Radar learned his craft in the Soviet Union. “I came to work with artist when I was 14 years old. Step by step I learned. Working, working, drawing, drawing.”
Through his training, Radar mastered the very distinctive Russian style. If you go to the Russian section of the Jewish cemetery, it feels a little like you’ve entered a fairytale. Huge, granite sculptures rise up to represent the dead. They cover the entire grave and reach as high as 16 feet. Some take the form of a loved one’s passion, such as a life-size guitar or grand piano for a musician, or a winding strip of film for a photographer.
For many years, Radar also hand-etched images into granite. Much like creating a tattoo, he would use a needle and etch in each dot. He created vivid images. The work was slow and painstaking. But he says he didn’t mind.
“Oh I love it,” says Leon Radar. “When I work I don’t need food, I don’t need water, I don’t need anything, I am fully in this work.”
Today, Leon Radar’s son, Michael, says computers have changed all that.
“We have a different technique now. It’s also etched in stone but it’s half computerized half sand blasted,” Michael Radar explains.
In a way, the process transforms granite into a photographer’s lens. Families can design much more intricate and realistic imagery for their loved ones. Michael Radar points to an example of the work.