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MEMPHIS — Secreted in a cemetery in Memphis is a meditative work of 1930s folk art, a man-made cave created from five tons of quartz crystal and a unique process of turning concrete to wood.
Well, not that exact wooden alchemy, but the cave’s creator, Mexican-born artist Dionicio Rodríguez, is said to have been so protective of his specialized techniques for making concrete look like wood — known as faux bois — that he destroyed the containers for his materials after mixing paint and stains in the back of his car. And there is a strange realism to the concrete forms, with their whorled texture that, if not for the cold feel of concrete, you might mistake for a natural material.
The entrance to the Crystal Shrine Grotto at Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis is right at the center of the burial ground, oddly just across the street from the final resting places of such disparate Memphis music icons as Jay Reatard and Isaac Hayes. I visited the structure, which, according to the cemetery’s website, is “the only man-made crystal cave in the world,” this past weekend. I had no idea what to expect, only knowing that it was an offbeat site of religious folk art and tapped into my ongoing fascination with the art of cemeteries. Yet unlike most cemetery art, this is no one’s grave or memorial, but just a place of peace, a sort of underground chapel where you’re just asked to think.
The experience is alternately transporting and peculiar, from the pond, or “Pool of Hebron” as it is biblically anointed, with its unnaturally dyed blue water against an eerie recording of harp music, to walking through a twisting and tall “Abraham’s Oak” concrete tree, to entering into the cave where the crystals glitter in a way that seems otherworldly. According to Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodríguez by Patsy Pittman Light, this is actually a clever trick that Rodríguez employed by cutting holes into the ceiling before installing the crystals so sunlight would gleam in through the stones.
Rodríguez built the Crystal Shrine Grotto in the 1930s, one of the several sculptures he constructed as a commission to beautify the cemetery grounds. He was active with these types of concrete-based art structures in Arkansas and Texas from before Memphis through to his death in 1955.
The Depression-era cave is carved 59 feet into a hill, the crystals sourced from the Diamond Cave in Jasper, Arkansas, along with bits of Arkansas fieldstone. Inside there are ten scenes from the life of Christ, some with painted backdrops by Rodríguez, some made from plaster in the 1930s by Marie Craig while newer wood work by David Day from the 1970s has an odd use of lucite over the faces of Jesus and his Apostles. But the musical recording can barely be heard and, aside from what looks like a Super 8 camera mounted on the wall (which surely isn’t operating, unless someone is actually putting film into it and going to the eccentric trouble of developing it for security purposes), you feel alone in a sweeping stillness.
The Crystal Shrine Grotto has been on the National Register of Historic Places for Tennessee since 1991, but it remains something of a clandestine cave, far behind the shrine of celebrity at Graceland, Memphis’ main attraction. It’s definitely a work of folk art that can verge more on the whimsical than the contemplative when you wander the grounds outside the cave, where a giant alligator head lurks in the luridly-colored pond and a “Cave of Machpelah” meant to represent the storied resting place of Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs is structured like a rather nondescript mausoleum, yet there is some arresting feel to being in the cave, where the 1930s-inflected folk art architecture suddenly feels very present.
The Crystal Shrine Grotto is located at the Memorial Park Cemetery (5668 Poplar Avenue, Memphis).