Stele: “a usually carved or inscribed stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary

My life-partner’s father, Howard Frederick Eggert, died suddenly in midsummer, 2002, six weeks after his 80th birthday. Outside the funeral chapel, a volley of rifle shots honored his service in the Pacific during World War II - harsh reports that seemed to “burn right through me”, as I wrote in my journal a few days later. My first sketch for “Stele” had already emerged, full-grown, even titled, most of its parts in place: a tall thin vertical glimpse of a stone wall, as if seen through a gap in a fortification, with an off-center partially visible niche at the top containing a semi-transparent bottle, a richly-hued (in my mind’s eye) piece of ripe fruit, and the rifle shell that had been handed to me after the funeral. It was that bit of cold metal hitting my palm, not the shots themselves, that seemed to have precipitated a new image out of me.

I had other work to do before I put “Stele” on the board, and adjustments to that first sketch would follow, but the core elements of the initial idea were a constant source of excitement in my mind for almost two years. The 1:1.618 ratio ultimately determined all the shapes the composition created out of the wall’s building blocks, one “golden rectangle” stacked on top of another, the two small rectangles to the left of the niche readable as a monogram for HFE. (That same monogram is also deeply etched, though on a much smaller scale, in the wall below.) Over time, the niche itself enlarged, its left side moving to compositional center, and its original contents expanded - the delicate crisp seed pod of a “Japanese lantern” offsetting the rigidly vertical metal shell casing, and, mysteriously tucked in the shadowy back of the niche, an antique iron padlock, a reminder of a quiet and stable reserve that strengthened all of Howard’s relationships. When I began to make full-size preliminary drawings in January, 2004, the overall proportions of the image also needed to change, becoming slightly less attenuated and gaining through compression the unity of impact I tend to aim for.

At the beginning, even when the first thumbnail hit the margin around my description of the days following his death, I had no conscious intention of creating an aniconic portrait of Howard. The image simply came to me, whole and on its own, and it already contained - I did not add them - elements that had everything to do with him and his loss: the shell, the monogram, the title, the stele-like format itself. I can only suppose that my unconscious mind knew exactly where it was going before I (conscious I) could catch up with it, but once I did catch up with it I felt eager to make the connections richer, more personal, though not - to the casual observer - more obvious. Barely discernible graffiti on the wall’s surface include a sailboat, a dog, a map of Wisconsin (a star on the map for Milwaukee, Howard’s lifelong home), a house, a Masonic symbol, a penknife, a heart surrounding the letters HE+CH - all of these “figurals” charting Howard’s life and instantly recognizable to his family. But to be perfectly candid, my ideal viewer is someone who could not have known HFE at all, who might linger in front of this image, this private memorial, the way I lingered in front of ancient Greek steles in Athens’ National Museum, all that’s past irremediably distant, all that’s left a commemoration of love itself, a monument to the act of memory. I felt, there, what James Boswell might have felt when he wrote, with diaristic concision, “Among the tombstones was solemn and happy.”

-G. Daniel Massad

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