Just off of Suitland Road, crossing into Maryland from Southeast D.C., a gentle-looking bridge leaps from a lawn to a small island in the center of a pond.
The structure looks like it’s made of wood, but on closer inspection, you can see rebar poking through the deteriorating finish. If the bridge were to disappear from the landscape, it’s hard to imagine many would notice.
A sign nearby reads The Bridge of Life and credits an artist named Dionicio Rodriguez. His work dots the cemetery, from an austere Celtic cross to what at first looks like the throne of an ancient Scottish monarch. Rodriguez’s name—and the French technique he uses, faux bois—could’ve easily been lost to history. Only one book, Patsy Pittman Light’s Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez, published in 2008, has documented them, and it focuses mostly on Rodriguez’s work in the San Antonio and Memphis areas.
Cedar Hill Cemetery may be the only East Coast home of Rodriguez’ unique, often haunting concrete sculptures. He emigrated from Mexico sometime during the 1920s, bringing with him the technique he called trabajo rústico (rustic work)—applying a mixture of chemicals and dyes to concrete to create a finish resembling wood. According to Pittman Light’s book, during a 1990 interview, a retired Cedar Hill employee recalled that the artist worked inside a tent to guard his process from prying eyes. Rodriguez died in 1955, and his work—sculptures that often seem both Gothic and naturalistic, employing and blending into their settings—can still be seen in Texas, Tennessee, New Mexico, and France.
Pittman Light’s book gives brief mention to the works at Cedar Hill Cemetery. But where many of Rodriguez’s sculptures rest in locations preserved in the National Historic Register of Historic Places, his Cedar Hill works are barely known. Most of them are not visible from the road: Instead only mourners and caretakers encounter them, sprinkled amid Cedar Hill’s paths and burial plots.
Some of Rodriguez’s works can inspire reflection, especially in those whose loved ones are buried in view of the Celtic-looking Annie Laurie Wishing Chair and the Broken Tree Bench. Further back on the grounds are another bridge over a marsh-like pond and Abraham’s Oak, which looks like a hollowed-out tree carcass. Like many of Rodriguez’s works at Cedar Hill, the tree is slowly coming undone. The chalky graffiti that lines its inside puts its decay in even sharper focus.
The mystery surrounding Rodriguez’s works at Cedar Hill unravels once you learn of Lovell Minear. According to his obituary in the Washington Post in 1981, he was owner of the Fort Lincoln Cemetery and managed Cedar Hill in the 1930s. As a former president of the National Cemetery Association, Minear knew a fellow cemetery owner by the name of E. Clovis Hinds. It was Hinds who had originally hired Rodriguez to create works of art to beautify the cemetery grounds he owned in Texas as well as some area lands; on Hinds’ recommendation, Rodriguez ended up doing the work in Suitland.
Rodriguez’s sculptures have eased into a sort of dignified obscurity: With little acclaim, they comfort the bereaved. For them to receive any wider recognition, then, came as a surprise to Manuella Vargas Theall, Rodriguez’s niece who died in 2008 and who traveled with him to the D.C. area while he worked on Cedar Hill in 1936. “I never thought his work would be recognized like this,” she said of Light’s book—Light even discussed it on The Martha Stewart Show.
Minear’s daughter Belle Absher, who was a child in the 1930s, remembers Rodriguez’s concealing tent and the “buckets of goo” the artist worked with. At the time, she says, Cedar Hill was “the cemetery of its day;” she used to play on the bridge as swans swam beneath it and observe the pheasants caged behind the Broken Tree Bench. That was the vogue among cemetery owners of the time—to make these places as lovely for the living as for the deceased.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery.