Steve Zirwes’ made Sitting Bull artwork with a gravestone rubbing and bull’s skull.
BY JESSICA STEELEY
Clarkston News Staff Writer
Getting off a boat at Martha’s Vineyard, Steve Zirwes sees the line, “A mission from God.”
The sighting happens en route to John Belushi’s grave, located at a cemetery on the other side of the island. Zirwes and a friend immediately head over to rent a car, having only about an hour until the next boat leaves. Upon arrival at the graveyard, Zirwes hops out and begins a grave rubbing of Belushi’s headstone.
“Alright, let’s do this,” he says. However, he doesn’t get far before hearing a voice from across the way. He looks to see a man running toward him, yelling.
“Hey, what are you doing? I just called the cops!”
“Oh, man,” Zirwes says to himself, furiously rubbing, trying to finish the headstone. But with no time to wait around and talk to the police, he leaves with only a partial rubbing. Just as the friends pull away from the graveyard, they see a police car pull up in the rearview mirror.
Back at the car rental, Zirwes tells the kid working the counter about grave rubbings.
“If you go there and get me some headstone rubbings in your downtime, I’ll make you one of these paintings,” Zirwes says to the kid, referring to his art style.
They shake hands, he gives the kid his address and books it back to the boat, on his way to Boston to visit the graves of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.
“A couple weeks later he sent me a couple headstone rubbings. His name’s Robert, still lives on Martha’s Vineyard and he’s got one of my paintings hanging up,” Zirwes said over coffee several years later.
Zirwes is a full-time construction worker, part-time artist, who grew up in Clarkston and graduated in 1998. He has a couple odd stories like that from his headstone rubbing endeavours.
Gravestone rubbing is Zirwes’ predominant style of art. He describes it as putting a piece of parchment paper over a headstone and using charcoal to rub the engraving onto the paper. He then incorporates the rubbing into a piece of art of the deceased person.
Many times he does paintings, but some of the rubbings are just in frames, waiting for their artwork.
Zirwes originally discovered his art style when he went to visit a friend in Seattle. The two went to visit Jimi Hendrix’s grave, which is where he first saw a headstone rubbing. They offered him an extra piece of paper and he jumped on the chance.
“I was like ‘yes, this is awesome, this is amazing.’ I did the headstone rubbing and I framed it and hung it on the wall,” Zirwes said. “Then, just chilling on the couch one day looking at it, I was thinking about doing a painting and I was like ‘man, I should make something with that,’ and then I came up with the idea of combining them.”
Besides just the artwork, Zirwes also constructs the frames and even found a bull skull for his Sitting Bull piece. His artwork has been featured in restaurants and galleries in Detroit, Ypsilanti and Cleveland. He also does art shows and street fairs, at which he’s sold some of his pieces.
“You find that one fan, they have all this memorabilia, but I create something they don’t have you don’t see on the shelves or anything like that,” Zirwes said.
Every vacation he takes, Zirwes figures out who is buried around the area and does a gravestone rubbing.
“It’s just fun. It’s fun painting them. I don’t know what I like more, getting the headstones, cause it’s kind of like a treasure hunt,” Zirwes said. “You gotta find these little towns. Then, you gotta find the cemetery. Then, you gotta find the plot and then you’re like ‘Yay, I found it.’”
He’s done grave rubbings for a range of famous and historical figures, from Marilyn Monroe to Detroit gangsters to Malcolm X.
Zirwes said Muhammed Ali and Jimi Hendrix are among his favorite rubbings.
“Another one of my passions is history, too. I like learning about these people,” Zirwes said.
“While I’m painting I’ll watch a documentary. When I’m not painting read a book about them and just kind of learn about these people and go from there, so I’ve mixed my two passions.”