Taking Lena Home
A film by Alexandra Grant and edited by Amelia Peterson
In the fall of 2011, Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant discovered that an antique tombstone she had collected as a piece of folk art in Wyoming had in fact been stolen from Polk County, Nebraska, a rural farming community just over 80 miles west of Omaha. Interested in placing it in a collection or museum, but unsure how to go about it, Alexandra put it for sale on EBay, hoping the right person would find her. She was surprised by the Sheriff’s Department of Polk County, who notified her that the white marble stone, belonging to Lena Davis, aged 8 months, had been stolen from the Pleasant Home Cemetery in 1945 and was the county’s oldest unsolved crime. Curious to meet Lena’s family and see the landscape in which the stone belonged, Alexandra set off from Los Angeles for Nebraska with three video cameras to give back Lena’s stone. “Taking Lena Home” documents Alexandra’s trip to Polk County to return the stone, “a magical object,” and her relationships to the people connected to it. The documentary is filled with humor — as Alexandra learns that selling stolen goods on EBay is considered a felony — and pathos, as community members reflect on the difficult lives homesteaders lived on the plains in the 19th century. “Taking Lena Home” is a meditation on the role that an artist — and an outsider — can play in a small community with a singular gesture and the responsibility that entails.
To rent or purchase on Reelhouse:
Black Hills Film Festival, May 4-7, 2016. www.blackhillsfilmfestival.org/#!films/c1747
Doc Sunback Film Festival, Mulvane, KS, June 26, 2016. www.docsunbackfilmfest.com/this-year-s-schedule.html
Film Streams, Omaha, NE. August 16, 2016. www.filmstreams.org/film/taking-lena-home/
Casey Logan, “Baby girl’s missing headstone returned to Nebraska, 70 years later,” Omaha World-Herald, August 24, 2015. http://www.omaha.com/living/baby-girl-s-missing-headstone-returned-to-nebraska-years-later/article_a8a9b7da-d1ce-51cd-93bd-18219e54216a.html?mode=story
Catharine Crane, “Stolen Tombstone Returns to Polk 60 Years Later,” 10/11 News (Lincoln, NE), November 23, 2011.
Rachael Ruybalid, “Tombstone comes home from California,” York News Times, November 23, 2011.
Image: Lena Davis Tombstone rubbing, 2011, lithograph on paper, collection of the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Notes on the Lena Davis project:
In 2000, on a road-trip across the United States, I purchased a tombstone from 1880 in an antique consignment store in eastern Wyoming. It wasn’t an impulse purchase — it took three trips to the antique store and some convincing by the store owner for me to buy my first antique and collected artwork. I was told that the stone — of a little girl named Lena Davis, aged eight months — was from a local ranch that was being developed and the stone was desacralyzed. Only in retrospect do I realize that I didn’t quite buy into the story. And just seeing the stone so out of place in the store made me want to take care of it.
For many years the tombstone lived in my home, but then took up a more permanent residence in my art studio. In 2011, I moved studios and knew it was time to find a permanent place for the tombstone. I thought it should end up in a collection or museum dedicated to the American West. Not sure how to find such a collection, I decided that someone would find me if I posted it for sale on Ebay.
At the same time, Julie Middendorf, an amateur genealogist based in Nebraska, read an article about another 130 year-old tombstone located at a yard sale in Florida. “I wondered if there were other tombstones out there for sale.” And so Julie looked online, and encountered my listing within 24 hours of it being posted on Ebay. Julie first looked for genealogical records in eastern Wyoming, but nothing matched up. On a hunch, she began researching online databases in Nebraska. Through census records and on Ancestry.com, Julie found a match. Julie’s husband urged her to contact the local sheriff’s office. Sure enough, the theft of Lena Davis’s tombstone in 1945 from the Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Polk, Nebraska, was the county’s oldest unsolved crime.
I was contacted by both Julie and Deputy Sheriff Bob Carey, who used Ebay sobriquets. You can only imagine my surprise when I called Bob, aka “XXXXXXXXX” and he answered the phone “Sheriff’s Office.” But I was even more surprised to learn that the tombstone was from somewhere and was so pleased that I could return it. More surprising, still, is that Lena Davis, deceased in 1880, has a living first cousin, Chuck Doremus.
I decided to drive the tombstone back to Polk County myself, stopping en route in Colorado Springs, CO, to meet Chuck Doremus and his wife Marion. When I explained that I was an artist, and that by shining a light on this gesture, of returning the tombstone to Polk, I could draw attention to it, I asked Chuck what his expectations were. He said that he spends a few weeks in Polk every summer, and takes care of the cemetery, trimming branches, placing flags. He asked me: “Who will take care of the cemetery after I go?” And he described it as an outdoor museum of local history. Chuck’s description gave me a special purpose.
Taking Lena Home documents the discovery of the tombstone’s provenance and its return to Nebraska in November, 2011, as well as the celebration and benediction of the tombstone organized by the Polk County Historical Society in July, 2012. I used the documentary process as a way to reflect on the importance of small gestures (like the return a stolen object) as works of art in themselves. The film is an opportunity to explore ancestry and family history, reflect on early immigrant experience to the American West, and the role historical artifacts have in connecting us to greater narratives. And to have fun with it, too. This is an extraordinary series of coincidences happening to me and a small community. I think we’ve all learned something new from it. Like the fact that I got out of a speeding ticket because I had a tombstone in the car. – Alexandra Grant