Brass Rubbings From Tomb Covers : Ancient Gravestone Images Resurrected as Art

Times Staff Writer

In a part of the city noted more for crime, poverty and drugs than the arts stands a small gallery--a sanctuary, in the word of its owner--where visitors can find refuge in the 16th Century.

Gregorian chants in the background greet the ear at the English Brass Rubbing Centre, while the eye finds the hulking, life-sized figures of medieval knights, ladies, friars and royalty.

The figures are brass etchings--reproductions of what were once tombstone covers for the rich and famous--that have taken on new life as an art form.

The art comes in rubbing the brasses--laying rag paper over the delicately etched figurines and sliding a small slab of powdered brass and hardened beeswax over the sheet, in much the same way children will rub a coin with pencil, until the figure emerges on paper.

Detailed Reproduction

After several rubbings the rag paper is burnished with a chamois cloth until it glistens. The result is an intricately detailed reproduction of the etching on paper which can then be framed.

It is a craft so simple that even the young and unskilled can master it, and so complex that some artisans devote their lives to it.

Gallery owner Paul Mattson is one of the latter. A recovered alcoholic--a gutter drunk, as he puts it--Mattson, 68, discovered rubbing as an art form during a trip to Spain in 1972, shortly after he achieved sobriety.

"It came to me in a dream--literally," he said. "I was in Spain wondering what I should do with my life. I'd lost everything when I was drunk--my real estate business, my family, everything.

Told to Rub

"Then one night I had this dream, so plain, that told me to rub--so I did. I had no idea then that it was an art form of any kind. I went out the next day and got paper and crayons, and rubbed any objects I could find. I wasn't even entirely sure why I was doing it."

From those improbable, vague beginnings Mattson rubbed his way from the great cathedrals of Europe to cemeteries in Ireland to the People's Republic of China, where stone rubbing is a time-honored art form.

A tall, broad-shouldered man with wild gray hair and a face as deeply etched as his brasses, Mattson attributes his continued sobriety as well as his current philosophy to his passion for rubbings.

"I believe in miracles," he said. "I've come to believe that within every human being is the need to create. It is their birthright to have creative experiences without fear of criticism or failure. This provides it."

Though visitors to the gallery at 803 S. Inglewood Ave. are infrequent at best--bookings are sometimes a month apart and the gallery operates by appointment only--Mattson said, "I'm where I'm supposed to be. I'm not saying I was saved from drunkenness to pursue this, but I feel this was meant to be.

Living a spare life bolstered by earnings from the gallery, Social Security and the income from a few rental properties, Mattson said it is "more than coincidental that a once hard-rock atheist found himself spending all his time in cathedrals and churches. I recognize it as a series of miracles that began with my sobriety. I couldn't account for it any other way."

His mission now, as he sees it, is to bring this gentle and ancient art to those he feels need non-competitive, creative experiences the most--the poor, the handicapped, and those who, like him, have fallen away from life's straight and narrow.

"I'd like to bring this to everyone, but showing recovered alcoholics and addicts that they can produce something of beauty when they thought all the beauty in life was gone for them; showing kids who have never been to a museum before that they can produce a work of art--that's something worth doing," he said, rheumy blue eyes shining as he points to stacks of thank-you letters from recovery centers and schools.

Knows No Better Way

"I live life very simply," he said. "It's obvious that this place isn't exactly a rousing success, but I feel I've got to account for myself. One way is that the world no longer has to take care of me. The other is that I share my faith, hope and experiences with others. I don't know any better way than this way."

The repetitious strokes of the brass heel-ball along the paper, together with the striking results, are inherently therapeutic, he said, displaying his craft by forcefully rubbing black rag-paper with a brass slab over the etching of a long-dead knight.

Almost instantly, the gleaming figure of Sir John de Creke emerged in spectacular detail--a fearsome sight in full chain-mail regalia, unsheathed sword at his side, shield on his arm, hands pressed together in supplication--evidence, Mattson said, of Sir John's desire to be sent to heaven rather than below.

Watching with satisfaction as the form emerged under his skilled hands, Mattson talked about the "energy" that he believes flows from artist to paper even in an uncomplicated art such as rubbing.

"Your energy is captured on paper," he said. "That's what makes this unique. Rubbing in total darkness in some cathedrals, as I did, I could feel the life force going from me to the paper. I had no idea what was coming out on paper, but you could feel the energy. That's what makes each one unique."

The brasses have been victims of time, the elements, thieves and anti-Catholic iconoclasts, and fewer than 10,000 of the originals exist today, down from about 500,000 when tombstone etching was at its peak, Mattson said. The more than 200 etchings in his gallery, he explained, are painstakingly hand-made reproductions of the survivors.

Like any connoisseur, Mattson sniffs disdainfully at what he considers a cheapening of his art.

"Oh, you see Thai prints taken from stones that sell (at discount stores) for 49 cents apiece, but they just splash paint over the stones themselves and stamp a picture from that," he said, a pained look crossing his face.

The true "wet method" of rubbing, popular in the Far East, is to take puffs of colored silk and methodically press them into the paper until the desired depth of color is achieved, he said.

The method is one of several that visitors can learn, he said, in addition to rubbing from brass or stone, rubbing in silver, gold or colors, with silk or with the traditional heel-balls.

"It really is quite addictive," he said.

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