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Bookends of a life: Elmo Johnson Sr. as Navy seaman and railroad worker.
Bookends of a life: Elmo Johnson Sr. as Navy seaman and railroad worker.

Folk Art Headstones of Hoisington

Field review by the editors.

Hoisington, Kansas

From the street, Hoisington City Cemetery looks like a lot of other Kansas graveyards: small, square, flat. But nestled among the traditional headstones are more than a dozen colorful cement creations of Hoisington native Phil Webb.

Camera-shy Phil Webb at work in his garage studio.
Camera-shy Phil Webb at work in his garage studio.

They mark the graves of mostly random people who may have been poor, or simply alone, and died without a monument. Phil felt that each of them deserved one.

"I've always had an interest in history," Phil told us. "And with an interest in history you naturally go to cemeteries and read headstones and think about the people."

On one trip -- Phil said it was around 2007 -- he noticed a small metal plaque on the otherwise barren plot of Creola Paxton, dead for 60 years.

"I thought the name was interesting, so I thought she needed a headstone," Phil said. He asked around town and found one elderly man who recalled Creola. "He said, 'I really don't remember much about her, but I know she loved to sew.'"

Grasping this slender memory thread, Phil planned to place a small, typical, granite slab on Creola's grave with She Loved To Sew as its epitaph.

But then he began thinking about his hobby of crafting cement garden sculptures and yard art. "And I said, 'Hey, I should try making a headstone with cement. See what I end up with.'" The resulting monument -- a pink cross with a needle and thread -- was not polished art, but it was personal and unique, and Phil liked it. He placed it on Creola's grave.

Infant Ida Mae Richardson, cradled in the arms of an angel.
Infant Ida Mae Richardson, cradled in the arms of an angel.

"Everything about it I just kind of enjoyed," Phil said. "So I thought, 'Well, I'll look for another one that's not marked.' And it went from there."

Rockin' headstone is made of cement.
Rockin' headstone is made of cement.

It was guerrilla graveyard art at first. Phil didn't ask permission, he simply found unmarked graves, then found out something about the people buried in them, and made their one-of-a-kind headstones.

"I didn't think I was doing anything disruptive," Phil said. "Then one morning I was working on a headstone in my garage with the door open, and a guy who works for the city drove by, and he stopped, and backed up, and pulled into the driveway, and said, 'We were wondering who was putting those out in the cemetery.'

"And then he said, 'We really like them.'"

Phil is humble about his art, and cement is heavy, so his grave monuments tend to be small. Their designs have grown more detailed over the years, and now include humans and other figures. "I build them using metal rod with chicken wire to make the form, then cement it over," Phil said. Whatever difficulties he encounters are usually with his execution of an idea rather than with the idea itself. "My art is rough and crude, but sometimes it's really rough and crude." Do-overs and background research -- and the fact that Phil has a full-time non-art job -- slow the process. Sometimes a single headstone can take years to complete.

As with Creola, Phil tries to find something monument-worthy about each person. That can be difficult, as some of Phil's intended recipients have been dead for decades and have no known family.

Neal Williams and the airplane in which he was shot down.
Neal Williams and the airplane in which he was shot down.

"Neal Williams," said Phil, "was in a B-17 shot down in World War II and was a POW for a year. So I carved the medals he was awarded in the base of his gravestone." Elmo Johnson Sr. was another World War II vet and a railroad worker. "I just took those pieces of his life and made a headstone out of that."

Lela Baily was a real cipher. "The only thing I found was a little notice that said she had been preceded in death by her husband," said Phil. So he sculpted her at the bottom of a staircase leading to the clouds, with her husband standing at the top holding a bouquet of roses.

Recent burials have also been given gravestones by Phil. "Roy Lane was a guy that I actually knew," Phil said. "He had a rough life as far as people go, and I was sure he didn't have anybody to give him a headstone. So I just made him one right off the bat." With the epitaph A Friend to Animals, it features a bearded Roy with a dog by his side and a cat in his lap. "He always had pet dogs and cats."

Lela Baily's husband awaits her in heaven.
Lela Baily's husband awaits her in heaven.

Phil's monuments are unexpectedly whimsical (and colorful) for a graveyard, which echoes his belief that everyone has something good worth remembering. "Even though it's a cemetery I always try to give my gravestones a snippet of a life," he said. He doesn't want people to think about Phil Webb; he wants them to think about the person on the monument, if only briefly and belatedly.

Phil said that when he reaches retirement age, he hopes to use some of that free time to boost his Hoisington City Cemetery output.

We wondered about Phil's plan for his own gravestone, and suggested that he make a monument of himself making his own monument. To our surprise he actually liked the idea -- but added that he was in no hurry. "I do plan to build my own monument," he said, "but I tell people I don't plan to start until I turn 100."

Folk Art Headstones of Hoisington

Hoisington City Cemetery

415 E. 9th St., Hoisington, KS
Hoisington City Cemetery is on the east edge of town. The entrance is off of N. Cedar St., just south of Hwy 4/E. 9th St. It's a small, flat, treeless cemetery. There's a group of Phil's headstones way in the back, on the north side, and another group toward the front, also on the north side.
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