French preservationists come back to Green-Wood

The gravestone of Brooklyn-born artist Jean Basquiat is one of five that glows in the sunlight, thanks to four French volunteers who focused on preservation and restoration in Green-Wood Cemetery at the end of July. For two of the three employees typically responsible for the 478 acres, it was not a typical scorching Thursday afternoon.

In their second week in New York City, the volunteers visited the Brooklyn Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art — visits Manager of Restoration and Preservation Neela Wickremesinghe said were meant to “show connections between people.”

Partnered for the 16th consecutive year with an exchange program, this year’s preservationists ranged between the ages of 18 and 53. This year’s theme was American painters who grew to fame in New York City, including Basquiat, Asher B. Durand, Eastman Johnson, George Bellows and William Merritt Chase.

“It gets to you a bit. I work on the gravestone, and I see the art,” said volunteer Victor Vivancos, 23. “Doing this is a mark of respect for people that preceded us, and I think it’s important to preserve our past in every aspect.”

Vivancos also shared that, of the entire experience, the most exciting part was getting to use a powerful hose.

“You appreciate the job more when you do it hands-on,” said staffer Felix Hernandez, watching the volunteers dunk their hands in a white water tank and grab a bristly brush. “This way you see that someone does care. And some of these gravestones from the 1800s don’t get any love until we get to ’em.”

The team of three which usually oversees the grounds is currently in the middle of three projects, having just spent two months restoring a mausoleum.

In fact, Wickremesinghe and her entourage said that they see death as “the great equalizer,” and have no problem caring for gravestones for people who may have had polar opposite opinions. “Death and taxes,” added Hernandez.

“The way they thought, it doesn’t change the respect I owe these people,” said Vivancos.

“I’m studying literature, so it’s not directly related,” said a 26-year-old volunteer named Anna. “This is fascinating, and it’s important to keep your heritage. It’s hard to choose which part of the trip has been my favorite.”

“It’s cool to see them help us out. It’s like a day off but not a day off,” said staffer Gus Pedilla, “and I want to pass it on. I’m not going to be here forever.”

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