collector showcases klondike headstones

Matt Willes lives in his van, and it's pretty crowded in there. He's got his bed, his clothes, his food and the spirits of about 50 deceased celebrities of all stripes, from Marilyn Monroe to Sitting Bull to Sam McGee.

Matt Willes lives in his van, and it’s pretty crowded in there.

He’s got his bed, his clothes, his food and the spirits of about 50 deceased celebrities of all stripes, from Marilyn Monroe to Sitting Bull to Sam McGee.

Over the past 16 years, Willes has travelled all over North America collecting impressions from the headstones of well-known people.

“Having these rubbings is a neat feeling,” says Willes. “It’s like I am driving down the road with Miles Davis, Billie Holliday and Marilyn Monroe – they’re all just in my van.”

For the past few years he has been concentrating on collecting images for his Klondike series, which Willes is displaying for the first time ever at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. On display are impressions from the headstones of Klondike King Joe Boyle, legendary Mountie Sam Steele, The Lost Patrol, and even Polly the infamous Carcross Parrot.

Willes’ collection began in 1994, when he found himself broke in Seattle, Washington.

He was staying at a backpackers’ hostel and a few friends took him along to visit Jimi Hendrix’s grave, but along the way they did something Willes found strange.

They stopped at an art supply store to buy paper and graphite, which they took to the grave to make a rubbing from Hendrix’s headstone.

After that day Willes was hooked.

His second rubbing was from Bruce Lee’s headstone, and today he has more than 50 images from graves all over North America.

Because Willes spent 18 years working as a vendor, selling everything from cotton candy to Christmas trees with a travelling circus, he had ample opportunity to travel.

He was able to track down many of the gravesites he had on his hit list, and to stumble across a few that he did not expect to find.

“I’ve had people throw the artist word around, but I am not really comfortable with it,” he says. “I am just copying things. I am a collector.”

His medium of choice is graphite on rice paper, and sometimes he uses coloured papers to give the images flair.

The act of creating the image can be quite a tedious process, taking between five and 15 minutes, depending on the size of the grave.

“The actual rubbing can be quite uncomfortable,” he says. “You’re stuck bent over in a strange position and once you start you can’t move the paper, otherwise you’re going to smudge the lettering.”

Whenever he does a rubbing, he leaves behind a token of appreciation.

“It could be a few pennies, it could be a lock of hair, in the case of Red Cloud (a Sioux leader who opposed the United States Army in the 1860s) I had a beaver skull from here in the Yukon and I took one of its teeth and I left that as a memento to Red Cloud for allowing me to rub his grave,” he says.

“As I was leaving I was driving across the Prairies and the sun was setting at my back and there was one red cloud in the sky. It gave me goosebumps.”

For Willes, collecting these images is about the journey to the rubbing, the experiences he has and the people he meets along the way.

“I was just sitting at Martha Black’s grave and I was thinking about her as a younger woman, crossing the Chilkoot, leaving her husband,” he says. “What an incredible story she has.”

But his presence in graveyards is not always well received.

Willes was half-way through Stevie Ray Vaughan’s headstone when the graveyard caretaker came along and threatened to rip up his paper if he kept rubbing.

“I tried to explain to him about my collection, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with that,” says Willes. “So I have a half-finished Stevie Ray Vaughan and I like it how it is, it’s part of the story.”

Next on his list are Elvis, Johnny Cash and Robert Service.

“Ultimately I’d like to have the finest collection in the world, and I think I’m well on my way,” he says.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail