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Sculptor, trustee disagree over brainchild of cemetery monument

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Updated: August 13, 2014 6:08AM



Three stairs climb up to the figure of a pigtailed little girl carved in granite, one arm around a smaller boy, the other cradling a photograph of two faces.

Three tall columns flank each side.

Each step bears a single word: “Honor,” “dignity,” and “respect.”

This monument now greets all who enter the historic Burr Oak Cemetery, five years after a terrible grave reselling scandal alleged that plots in which black families had buried their loved ones were disinterred for profit, landing the cemetery manager in prison. It sits by the front gate near 127th Street and Kostner Avenue near Alsip and will be formally unveiled next month.

The carved stone, meant to symbolize a peaceful place of final rest for those whose graves were disturbed and to comfort the living relatives who couldn’t find loved ones, is now fraught with unrest over who designed it.

The sculptor, who was engaged in the project but never signed a contract, said he feels jilted. Born in Odessa when it was in the Soviet Union, granite sculptor Viktor Bougaev fears he was hired to do the heavy drawing so a cheaper company could swoop in and execute his work.

Bougaev said he was never paid.

“I didn’t think anybody would dare to do this,” said the artist known professionally as “Viktor,” who showed the Sun-Times his drawings at the monument this week.

The trustee, who is court-appointed to run the cemetery, denies Bougaev designed the monument. Former judge and federal prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said she was going to hire him to carve her ideas into the granite, but chose another company after he wanted too much money.

“This is Burr Oak money and I’m going to defend it,” Holmes told the Sun-Times by telephone from San Diego.

The two agree Bougaev is a talented sculptor.

They also agree Holmes came up with the three words — Honor, dignity, respect.

Anything else is about the monument is up for grabs.

Burr Oak Cemetery needed a memorial, it was decided in the wake of the 2009 criminal charges, to honor the hundreds of people whose graves had been disturbed for profit — or couldn’t be located. Bougaev, of Palos Heights, said he was approached in August that year as a possible artist for the monument.

Eventually, Holmes’ architectural designer, Michael Johnson, said he tapered the columns Egyptian-style and added curves to the base. When Holmes wanted figures in the middle, he sketched his own daughter and son from when they were little.

When Bougaev drew the plans and priced out materials — he wanted more than $120,000.

Holmes capped the price at $125,000, according to an Oct. 5, 2012 email Bougaev provided to the Sun-Times.

He fired off emails to Holmes, seeking credit, an invitation to the unveiling, a chance to talk about compensation for what he said he contributed to the project. She responded asking for proof the design was his. Bougaev is considering a lawsuit but would settle for an apology or for an acknowledgement of his work. “She deeply offended me.”

Email: lfitzpatrick@suntimes.com

Twitter: @bylaurenfitz



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