At the end of August, the city of Detroit staged Detroit Memorial Day. Hundreds of blown-up photos of Detroiters who had died of COVID lined the streets of Belle Isle. Church bells rang. Fourteen funeral processions led by hearses made the circuit.
Seeing images on Twitter, I gasped in relief. Somebody was acknowledging the mass casualties. Someone was making a space to mourn.
Three months and roughly 100,000 deaths later, there still aren’t many COVID memorial projects. Neither Boston nor Cambridge has announced plans for one.
Of course, truly public art — underwritten by governments — can move at a glacial pace. And maybe we need to get on the other side of the pandemic.
“It’s not in the rearview mirror. It’s hitting the windshield, and we have the wipers on,” said artist Diana Weymar, whose “Tiny Pricks Project” (@TinyPricksProject) invites crafters to capture the words of Donald Trump in needlework.
The pandemic has flooded “Tiny Pricks.”
“Every single post can’t help but be about the pandemic,” Weymar said. “In this political realm, the pandemic touches everything.”
But contending with COVID’s impact isn’t precisely the same as mourning the lost.
“One of the cruelties of COVID is it forbids the memorialization of its victims in real time,” said James E. Young, founding director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a self-described memorialist.
“To commemorate the victims is to turn others into victims,” he said.
But it’s not just the contagion. It’s a White House in active denial, and a president who has politicized an epic disaster.
Some artists can’t help but act. In May, as New York was pulling out of its early siege with the disease, artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada had a conversation with philanthropist Henry R. Munoz III, cofounder of the health care network SOMOS Community Care.
“I said, there’s no major altars, nothing happening to make a place to heal, no images on any grand scale,” Rodriguez-Gerada said over the phone from Barcelona, where he lives part time. “He said, ‘Let’s change that.’ ”
The artist, underwritten in part by SOMOS Community Care, created “Somos La Luz” (Spanish for “We Are Light”), a 27,500-square-foot mural in a Queens parking lot depicting a doctor in a face mask. Only his eyes are visible; they are those of Dr. Ydelfonso Decoo, a pediatrician who died of COVID.
“His wife told me he was going to retire. He was a successful man. He didn’t have to go back to the front lines,” Rodriguez-Gerada said. “It cost him his life.”
Depicting a Latino was important to the Cuban-American artist because of the disproportionate number of Black and brown people who have died.
“It will affect you more if you can’t stay home,” he said of the disease. “The immigrant population has borne the brunt of that terrible hardship. We should be giving thanks to them instead of calling ICE.”
“Somos La Luz” was temporary. The parking lot has been painted over. The artist was ready to do more, but he didn’t find funding.
“It was just crickets,” he said. “Nobody was willing to take the next step.”
The mural lives on online. Rodriguez-Gerada said he intends to update his YouTube video as the death toll rises.
Other artists have created temporary works they paid for out of pocket and powered with volunteers. “In America, How Could This Happen…,” Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s installation of small white flags enumerating the dead, closed on Nov. 30 after six weeks on — and spilling beyond — the Armory Parade Ground in Washington, D.C.
“I created it out of outrage,” said Firstenberg over the phone from Bethesda, Md. “Remember early March, when the lieutenant governor of Texas said that elderly people should take one for the team? I was a hospice volunteer for 25 years. Everybody’s life has meaning.”
In August, she saw a headline calling the death toll a statistic and decided that she could not let that stand. “I’d do art to teach people just what these big numbers are,” she said.
After the initial installation, she and a team of volunteers added flags each day to keep up with the rising tide of the dead. Visitors wrote names and dates of the lost on the flags.
“People bring their emotions, the names of their loved ones for public recognition because the deaths are happening in a vacuum,” Firstenberg said.
But it isn’t simply grief these artists are grappling with. It’s fury at the inaction of the Trump administration. Young, the memorialist, said there’s more than COVID’s cruelty to grapple with ahead.
“Eventually, there will be memorials,” he said. “But this was a pandemic that became politicized immediately in a horrible way, and that’s what we’ll remember along with the victims.”
He sees hope in President-elect Joe Biden. “He’s a fantastic designated mourner for all of us,” Young said. “He gets it completely.”
In November, Young reached out to Los Angeles artist Karla Funderburk, hoping to help her find sites to show her installation “Honoring Matter: A Memorial for Victims of COVID 19.”
She, too, created it out of a compulsion to act.
“I couldn’t not do something, watching the news and hearing the numbers tick over,” she said. Back in May, she started folding origami cranes to honor the dead. She quickly realized it would take decades to fold so many cranes by herself, and enlisted help online. People dropped off cranes in a box she put outside Matter Studio Gallery, where she is founder and director. They mailed them from as far away as Japan and Dubai.
“First there were 10, then 300 or 600 at a time,” Funderburk said. She created an installation in the gallery, suspending strings of cranes that drifted in the breeze.
“I had just shy of 8,000 when I broke it down,” she said of the installation. “It felt like the full volume of spirits we were losing, casting shadow on top of shadow.”
Now she has 30,000 cranes, and she’s looking for another home for the project. “Museums, galleries, storefronts, universities,” she said. “They’re all encouraging, but nobody is willing to hand me a key.”
Political division, said Rodriguez-Gerada, prompts institutional caution.
“Everybody’s in fear right now. Nobody wants to get their head chopped off,” he said.
Firstenberg sees her installation of white flags as a possibility for an awakening.
“I want this to be an opportunity for Americans to come out of their foxholes. To look and be shocked together into a different relationship with the pandemic,” she said. “It has to be a pivot point in how we consider ourselves as Americans.”
Think of the processions driving by images of the fallen in Detroit and bells tolling to mark the 1,500 dead there. Memorials help us integrate loss into our lives. Private or public, they are necessary for healing. COVID’s insidious threat is, in a way, a metaphor for the president’s denialism. It hems us in like a toxic fog and quashes action.
But grief is here and grieving is called for, or today’s trauma will, on some level, never end.