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In Gloucester, a place to remember lost lives and ‘a year from hell’

The Cape Ann Museum COVID-19 Memorial opens Wednesday with an online ceremony. The public can then visit in person through Sunday.
The Cape Ann Museum COVID-19 Memorial opens Wednesday with an online ceremony. The public can then visit in person through Sunday.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

GLOUCESTER — This week, as dark falls over Gloucester, soft fragments of light will gently flutter upward over a wall at the Cape Ann Museum Green as if ascending to heaven. The light projection by LuminArtz is part of the Cape Ann Museum COVID-19 Memorial, which opens Wednesday with an online ceremony and vigil. The public can visit in person through Sunday.

The memorial marks the anniversary of the statewide lockdown.

“It’s been a year from hell,” said Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken.

Theken has been in the trenches fending off COVID. In addition to her duties at City Hall, the former advocate for seniors and Community Health & Human Services Liaison at Addison Gilbert Hospital has delivered news to families when their loved ones are near death. She has posted prayers for the sick on her personal Facebook page. She recently lost her cousin to COVID.

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“All these people’s lives,” she said in a phone interview. “I was there. I heard the cries. I can still visualize things I don’t want to.”

There are 2,186 wafting fragments of light in the LuminArtz projection. Each represents an Essex County resident lost to COVID.

“All 2,186 go up every two minutes,” said Pamela Hersch, who designed the artwork. “To represent who we’ve lost in one minute of silence was not enough.”

A quiet emptiness follows, as if to punctuate the loss. Text on an adjacent wall reads: “Illustrated at this pace, it would take fully 39 hours to represent all lives lost around the world to date.”

The memorial, presented by the Cape Ann Museum, LuminArtz, and the city of Gloucester, also features a quilt stitched with names of the city’s residents lost to COVID (including Theken’s cousin, Joseph Brancaleone) and a small field of softly lit cairns dedicated to Cape Ann’s dead.

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Miranda Aisling, the museum’s education manager, organized the project.

“March 10 is the anniversary of Massachusetts declaring a state of emergency,” said Aisling. “This is the first moment when people are pausing and reflecting, rather than just barreling through.”

The project is an opportunity to memorialize as most of our strategies for doing that have been forbidden.

“Our tools for coping have been taken away,” said Aisling. “We can’t gather, or touch, or hold people. What we are humanly trained to do is the worst possible thing to do.”

We still heed a catalog of precautions — hence the livestreamed opening. Starting Thursday, visitors must make a reservation for timed entrance. Just being in the presence of a few others, and of tangible art, is healing.

The Cape Ann Museum Green is an ideal place for a memorial. The museum has owned the 3.7-acre parcel, which has three Colonial-era buildings, for decades. With the James Center, a new exhibition and storage building completed last year, museum director Oliver Barker is seizing the chance to activate the public space and the museum’s contemporary art programming. The James Center is the backdrop for the LuminArtz projection.

“With the new campus, we have a place around which the public can convene,” said Barker. “It’s an opportunity to use contemporary art to bring a message of solidarity and hope to the community.”

Aisling originally intended to invite bereaved family members to construct the cairns. Then she realized the physical exertion and heavy breathing the task would entail could be risky. So she helped Matt Natti of Cape Ann Tree Service, an expert in the Scottish art of rock stacking, to put together the cairns from local granite.

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Cape Ann Museum education manager Miranda Aisling made some adjustments to the cairn memorials over the weekend.
Cape Ann Museum education manager Miranda Aisling made some adjustments to the cairn memorials over the weekend.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Each cairn has its own character. That, along with its temporary installation, makes this site feel more urgently personal than a graveyard. Family members may come and claim a cairn for their lost loved one, adding flowers, pictures, or stones.

The cairns, along with Hersch’s graceful light art, the memorial quilt by Diane Taormina and Ingrid Schillebeeckx-Rice, and the chance to write a note of remembrance on one of 2,186 ribbons, will give people room to acknowledge the monumental struggle the pandemic has thrust upon us, and the terrible cost.

“I think it will be a hard week,” Aisling said. “Hopefully, we will be able to give people a little of what they have lost not being able to gather this year.”

“This memorial brings a little bit of closure,” said Theken. “It’s the city saying, ‘We understand. We are grieving with you. We are embracing you the best way we know how.’”

CAPE ANN MUSEUM COVID-19 MEMORIAL

At Cape Ann Museum Green, 13 Poplar St., Gloucester

Online Memorial Ceremony: 6 p.m., March 10

Free timed entrance: March 11-14, 12:30-8 p.m. Reservations required.

www.capeannmuseum.org/covidmemorial


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.