LEWISTON, Maine — In the two weeks since the state’s deadliest mass shooting unfolded, countless members of the public — including President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden — have visited the shooting sites at a Lewiston bar and bowling alley to stop and reflect. Passersby bring items to commemorate the lives of those who died, many leaving behind tributes and messages to the deceased.
But as the days pass, shoulder-season rain has wilted the flowers, softened the carved Halloween pumpkins, and washed away messages painted onto signs. Votive candles collected water and dirt, and the wind tore hearts from trees around the city and dropped them into the street.
Rachel Ferrante, a local museum director, and Tanja Hollander, a Maine-based artist, decided to do something about the slow-motion disintegration, to catch the memories before they literally slip away.
On Tuesday, the two unloaded a box of photos and copies of the Lewiston Sun Journal to add to a growing display at the Maine Museum of Innovation, Learning and Labor, a history and culture museum in the city’s downtown that is collecting memorabilia to honor the victims of the Oct. 25 shooting.
A gunman killed 18 people and wounded at least a dozen more that night at Schemengees Bar & Grille and Just-In-Time Recreation bowling alley, prompting a manhunt that ended two days later when he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“We have a responsibility to collect [the memory of victims] and preserve it and share it,” Ferrante said. “And we hope that by doing those things, what we’re really doing is offering the community one way to heal, and a place where people can gather, grieve, find strength, and process.”
The display is small, yet moving.
The victims’ names, printed in bold white letters on black vinyl, fill the industrial building’s large window panes. The window sills and surrounding walls are covered with letters from well-wishers, paper flowers, and candles left over from a Sunday vigil at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
On one windowsill, Hollander had deposited a plastic bag of pumpkin seeds from a recent event where members of the public carved hundreds of pumpkins, now on display near Just-in-Time Recreation. There are photos of the therapy dogs brought in to comfort victims’ families, packages of forget-me-not flower seeds, and prayer cards from victims’ funerals. There are T-shirts, mental health care pamphlets, and a large painting of a hot air balloon by Miia Zellner, a local deaf artist from Lewiston who has been painting signs and murals around town to commemorate the victims, among them four members of Maine’s vibrant deaf community.
The imagery evokes the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, who jointly host an annual hot air balloon festival each August.
In the middle of the room, four empty chairs face the windows and the art that adorns them — a place for visitors to sit and reflect.
“Storytelling as a way to heal. And a way not to forget,” Hollander said. “I think our jobs as artists, in a lot of ways, is to absorb, digest, and then represent it to the world. And help them make understanding.”
The pair have been working to develop best practices for the memorial with help from Kristin Parker, a curator at the Boston Public Library, and Rainey Tisdale, a consultant who led a consortium of museums, libraries, and archives to commemorate the Boston Marathon Bombing and create programming around the one-year anniversary in April 2014.
The display will continue to grow, Ferrante said. A Biddeford, Maine, designer has offered to 3D-scan pumpkins to preserve them, and the city of Portland has sent a memorial flag. And as the makeshift memorial sites degrade and families decide to share more memorabilia, Ferrante and her team will gather new items for the museum’s collection.
As she walked through the collection with a reporter, Ferrante stopped at a large piece of craft paper displaying a poem written by Vernon L. Cox.
Ferrante, who was near tears, turned her back to it.
“Sometimes, blue is the color of the Lewiston sky, filled with beautiful balloons that drift by. Sometimes, blue is the color of a helper’s clothes. Where do you go? The helper always knows,” reads the poem. “Sometimes, blue is worn by many people you and I know.”