Artist’s installation commemorates over 600,000 people lost to COVID-19

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WASHINGTON – Jeneffer Haynes is one of some 300 volunteers who plant a crop of more than 660,000 white flags on the National Mall – it’s a physical representation of the staggering death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

One of these flags bears the words “John Estampador”. It’s the name of Haynes’ brother, a 30-year-old born with Down syndrome who always gave him big hugs. He died after contracting COVID-19 in January before having access to a vaccine.

“It gives me some form of comfort to keep their memories alive,” she said. “That’s what it is – to commemorate them and to keep them alive in some way or another.”

Haynes said she had to take medical leave from her job at a Maryland biotech company, suffering from panic attacks and working on her mental health in therapy. Her brother’s death left her entire family with a deep sense of loss, and the virus barely spared the lives of her mother and father, who were living with Estampador and were ill in January.

Haynes could only visit his brother through a window for 30 minutes a day while in an intensive care unit. She couldn’t enter the room.

“I couldn’t hold his hand, I couldn’t hug him, I couldn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m here. None of that, ”she said. “When he died he was without his family.”

Twenty acres around the Washington Monument are filled with flags representing people with stories like this. More flags will be added over the 17-day memorial as the death toll continues to rise, artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg said.

“We will continue to add flags every day,” Firstenberg said. “I just ordered another 20,000.”

An opening ceremony for the facility will take place Friday at 11 a.m., and a memorial event with members of Congress is scheduled for Tuesday morning. The company is the largest participatory art installation on the mall since the AIDS Quilt, according to Firstenberg and his team.

The Maryland-based artist said she has been making art that addresses social issues for 11 years. In 2016, she took a year of Congressional Record pages, folded them into 10,752 paper planes, painted them, and put them in two large jars. She suspended a few planes in between.

“The planes came out of opposing trash cans in a squadron-like formation. The few people who “crossed the political divide” got the color purple – the color of reason in politics, “she said on her website.

The mall’s flags are arranged in geometric shapes, many in 60-foot by 60-foot squares that create nearly 3.8 miles of paths in the massive quilt. Firstenberg hopes the walking trails give people some peace on the busy stretch, which is often crowded with tourists.

“I wanted to have enough paths, where people could walk in private for their own quiet reflection,” she said. “So people would have a lot of special spaces where they could plant their personalized flags. “

People who have lost a loved one during the pandemic can dedicate a flag by filling out an online form or by visiting the site in person. A digital version of the geotagged flags and their messages will later appear on the facility’s website, along with a map.

This is the second time that Firstenberg has planted flags to commemorate the dead. In October, volunteers placed 219,000 flags in a 4-acre field near RFK Stadium in northeast Washington. Flags were added every day as the virus killed more people in the United States, and at the end of the facility’s five-week operation on November 30, 267,000 flags were on the ground – a visual representation of the rapidly increasing winter death toll.

Firstenberg said his “outrage” inspired this first installation. She has volunteered at a hospice for a quarter of a century and feels that the lives of the elderly and people of color are devalued. “I decided that I had to make art to help people understand the extent of this tragedy,” she said.

To purchase the 250,000 flags that were part of the first exhibit, Firstenberg said it had “basically funded” her studio. For this exhibit, she was able to secure donations to cover about two-thirds of the “tens of thousands” of dollars needed to purchase the massive number of flags.

At first, she considered using American flags to represent lives lost to COVID-19, but feared politicizing her art in an election year and eventually settled on solid white. “A white flag is perfect because it can be written on it,” she said. “And white is the color of innocence and purity.”

It made sense to honor the deceased, Firstenberg said. And once all the flags are planted, she said, the big white block could even be interpreted as a flag of surrender.

“At first we gave in to our lower selves, and now I hope seeing all of these flags will give our nation a moment to pause and reflect on who we are,” she said. “It says something about who we are as Americans.”

Article by Chris Cioffi, CQ-Roll Call


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