Story at a glance
- More than 227,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak.
- Due to the ongoing pandemic, many families have been unable to grieve the deaths of loved ones traditionally.
- Several artists are seeking to memorialize the victims through art.
The youngest coronavirus victim of whom 15-year-old Hannah Ernst drew a digital portrait was 9 years old. The first, her grandfather, was 83.
“To say he was the most youthful and healthy guy, he had no underlying conditions…” she trailed off, remembering the comments from Internet trolls in the Facebook support groups joking about the “99 percent” who would survive the pandemic.
“It was that anger partnered with the fact that I realized with the increasing numbers that nobody would know my grandpa as one of the [victims],” that motivated Ernst to create more than 500 digital portraits of COVID-19 victims since her grandfather’s death in May.
“I never meant for any of this to get as big as it has. It was a complete accident,” said the sophomore from Parsippany, N.J., who is attending high school virtually during the pandemic.
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But the pull of art was no accident. Her grandfather, Calvin (“Cal” - he hated the name Calvin) Schoenfeld was an artist from Brooklyn with a deep curiosity about others — a quality that Ernst remembers to this day. He started showing symptoms early in the pandemic, before face masks and social distancing were widely recommended, despite their family taking early precautions. The last time she saw him was when he was being wheeled into an ambulance in a gurney.
“He was joking with the [first responders] even as he's trying to breathe, which is a sound I can’t wish upon anyone. I can’t get it out of my head,” she said.
“I think a lot of families think that their loved one has just been drowned out by this increasing death toll,” she said. “I noticed how callous and normalized the number aspect of it had become...when people refuse to follow the simple protocols that could save a life and then allude to the numbers.”
Art can be powerful and, for some, it’s the only way to voice the loss and grief of an unprecedented time. More than 200,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak — a fraction of the more than 1 million deaths worldwide.
“The scale of devastation is almost impossible for the human mind to comprehend,” said Tilly Hinton, a scholar and artist based in Los Angeles. “It’s just more deaths than we’ve ever had to comprehend at the same time in recent human history.”
Hinton turned to art and community when the pandemic began, feeling the weight of her loved ones’ losses and the distance between herself and her family and home country of Australia. Together with her friend and installation artist Marcos Lutyens and with the help of Allison Saunders, an operations and logistics strategist, Hinton is working to bring the Rose River Memorial to life.
“This is a project that grows in size every single day because the virus is not under any more control than it was when it started,” she said. “I’m motivated to do this because I think we have to pay more attention.”
When the pandemic is over, the memorial will be composed of thousands of handcrafted red felt roses — one for each victim of the coronavirus pandemic — attached to panels of recycled fishing materials. There are about 5,000 so far.
But communities are hurting right now, Hinton said, and so the project will kick off with a temporary installation in Boyle Heights, memorializing each of the 189 lives taken in the majority-Latinx community and in unincorporated East L.A. — two of the worst-affected neighborhoods in the country. The project is set against a mural by Oaxacan muralists Tlacolulokos on the exterior wall of Self Help Graphics & Art, a local organization dedicated to Chicana/o and Latinx artists.
“It's not just a hand craft project, it's really a channeling of this immense frustration, grief, loss and sadness into this beautiful memorial,” said Lutyens, who conceptualized the project.
The red roses, used often in funeral arrangements and military funerals, represent courage. But even if they rallied every person they knew, Hinton said, they could not keep up with the death rates. So they’re asking the public to craft roses, as many as they can, and mail them to the team. Kits are available for purchase on their website, and the team is also holding Zoom sessions for people to craft them together.
Hinton said the idea is to harness “the power of people having something to do with their hands. This is a time when people have felt super disempowered, but making these roses is rather straightforward and we like the idea of giving people something to do to help.”
Both she and Lutyens have become involved in their community through mutual aid organizations and other efforts and say it’s important to balance pragmatism with artistic expression. They have reached out to schools, art institutions and civic organizations for help as well, inspired by the group effort of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“The purpose of reminding people that this was real, that people died that many people died because of injustice or a lack of government care...hopefully this memorial will enable those things,” said Lutyens.
If nothing else, these artists hope to make a statement to those who minimize the danger of COVID-19 and the toll of the pandemic.
“If you don’t believe that these numbers mean anything, look at these silhouettes,” Ernst implored. She carries a heavy burden: “I feel as though if I kind of let it slide, it’ll start to become less of a movement, less of a message.”
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