Artist Linda McBride began honoring the pandemic’s dead when the toll was 120,000. Now it’s over 300,000 and her work is far from finished.
GRAND JUNCTION — Linda McBride couldn’t sleep one night last May. She was too busy doing math in her head.
Multiply 100 by 1,000. Do it over and over again. Repeat. And repeat.
She was trying to wrap her head around the enormity of 120,000 — at that time, the number of people who had died of COVID-19. She pondered the fact that each number was a human being. Each was the center of mourning children, parents, siblings and friends. To McBride, the numbers represented so much fragmented grief.
The 71-year-old Grand Junction abstract artist felt there had to be a way to turn the grim tally into a tangible representation of loss. A hundred-twenty-thousand golf tees? Marbles? Ping pong balls? She searched her brain for a way to let people envision the enormity of the pandemic deaths and to grieve communally for a loss of life that has overshadowed other mass casualties in this country’s history but has no collective memorial as an outlet for sorrow.
“I was wondering what I could do to help bring us together and unite us in our common pain,” McBride said.
This week, McBride’s midnight math exercise, and the vision that developed from it with help from arts center children’s program director Rachel Egleston and other like-minded artists, is taking shape outside the Art Center of Western Colorado. The Rose Petal COVID Memorial is a rare project in the country to come close to memorializing all the victims of the coronavirus pandemic—a number that topped 300,000 this week. An artist in Washington, D.C., has planted tiny white flags with victims’ names and a line about who they were in life.
Fifty-four 1-foot-by-10-feet panels printed with pink and red rose petals and tiny grids of 4,680 squares on each are going up on the center’s most visible walls where the panels can sway in the wind and catch the attention of passersby on a busy Grand Junction street.
Each of the grid squares holds a dot of silver ink. Each dot represents one person who has died of COVID-19. A squad of volunteers, some far flung, applied those dots using old-fashioned nubbed pens dipped in a thick, shimmery ink. As they carried out this task, they did more than put ink to canvas. As they applied the ink dots, those volunteers said a prayer or an affirmation for each human being represented.
“It was a very beautiful — a very emotional — thing to do,” said Joan Green, an artist who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington state. She and her 15-year-old daughter placed 8,000 dots on panels after she heard about the project from an artist friend in San Diego.
“I started speaking to each person as I dotted to say that I was thinking about them.”
McBride said she chose the idea of the silver dots so they would sparkle in the light and help inspire viewers to recognize each one represents a life lost. Originally, she planned to simply have the grid squares on the panels represent COVID-19 victims.
“But it felt empty and impersonal to me,” she said. “I thought, ‘That is not the point of this project.’”
With serendipity comes support
McBride’s project has been described as Christo-like – a much scaled-down version of the large outdoor display of fabric the late artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were known for. But McBride, who has been an abstract artist for much of her life, had another artist in mind for inspiration — Donald Judd.
Judd, who died in 1994, was known as a minimalist who often worked in grid patterns.
Once McBride had her vision plotted on paper, she began a quest for materials. She serendipitously ran into sympathetic amateur and professional artists everywhere she turned.
A local FedEx manager offered her canvas and vinyl panels at a discount. A worker at her local True Value store helped devise a fiberglass resin backing to keep the panels from curling. A retired college groundskeeper volunteered to glue straightening spines to the backs of the panels so they would move in the wind but not flutter like curtains.
A friend with an engineering background devised a way to hook grommets to the top and to rig a system of cables to hold the panels up. A local landscaping company offered to illuminate the panels with streams of violet light at night that will catch the shimmer of the dots. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Grand Valley offered space for volunteers who were applying the dots.
Penny Hopkins, who dotted panels there from August through early December, described the work as more meditation than labor: “I dot and I say, ‘I’m sending you love, peace, love’ with every dot.”
In San Diego, children’s book author and artist Annie MacPherson said she chanted as she dotted six panels – a total of 28,080 dots for anonymous COVID victims.
“I felt a connection to each soul and each spirit,” MacPherson said. “I mentally chanted ‘om’ and I thought of each person like I was touching them on the forehead. Each time I finished a whole panel I did a healing service for the whole group on a panel.”
The panels began going up outside the arts center this week. McBride said she felt “a little weepy” as she watched Charlie Gordon, the maintenance man at the arts center, climb up and down a ladder to string the panels. For months, McBride said, Gordon has taken on every odd job related to the project and treated it “as if it were his child.”
“We are going through some trying times,” Gordon said. “If this can bring anyone some happiness then that is great. It is not easy to be happy right now.”
The memorial will be dedicated on Friday in a socially-distanced manner. The plan is to display the memorial at the arts center for a month and then move it to the Unitarian church.
McBride said she hopes it will hold up well enough in winter weather so it can move to other places around the state and country.
Even though her project is finally being installed, McBride still has much work to do. To keep up with the continuing death toll, she is seeking funds to buy more supplies and recruiting more volunteers to apply more dots. With thousands dying every day, there are now at least 30,000 more COVID victims to add to the panels. McBride has left four panels without dots so that viewers can add dots for their loved ones. She said she will add more when she can afford more panels. As a compliment to the visual display, McBride is also collecting stories on a Facebook page from those who have lost loved ones.
McBride now counts herself among them. Merrily Wallach, a 98-year-old aunt who had been like a mother to McBride, died of COVID in Denver Friday night while the family was with her via Zoom. Because she was so special to McBride, she is now represented by a tiny shimmering star among a grid of dots on one of the panels. And that is helping to soothe McBride in her grief.
“When I am around the panels,” McBride said. “I feel a lot of love and peace.”