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How art helps us make sense of COVID-19's incomprehensible toll – National Geographic



“Look at a single flag,” artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg asks visitors to her art installation in Washington, D.C., a field with more than 248,000 white flags rippling in the breeze—one for each person who has died from COVID-19 in America.

“Now conjure up a story. Think of it as a school teacher who just lost her life,” Firstenberg says. She paints a picture of all those who would be stricken by the teacher’s death: her family, students, neighbors, co-workers, and the medical professionals who tried to save her. “Try to hold all that grief—and then look up and multiply,” she says, referring to the tens of thousands of flags before them.

The United States is quickly approaching 250,000 deaths from COVID-19, although the true number could be much higher due to missed diagnoses, indirectly related deaths, and other classification issues. As the death toll becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend, people across the country, including artists like Firstenberg, are doing what they can to humanize the statistics and create spaces for mourning. (Here’s where COVID-19 cases are increasing and decreasing.)

Since her exhibition opened on October 23, Firstenberg and a group of volunteers have planted roughly a thousand small surveyor flags daily to keep up with the rising number of deaths. Today, the banners fill the three-and-a-half-acre field across the street from Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and are now spilling over into nearby medians. Firstenberg has ordered nearly 20,000 more flags in order to have enough by November 30, when the exhibit closes.

“People needed a place to come. Even if they couldn’t come here physically, they needed an emotional place to understand that their loved one was acknowledged,” she explains. “That’s what this art exhibition is all about. It is trying to have us understand that we really are in the midst of the greatest American tragedy most of us have had in our lifetimes.”

Calvin Washington discovered the project weeks ago while on his way to work for the city’s Department of General Services. Nearly every day since he has stopped by to plant a handful of flags and pray for those who have died, including some of his military friends.

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Calvin Washington kneels to pray after planting a handful of flags in an art memorial to COVID victims on November 13, 2020. “This is my way of saying, ‘We miss you. We are still going to live on, but you’re not forgotten.’ That’s why I plant flags every day,” he says.

Photograph by Sydney Combs, National Geographic

“This is my way of saying, ‘We miss you. We are still going to live on, but you’re not forgotten.’ That’s why I plant flags every day,” he says. “I saw two tours in Iraq. But look at this. This is like a combat zone. This is a lot of deaths.”

On the west side of the field, a billboard announces the title of the art installation, “In America, How could this happen…,” along with the current death toll. A small patch of 25 flags sits to the right of the billboard: one for each person who died from COVID-19 in New Zealand, widely praised for stanching the spread of the virus by adopting a strict lockdown early in the pandemic. To the left stands 1,675 flags: the number of Americans who would have died if the country had adopted New Zealand’s approach, adjusting for population differences.

“They wore their masks, they did their social distancing, they did their quarantining,” Firstenberg says of New Zealanders. “They did it right because they respected each other enough to do it for others, if not for themselves.” (To end this pandemic, we must trust science.)

Memorials across the country

Projects like Firstenberg’s have been happening across the country since the spring. Throughout April, a Vietnam veteran in California played “Taps at sunset to honor those who died each day. In May, people from around the country read the names of COVID-19 victims on a YouTube livestream for 24 hours straight. In August, the city of Detroit created a memorial drive lined with nearly 900 photos of the 1,500 Detroit residents lost to the virus since the pandemic began.

In Sherman Oaks, California, 13-year-old Madeleine Fugate looked to the AIDS Memorial Quilt for inspiration when completing a COVID-19 community action project for her history class final. With over 48,000 panels, the 35-year-old folk art piece honors more than 100,000 individuals who died due to complications from AIDS.

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The AIDS Memorial Quilt’s 21,000 panels were displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 10, 1992. Today the quilt weighs 54 tons, has more than 48,000 panels, and honors more than 100,000 individuals who have died due to complications from AIDS.

Photograph by Shayna Brennan, AP

“When I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, my mom told me how she had worked on the AIDS quilt. Because she had lost someone, the AIDS quilt helped her heal and accept that he was gone. And I wanted that too,” Fugate says.

Word got around that Fugate was looking for quilt squares in mid-May. To date she’s received more than a hundred eight-by-eight-inch pieces of fabric dedicated to people who have died from COVID-19. But one has been weighing on her mind: a simple white square with a photo transfer of a young girl. It’s from a woman who wanted to memorialize her 13-year-old daughter, Anna.

“I’m 13 and a lot of people I know are 13. When I hear about someone who’s my age who has died from a virus, it’s really sad. It’s also kind of a wakeup call that everyone can catch the virus,” she says. “It’s really a beautiful square, and she seems like she had a really happy life.”

When it reopens, the California Science Center plans to display one of Fugate’s panels for at least a year. Eventually Fugate hopes to gather one square from every person who has died from COVID-19 and then share the quilt around the world.

“If we forget about all these people that have died, it’s like we’re losing a little bit of humanity,” she says. “You really understand, when you see the squares and get to hold them in your hands, how much these people meant to the people sending the squares.”

‘I miss you’

“There’s a lot of unreconciled grief and pain out there,” says Randy Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral in D.C.

Since COVID-19 has prevented families from gathering for traditional funerals and church services, the National Cathedral has created other opportunities for people to grieve. Every Saturday the church holds a virtual service where clergy members read 70 to 150 names of those who have died from the virus. On average 15,000 people watch the stream.

When the death toll reached 200,000 in September, the cathedral marked the solemn occasion by ringing its 12-ton bell 200 times—one toll, every six seconds, for every thousand souls who have died.

“The bell would ring and it would echo and resonate out,” says Hollerith. “It was powerful to think in that silence, in that moment in between the next ring, of those thousand souls who have lost their lives. It became a mournful, poignant way for people to stop, take note, and pay attention.”

For Firstenberg, recognition is what makes memorials to the lost healing. “Even in death, we need to be seen,” she says, “because it suggests value—that the person is valued.”

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Firstenberg encourages visitors to her art installation to write the names of loved ones who died from COVID-19 on the flags. “Even in death, we need to be seen,” she says, “because it suggests value—that the person is valued.”

Photograph by Guglielmo Mattioli, National Geographic

“This is going to be with us for a very long time, even after the immediate crisis finally ends,” says Gwen Dillard, a D.C. local who was visiting Firstenberg’s exhibit for the second time. “We’re going to be permanently changed in some ways by this.” (Researchers are unsure whether pandemic ‘coronababies’ will live with long-term trauma.)

As the pandemic grows, so too does the number of people touched, however tangentially, by the tragedy. Firstenberg’s installation will continue to keep count with more flags, many bearing the names of loved ones written in by visitors. Some include the day the person died and a short biography. Overwhelmingly, the flags seem to say “I miss you.”

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Japanese art show seeks submissions from young local artists – Sooke News Mirror



Young local artists have a chance to present their work in Japan.

The Hamada Children’s Museum of Art in Japan seeks visual arts submissions from artists 5 to 15-years-old living between Sooke and Port Renfrew. There is no cost to enter.

The student art will be featured in the 2021 Independents Show in Hamada.

The museum will choose only a select number of pieces from Canada. If successful, original art will be on display and remain permanent at the Hamada Children’s Museum in Japan.

The winning artists will also receive a certificate of participation and their work featured online during the 24th Annual Independents Global Exhibition on Jan. 16.

The deadline for submissions is Dec. 10. For more information, please contact Diane Moran by email at

ALSO READ: Sooke Fine Art Show moves online due to COVID-19 pandemic

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Language and art: new semiannual online program launches at the Ellen Art Gallery – Concordia University News



The Ellen Art Gallery recently launched a new semi-annual, online program. Each instalment of Terms will investigate the manifold meanings of a given word. The program is tripartite, featuring three components.

For the first component, the selected term will be explored in a short essay by a researcher working outside of the visual arts. He or she will examine the term through a particular lens, reflecting on the nuances, ambiguities, and plural meanings of the term.

For the second component, Gallery curator of research and program leader Julia Eilers Smith will pair the term with an existing artwork.

In the final component, a writer from the cultural sector will produce another short essay. Using the artwork as a point of departure, and drawing on the first essay, the writer will further explore various dimensions of the term and its significances.

Each term will be twice presented in this tripartite form — twice in the given year — before another term is selected for the following year.

Terms investigates how various, polysemic meanings are sedimented in words, how terms are disseminated, and how they alter public discourse.


The first edition of Terms explores the term Vulnerability.

Writer, researcher, community organizer, and activist Mostafa Henaway explores the term ‘vulnerability’ in relation to his work with migrants.

“If there is a term,” he writes, “that evokes a spirit of our moment, it is ‘vulnerability.’”

Henaway depicts our ambivalent notions of vulnerability. The term can sometimes evoke empathy for migrants that are struggling. But ‘vulnerability’ is sometimes considered in terms of the apparent ‘natural’ limits of a person or organism. We see vulnerability as a person’s natural susceptibility to inevitable assaults from the outside.

Henaway makes a case for other conceptions of vulnerability that allow it to be understood as something largely created through our own constructed political, economic, and social world.

He uses this notion of created “structural vulnerability,” exploring how various policies create adverse and exploitive conditions for migrant workers.

Henaway’s essay is followed in the program by a short 1960s film by Canadian artist Joyce Wieland, Hand Tinting.

Arts writer Yaniya Lee develops the exploration of vulnerability through a reflection on the film.

Forming a continuity with the theme of labour, the film is comprised of leftover footage produced by Wieland when she worked at a youth employment training center. The center aimed to teach employable skills to disadvantaged youth.

“Wieland’s task,” explains Lee, “was to film cutaways of the participants during downtime, allowing the recruitment documentary to show the centre’s atmosphere.”

When the company rejected Wieland’s documentary, she made her own film using some of the footage. The film is hand-tinted and perforated in places with a sewing needle.

In her own account of the experience, Lee writes, Wieland was moved by the somewhat pitiful circumstances of the young, mostly black women, while also inspired by their courage and willingness to invest in themselves.

Lee uses the film to reflect on the use of vulnerable subjects as the ‘content’ of film and works of art.

“Wieland ‘got’ the footage to make this film from a paid job; the girls she filmed were at a training centre seeking new opportunities,” Lee points out. “What does it mean to use other people’s bodies as matter” for a work of art?

Lee expresses her mix of admiration and distrust for Wieland’s work, wondering whether Wieland has advocated for vulnerable women or whether she has exploited them.

Lee concludes with a reflection on the relation between subject and work, this time questioning her own vulnerability as the writer making a subject of Wieland’s art.

The second posting of Terms will be launched in late January, 2021, examining vulnerability from another viewpoint.

Find out more about the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia.

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After languishing for decades, an important piece of Acadian art gets a new lease on life –



For more than 40 years, an important piece of Acadian art languished in the basement of Louis-J-Robichaud High School in Shediac.

The theatre curtain, measuring three metres by 5½ metres, depicts a scene from the deportation of the Acadians in the mid-18th century.

Commissioned in 1931, the canvas was painted by Acadian artist Edouard Gautreau.

The curtain hung in the Shemogue parish theatre hall until the 1960s, when the hall fell into disrepair, but the work of art was spared.

Over the years, the canvas became increasingly damaged until it was rescued by the late Father Maurice Léger in 1979 and put in the care of the Société Historique de la Mer Rouge.

It sat in the high school basement for decades, before ownership was transferred to the Nation Prospère Acadie charity in May 2020, with the promise of restoration.

Daniel LeBlanc says as more dirt and mould is removed, the true colours and details of the painting are being revealed. (Kate Letterick/CBC News)

“When we first unveiled it here when it was brought here a lot of us thought “Oh my goodness, this is so damaged, what can we do with this?” said Daniel LeBlanc, the organization’s executive director.

“But the work began and suddenly we started to see colours appear, very beautiful colours, and I think we got the sense that this could be restored to a very high-quality painting.”

A grant of $7,500 from the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation helped get the restoration work started.

Over the summer, the canvas got its first treatment, which removed dirt and consolidated some of the missing sections.  It had been ripped in half in the 1970s.

It was also put on display, at the Musée de Kent in Bouctouche, for the first time in a half a century.

Pictures show the condition of a corner of the canvas before the restoration work began, and after some special cleaning was done. (Kate Letterick/CBC CNews)

“Throughout the painting we see sections which were lost unfortunately with deterioration over time,” LeBlanc said. “There was a lot of filth and mould over it and so the work of the restoration expert was to prepare it so that it could be saved for future restoration work and also to expose it so that the public could see.”  

It will soon be taken down and rested on a flat surface for the winter, stabilizing it so it doesn’t have any stress on the threads of the painting. Then it will be ready for the next stage of restoration.

After languishing in a high school basement for more than 40 years, a piece of Acadian art is brought back to life. 3:03

“Painstakingly all the sections of the painting which have more filth on it, even mould, need to be cleaned thoroughly and the sections finally need to be patched in with paint,” LeBlanc said.

A specialist will match colours and repaint some of the damaged sections so it can finally be completed. A canvas will be needed underneath to keep everything supported.

Some of the pieces of the canvas are missing, after years of deterioration. (Kate Letterick/CBC News )

The final stage will be to frame the piece and have it permanently displayed.

LeBlanc said this was one of artist Edouard Gautreau’s largest works of art.

Born in Saint-Paul-de-Kent in 1906, Gautreau started painting at a young age, and he painted many large pieces in New Brunswick churches. LeBlanc said that unfortunately, many of those pieces were lost in fires.

LeBlanc said this canvas is special.

“Gautreau was very skilled in copying paintings but also bringing his own intuition and colours on paintings, so this is quite a much improved version of the small picture that you find in the Evangeline book,” he said.

LeBlanc said the first phase of restoration cost about $15,000, but the next phase will be more costly, at more than $75,000.

The large theatre curtain canvas was displayed this summer at the Musée de Kent in Bouctouche, for the first time in a half a century. (Kate Letterick/CBC News)

LeBlanc is still working on raising the funds, but hopes the restoration work can begin again next summer. He’d like to see it completed by late 2021 or in 2022.

LeBlanc said the canvas has had a long journey, one he’ll be happy to see completed.

“We went from discouragement to hope that we can actually complete this project and it can be a beautiful project for Acadia.” 

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