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What will memorials to the pandemic look like? A Philly artist started with 100,000 folds

"The memorials and monuments in our public spaces are not a mirror of our actual lived history. They’re a slice of the story."

Joanna Hutchinson holds one finished origami triangle unit in her hand while outside her Philadelphia home on Sept. 26, 2020. The square pieces of paper are being packed and sent to participants who have signed up to spend hours folding origami pieces for her sculpture.
Joanna Hutchinson holds one finished origami triangle unit in her hand while outside her Philadelphia home on Sept. 26, 2020. The square pieces of paper are being packed and sent to participants who have signed up to spend hours folding origami pieces for her sculpture.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Joanna Hutchinson knew 100,000 was a maddeningly large number. That’s why she started on the project.

But it’s something else to cut 100,000 squares of origami paper — folding them until her hands ache, packing them by the hundreds to mail to collaborators around the country, making multiple trips to the post office because the boxes won’t fit in her car — to see the returned packages, filled with triangular units, pile up along a wall, a mounting presence in her Cobbs Creek home.

It had to be 100,000, though. Each folded shape is meant to represent a person lost to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States as of May, when headlines announcing that landmark hit Hutchinson like a gut-punch.

“I was really deeply saddened by the news, and also angry with the mismanagement of the crisis,” she said. “I wanted to do something tangible to mourn and to honor these people.”

So, she developed this community sculpture project, which she’s calling 100,000 Folds. Each death will be counted in a red paper pyramid that will be fitted into looming, red sculptures that will stand 6 feet tall, human-scale vessels to contain an unthinkable loss.

But now, the number of lives lost has exceeded 200,000. Hutchinson is grappling with whether to expand the project accordingly. “I don’t want to lose sight of these people who have perished," she said.

It’s one early indication of just how challenging it will be to memorialize the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic — though artists and activists around the country are already stepping up to try.

“How does a pandemic get marked? Memorials are few and far between,” said Paul Farber, the artistic director of Monument Lab and a research scholar at the Center for Public Art and Space at the University of Pennsylvania.

He noted that Philadelphia has half a dozen memorials related to World War I, but not one monument or even a single historical marker for the 1918 flu, which killed 12,000 Philadelphians. There are few sites memorializing earlier yellow fever epidemics that killed 4,000 or more. (Exceptions are a fading monument at Laurel Hill Cemetery, and a marker at the Lazaretto, a quarantine hospital where infected immigrants were detained until they recovered or died. ) And other than panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, there’s no AIDS memorial here either.

One reason for this absence could be how epidemics, unlike wars, tend to fade away gradually. Just as important, Farber said, “We know if you have more time, money, and power, you have more access to build longstanding monuments and memorials. Those most impacted by pandemics are predominantly those who don’t have the resources to escape the city or to get the best care. It’s a reminder that the memorials and monuments in our public spaces are not a mirror of our actual lived history. They’re a slice of the story.”

But he and others are thinking about how to respond this time, in a more equitable way.

Many early memorial efforts, like 100,000 Folds, have sought to address the sheer scale of the loss.

In Washington, a group called the COVID Memorial Project placed 20,000 small American flags on the National Mall in September, each flag representing 10 dead.

In Los Angeles, a gallerist invited the public to contribute to the Memorial Crane Project, adding an origami crane for each life lost, along with personal stories. It has collected more than 25,000 cranes so far.

Others have sought to highlight the humanity of that loss, putting faces and names to the numbers.

In Detroit, city officials in August backed the creation of a temporary memorial that placed 900 enlarged photographs around a park of those lost, inviting mourners to drive through and pay respects in a procession led by a hearse.

A group of New York City-area artists and academics created an online project, #NamingTheLost: A 24 Hour Covid Vigil, launched in May, after deaths exceeded 100,000, with a reading of names on a livestream. Since then, the organizers have been creating monthly pop-up memorials for the dead in New York City. In September, when the nation’s losses grew to 200,000, they shared a “memorial toolkit,” encouraging participants around the world to make their own grassroots memorials.

“This question of how do we collectively honor and mourn in a time when we’re not even supposed to be near anybody else is a problem that felt really urgent,” said Lyra Monteiro, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and one of the organizers. “I’ve felt really compelled by the enormity of the grieving that both is happening and isn’t happening right now, and the relative invisibility of those losses.”

She’s not sure what the next iteration of that project will be, but she’d like to see something like the “antimonumentos,” or anti-monuments, activists have installed in Mexico City, like an enormous sculptural “43” in memory of 43 students who disappeared in 2014.

“There is an opportunity for thinking about memorials as sites of protest,” she said.

Here in Philadelphia, artists are still figuring out how to lift up those lost, while navigating a politically sensitive situation and health-care privacy rules that make accessing information a challenge.

Farber said he had a vision of calling in artists to chalk the names of Philadelphia’s more than 1,800 COVID dead up and down Broad Street, then abandoned the idea after recognizing that he had no way to obtain that list.

Philadelphia artist RA Friedman has completed more than two dozen portraits in a series that aims to show the faces of those lost to the virus but told The Inquirer that obtaining source images has been a laborious process.

But if Hutchinson’s project is an indication, there’s strong community interest in finding ways to grieve and remember together.

She’s already mailed out 86,000 pieces of paper to 191 participants in 30 states and three countries. On a recent evening, she hosted an online origami workshop for contributors who had questions or just wanted to fold together.

Her hands moved quickly across the screen, demonstrating the steps: nine folds to make one pyramid, or 900,000 folds altogether. Hutchinson, a part-time artist and full-time accountant, calculated that, folding an hour a day by herself, it would take four years to get it done.

Once the units are complete, she demonstrated, they can interlock to form concentric rows for the urnlike shapes she’s envisioning. She’s not yet certain where or when she’ll exhibit this work.

Alyson Avery, a librarian from Southampton, Bucks County, who was participating in the workshop, said she liked the idea of contributing to a bold statement. “It’s soothing to make these — and repetitive, which is nice, given how stressful the day-to-day is.”

Chris Gradel, of Rutledge, Delaware County, looked at her origami pieces with frustration. “They all look a little different!” she said.

But she said aesthetic considerations are secondary. This mostly is an act of collective mourning.

“I share [Hutchinson’s] anger about this," she said. "I also think about all the people who had family and friends who went through this, and really weren’t able to grieve or have normal funerals. It’s meditative: There is no way, when you do this, you can not be thinking about why.”