In late September the US reached a milestone in Covid deaths … 200 thousand. That’s a HUGE number. Enormous really. At that time I started seeing and reading articles about how limited our comprehension is when it comes to numbers that size. They become vague and meaningless in many ways, our human minds are simply not up to the task of visualizing and feeling the giganticness of death on that scale. Perhaps it’s a protective measure in many ways, but it made me twitch to realize that I wasn’t feeling these deaths adequately. That I didn’t know how to mourn something of that magnitude.
So I decided to use a huge canvas and a small image of my sweet hugging birds and to document each death with a dot of paint. It seemed a thing to do, a way for me to feel each death even if only for a partial second. A way for me to touch that number, to experience it.
And so I made dots…. and dots … and dots
and they are all people, grandmothers and grandfathers
Parents and children.
Dreams and plans.
Empty chairs at Christmas.
Dying alone, filled with tubes and suffocating. And I’m not even half way through. I will admit, I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish. It had become, at this point, all consuming. I counted to 100 over and over and over again, pressing the button on my counting app with each 100 to help me track the total. I counted everything: steps from my bed to my closet, sips of water, emails sent.
I know these are a lot of pictures, this is part of the process too. Each picture is the addition of roughly 20k deaths to the canvas. And they go on and on and on.
Around this time I was recruited into the Covid Mitigation Team at IU. I began coordinating weekly testing of the IU community. I began running an email account where I heard from scared parents and stressed students and furious faculty. I began seeing Covid in action, not just for those who are ill … but for a community trying to feel safe and normal. In a time when none of us are safe or normal. I lived with cursing and abuse, helplessness and tears, gratitude and hope for hours and hours and hours each day. And when I wasn’t working, I made dots. The dots of the dead.
As I painted I tried very hard to hold on to the reality that each dot was a life lost. It’s hard to do, to hold that thought. I started layering the dots and I felt guilt that I covered up someone with the death of someone else. I mourned that I might be choosing one as more valuable than the other.
And I reminded myself, as I touched a canvas textured by death, that nothing was lost. Each person added their own weight and their own texture to the piece. They are all there.
I could make this political. I could talk about how the US failed it’s people … how, as a collective, we have failed each other. But really, that’s not what this specific project is about. Although I feel the words and the anger wanting to bubble to the surface.
This is about loss and how we can remember it. I don’t want this to be an event I don’t feel in a decade. I want to always feel this. I want to always remember.
Remembering and trying to present this number in a way that might help someone else remember is all I really can do. It feels so small and also … not so small.
You have now scrolled through the documentation of a quarter million deaths. I stopped here. There are more, many many more. Maybe I failed those I left off … but there is a limit to the emotional baggage I can carry. I will not forget them, I cannot now. And that was the goal.
I also filmed time-lapse videos as I worked, another way to present the number. Another way to feel the enormity of it all. The time lapses were taken at 12x speed and after I pieced them together I sped the whole thing up 5000%. This is approximately 40 hours of dot making.
I am tremendously overwhelmed by this project. I finished the piece a month or so ago and have been unsure how to proceed with publishing it. It hangs now, just outside my bedroom and I’m not sure I like it … I’m positive I don’t love it … and I am also extraordinarily proud of it. When I went to place my stamp on the corner, my signature … my hand stuttered. For the first time I have a signature on a painting that isn’t clean. I felt something in that moment, some hesitation to even call it mine. I have lots of very mixed emotions.
Generally, I would photograph a piece and prepare it to have prints made and place the original in the shop for sale. And I’m not sure I want to do that with this. For now it will hang in my home and I will look at it every single day. Someday, perhaps, I will know how to proceed.