Essays

What a Year of Grief Taught Me About Monuments and Memorials

How personal loss, grieving, and memorialization can humanize and illuminate the controversies around monuments.

Artwork by Darshana Bolt (courtesy Serenity Bolt)

A year of grief. On December 14th, 2016, Marietta — my best friend of nearly three decades, a magical person I turned to in triumph and tragedy —slid off an icy road in Vermont and died. I would say that is when my year of grief began, but it started earlier: first the death of idols Bowie and Prince; then the death of country and ongoing despair of the 2016 election; then, come July, the suicide of an artist friend; and then my own visitation from the black dogs of existential crisis and depression. And yet, when the call about Marietta came, the clock skipped a moment and the world stopped spinning and the year of grief began.

As a gay man who came of age in the early ’90s, when men were still dropping dead from AIDS, I’m actually pretty good at mourning. I light a candle. I drink a round of shots at the bar. I remember the joy the person brought into the world. I forgive the pain they caused. I put my rage into some useful work. I survive and I help my friends survive. My gay elders taught me well. It’s a cliche to say, but still, nothing prepared me for my best friend’s death. I had to learn that grief creeps up on you at the weirdest times, like when you’re at the grocery store picking out avocados or when you’re driving down the road and the sun sits just right in the sky. Earlier this year, these moments would freak me out a little because nobody wants to start crying in the produce section of grocery store, but I learned to respect them, to appreciate the spirit hovering like a blessing half in the world and half not.

Grief taught me the value of performative acts. On Mardi Gras, I carried a portion of Marietta’s ashes and wandered with the Krewe of Saint Anne through the Marigny and French Quarter and eventually to the Mississippi River, where the cork of the bottle holding her got stuck and I had to borrow a wine opener before pouring her into the water as one Krewe member held my hand and another dipped giant, ribbon-covered wands to the river to bless the crowd. Behind a wooden mask, I mounted a box to the wall of my house to hold another sample of ashes. I acknowledge the anniversaries. Three months, became six, and here I am, twelve months later. The No, no no, I can’t do this is now I did and I will. Grief taught me to take comfort in the resilience of our humanity.

***

If funeral rites are the performance of grief, memorials and monuments are how we embed grief into an object that is sent to the future. Monuments are a particular type of public art that plays an important role in the psyche of a community. A stitch that binds geography to history, monuments express community values. They say, “This is who we are. This is what we want the future to remember.” They commemorate the dead and recall the past. But unlike headstones, monuments are communal by design, collective expressions of grief and remembrance.

Throughout 2017, America engaged in a national conversation about the role of monuments in culture. Since Dylann Roof’s murder of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 15th, 2015, the removal of powerful, hurtful symbols has been a national obsession. The conversation centered on the role Jim Crow-era statues played in society with groups of white people making the argument that they served as beacons of history, to remember dead ancestors. Grief taught me to be kind and forgiving of how other people respond to death, but it also honed my sense of veracity and authenticity. The argument that memorials to Confederate soldiers, erected 60 years after the conflict, had anything to do with commemorating the dead was remarkably disingenuous. In New Orleans, construction workers in masks and bullet-proof vests removed four prominent monuments in the middle of the night, starting with the one that was originally dedicated to the “national election of November 1876 [that] recognized white supremacy in the South.” Monuments in Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, and Texas followed. After white supremacists violently rallied in the city, Charlottesville, Virginia covered two of its statues with black tarps while a decision to remove them makes its way through the courts.

Liberty Place obelisk in New Orleans (via Wikimedia Commons)

From Lenin to Saddam Hussein, the scene of people taking down a large statue is a manifestation of change, a sign of revolution. Removing these symbols of white supremacy are important acts, but small steps in the larger journey of truth and reconciliation that America has yet to undertake when it comes to the legacy of slavery and the over one hundred years of segregation, mass incarceration, and oppression that followed. Remedy of past wrongs alone does not a future make. The urgency to throw out the old and offensive is rarely matched with an equal desire to replace it, particularly when the hotness of grief has cooled and the dead are a distant memory. “What to replace monuments with” routinely appears as a cheeky footnote in articles about their removal, but little serious attention is given to the monuments we should be erecting. Two notable exceptions are in the works for the coming year.

In 2018, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is expected to open on six acres of land overlooking Montgomery, Alabama. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is working with the MASS Design Group to construct a park-like space where “800 columns — one for each county where EJI documented racial terror lynchings.” EJI offers this description of the monument, “When visitors enter the memorial, the ground drops and perception shifts as visitors realize that the columns that appeared to be holding up the structure are actually monuments suspended from above, which evoke the lynchings that took place in the public square. Over 4,000 names of lynching victims will be inscribed on these monuments.”

Rendering of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (courtesy Equal Justice Initiative)

That alone is a stunning document to the decades of terror caused by white supremacy. EJI takes the monument further. Surrounding the memorial “will be a field of identical columns, one for each county where a lynching has been documented. EJI will be inviting each of these counties to retrieve their monument and place it back in the county where the terror lynchings took place.” If successful, the memorial’s stitch in geography and time has the potential to thread through America and promote a process of truth and reconciliation unlike the country has ever seen. While looking back, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is also looking forward toward a society we can live in together.

Another monument in the works is less grand, but notable for different reasons, some of which related to the suicide of my friend.

While we erect public art, rarely do we make monuments to artists. Society often memorializes artists through the preservation of their homes; think of Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny or Donald Judd’s 101 Spring Street in New York. Maybe that is because an artist lives through their work and a statue dedicated to them feels redundant. But some of that may also be that the contributions artists make to their communities are often undervalued. If we can honor those who make war, those who advance science, those whose philanthropy we enjoy, then can’t we also honor those who labor to broaden our grasp of the human experience, who work to bring beauty and joy into the world? More importantly, what is the impact on our shared mythology if these are the values we choose to enshrine and send into the future?

In July 2016, Vermont artist Darshana Bolt took her own life after seeking the help of a crisis center in Burlington. It was the tragic, abrupt end of a young and promising artist who was deeply committed to her community. Her art making exorcised her demons. Unconcerned with fame and fortune, she was the kind of artist who made art to make others happy. She hosted a poetry show on public access television, fought for artist-friendly zoning, and worked for the community organizing events like the Old North End Ramble, a day of fun and frolic in one of the city’s less well-off neighborhoods. But like many of us who are creative and energetic — who fight hard to bring joy into the world — Darshana wrestled with a darkness that ultimately overtook her.

Darshana left behind a desire in those who knew her to stitch her memory into the landscape of Burlington. To that end, a group of people led by Darshana’s sister, Serenity Bolt, got together to make the Darshana Bolt Memorial Sculpture and Sketching Garden on the shore of Lake Champlain, featuring a sculpture of a mermaid. Like The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, it contains a performative act intended to engage its audience. “The sculpture is being designed to contain an etching of Darshana’s ‘Mermaid Woodcut’,” explains Serenity. “Visitors will be able to create a rubbing of her original Mermaid, forever enabling a work of her art to be a part of local art history, but, more so, symbolically acknowledging her dedication to making the arts accessible.” They engaged Vermont marble sculptor Chris Cleary and identified a spot on the bike path. In the Fall, they received a statement of support from the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Waterfront and began raising funds for the project.

Darshana Bolt’s ‘Mermaid Woodcut’ (courtesy Serenity Bolt)

 The removal of Jim Crow-era monuments is an important part of a national conversation about race in America. They are revolutionary, but they are also acts of destruction. What we replace monuments with, how we understand the role monuments play in our community, will say more to the future about what kind of people we are. It is important to acknowledge our collective grief, be it for the loss of a notable person or the loss of an idea which can lead us to pursue higher ideals, to be a better people. 

The Darshana Bolt Memorial Sculpture and Sketching Garden pays tribute to an individual while honoring art as an important part of our humanity. Serenity explains the Darshana monument this way, “This is not just a memorial to her. She would never think she needed a monument to herself. It’s a place for everyone to experience what she did … the rich wells of creativity that can be found here in Vermont, and a quiet place to spend time making art, reading, or just thinking.” The National Memorial for Peace and Justice acknowledges the legacy of lynching in America while teaching us that a just society takes responsibility for its history.

As my personal Year of Grief comes to an end, I am asking myself how I will honor my lost friend, how I will remember those who have died. But I am also thinking about what other monuments do we need to build? How do we heal our country, remember what we have collectively lost, and what messages do we want to send into the future?

comments (0)