More than 660,000 white flags have been displayed in a solemn tribute across a vast expanse on the National Mall in Washington, DC — each representing a life lost to the coronavirus pandemic in a heart-rending exhibit called “In America: Remember.”
The 20-acre installation — which was unveiled Friday near the Washington Monument — is the second chilling exhibit that artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg said is based on a project trying to capture the “human dignity” behind the staggering death toll.
As of Friday, 670,034 deaths — one of every 500 Americans — have been recorded in the US and more than 41,700,000 cases confirmed, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s really hard to think about the grief that is just embodied by one flag,” Firstenberg told ABC News on Thursday. “And when as you walk amongst 660,000, it’s unimaginable the pain that people have gone through.”
Firstenberg, 62, who first created a white flag installation outside DC’s RFK Stadium in October 2020, told NPR she “wanted to focus on my message.”
“I didn’t purposefully start out to do a large-scale installation. My outrage led me,” she told the news outlet, referring to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s assertion that Americans should be willing to assume the risk of the deadly bug to protect the national economy.
“That really disturbed me. I just felt as though someone had to do something to make a statement that with all these people dying, we had to value each of these lives as well,” said Firstenberg, a former hospice volunteer who worked in pharmaceutics.
“Once I realized there was an art within me, I took every class I could,” Firstenberg told NPR. “I learned every material I could because I wanted to use a whole range of materials to see what I needed to say.”
After the impact of her last exhibit, she said, she reached out to the National Park Service in hopes of creating one at the National Mall — as almost 400,000 additional people have succumbed to the illness in the US since then.
“So many of these deaths happened in isolation without acknowledgment,” Firstenberg told the outlet. “When I had an opportunity to bring it to the National Mall, even though it’s an immensely greater task, there was no hesitation. I knew I needed to do it.”
She said she bought 630,000 flags in June to correspond with the death toll, but later realized that many more were needed.
“I’d run the numbers and check them several times, and I felt really assured that come the first week of October, I would not have used more than 630,000 flags,” Firstenberg said.
Visitors to the exhibit, which will last until Oct. 3, can stop at a table and personalize a flag with the name of a lost loved one.
Firstenberg said she hoped the flags will give visitors “a moment of pause.”
“This is all of our art because it’s when people personalize flags and a complete stranger comes and meets that flag and feels something, senses the grief that is embodied by just that one flag, they created the art, too,” she told ABC News.
One of the flags bears the words “John Estampador,” the 30-year-old brother of Jeneffer Haynes, who was among the roughly 300 volunteers who planted the vast crop.
Estampador, who was born with Down syndrome, died after contracting the disease in January before he had access to a vaccine.
“It brings me some form of comfort to keep their memories alive,” Haynes told Roll Call. “That’s what this is all about — to memorialize and keep them alive in some way, shape or form.”
Haynes, who took medical leave from her job at a Maryland biotech company due to panic attacks, said her brother’s death devastated her whole family. Her parents, who lived with Estampador, also were sickened and barely survived.
She said she could only visit her brother through a window for 30 minutes each day before he died.
“I couldn’t hold his hand, I couldn’t hug him, I couldn’t tell him, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ None of that,” she told Roll Call. “When he passed away, he was without his family.”