The woman who commemorated every Covid death in America

Artist planted a white flag for every person who was killed by the coronavirus

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Inside an art studio near Washington are 20,000 small polyester flags stored in dozens of boxes that have been stacked on shelves. Each flag has a handwritten note on it.

Suzanne Firstenberg, a visual artist living near the US capital, in the state of Maryland, pulls down one of the boxes and begins examining its contents.

“Oh, my gosh,” she says, reading from one of the flags.

“‘Continue to get your rest, my dear, sweet daughter. Kiss Big Danny for me, Mama’,” she says.

The tribute is just one created during Firstenberg’s recent art project memorialising those lost to Covid-19 in the US, where more than one million people have now been killed by the virus.

In two installations, titled In America: How could this happen... and In America: Remember, respectively, a white flag was planted for each Covid-19 death recorded in the US.

“We are a hurting country,” Firstenberg told The National.

“We’re living through one of the most momentous, tumultuous times in our history ... And we need to find spaces and opportunities to honour people’s loss.”

The first showing featured almost 270,000 flags outside Washington’s RFK Stadium and was organised to reflect the nearby Arlington Cemetery.

Firstenberg was later invited to present her work on Washington’s National Mall, where more than 660,000 flags were placed within view of the White House and the US Congress.

They helped Americans to visualise the scale of loss experienced in the country during the pandemic.

“It is so important to mark these deaths because people become inured to the news,” said Ms Firstenberg. “One in three Americans has been touched by a Covid death in some manner.”

“So when you are sitting in a movie theatre or you are in a grocery store line, one of the two people beside, in front or behind you ... has been touched.”

While the flags have since been removed from the public space, Ms Firstenberg is now working to move the thousands of handwritten notes online.

She is also in talks to have the physical copies placed in a museum.

Speaking as the US reached the milestone of one million Covid deaths, the highest figure recorded in the world, Ms Firstenberg said there were no words to encompass how horrified she felt.

But through her work, she has found cause for optimism.

Firstenberg recounted a story about a woman named Cynthia who planted a flag for her mother on the National Mall.

“She became overwhelmed with grief and just lay her forehead down and sobbed,” said Ms Firstenberg. “When she finally gathered herself and stood up, there was a young man standing near by.

“He looked at her and just said, ‘Man, you look like you could use a hug,’ before the strangers embraced.”

“There is humanity,” said Ms Firstenberg. “And if we can create places like the flags, where humanity can live and thrive, then we’ll be OK. That gives me hope.”

Updated: May 15, 2022, 4:23 PM
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