Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Archive for the tag “art”

Washed away by the rain – street chalking and ephemeral memorials, Part 1

A colleague of mine from Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, Gillian Graham, sent me the following photos earlier this year:

 

–and a close-up of the chalking–

 

 

She also sent this explanation:

“So this popped up on the corner of 173rd/Haven Ave in NYC last week. I saw it in progress; I saw a woman find out for the first time that this woman had died through this shrine (she grew up with her), and then the next day it was washed out by a rainstorm.”

This New York City shrine is the perfect example of an ephemeral memorial.  I sometimes use the terms makeshift memorial/ephemeral memorial/spontaneous shrine/roadside memorial interchangeably, but in this case, I believe ephemeral memorial is the most appropriate due to the absolute ephemerality of the shrine.  Chalk, by nature, does not last on pavement for very long.  I grew up in the hot and dry suburbs, so as a child, a chalked hopscotch pattern could last for quite a long time (maybe two weeks).  In a place like New York City where there is extreme foot traffic and frequent heavy thunderstorms, anything that is chalked will probably not last more than about one or two days– if even that long.

A shrine like this makes me think of burning offerings for the dead.  You burn them and send them off away from the living to the dead.  A shrine that is made with the understanding that it will soon be gone is delicate yet powerful.  It has intense meaning for the fleeting moments that it exists and then it is washed away.  Like the person to whom it is dedicated, the shrine becomes a memory.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire memorial project CHALK…stay tuned…

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“When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

Hello dear shriners!

I’m very sorry for the long absence…April was a truly crazed month.  The long and short of it is I ended up leaving a job to pursue freelance journalism full-time, I’m in the process of getting ready to move, I’ll be officially graduating next week from my graduate program [for which this was my thesis, though it’s become much more], and I’ve been putting a lot of time into my part-time responsibilities– namely as an interviewer and host for a public radio station, program assistant and blogger for an education abroad trip that I’m totally excited about [it’s on Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies!], and social media coordinator for a public radio news service.  Plus, New York City’s been a happening place to be what with all of the Occupy Wall Street action!

But, I’m excited to be back in the world of spontaneous shrines.  I’ve been collecting lots of interesting material to cover in the coming weeks and I’m looking forward to having the time to blog on a regular basis again.  I figured I’d start off with a more light-hearted post:

It starts with an empty newspaper/flyer box [like those found on many street corners] in Toronto and a person with a sense of urban art aesthetic who had a creative idea for a DIY [do-it-yourself] project.  This person took some plywood and constructed a flower planter inside the open flyer box.  Then, this DIYer posted the idea on a DIY website along with this picture:

I happened upon this photo of the newspaper box planter one day while searching for “makeshift memorials” online.  It was accompanied by an alternative press blog post entitled: “When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

I find it interesting that although the person who initially created the flyer box planter seemed to be only re-purposing and re-beautifying public space, the person who wrote the blog post transformed the flyer box planter from DIY project into makeshift memorial–and what a makeshift memorial it is!  Not only does it have the typical flower offerings, the flower offerings are planted in an aesthetically pleasing configuration.  It is a lovely example of public art and folk art.  The space calls attention to the newspaper stand, and it’s immediately apparent that the space has been altered.  Those print newspaper lovers among us (I’m definitely one) feel a pang of sadness at the loss of a newspaper, but the flowers help me cope with this feeling of loss.  They are beautiful and give me the physical space to deal with the change from what has been to what is now.  It also invites us to participate in this re-claiming of space–we can all make flyer box planters with simple plywood, dirt, and seeds 🙂

This is why I find spontaneous shrines and makeshift memorials such a fascinating topic.  There are so many ways in which public memorialization can be seen in everyday life–and not all of those ways are associated with such terrible topics as death.  People have a need to remember that which has been and memorials, no matter how small or playful, help us reflect upon and move with these changes that comes with time.

With that, I would like to thank you for reading and stay tuned for more posts in the near future!

The ghost bike for Liz Byrne

For the next few days, I’ll be posting photographs from the 7th Annual Ghost Bikes Memorial Walk and Ride.  I participated in the walk, so the photos will be primarily of that portion of the event.  This first set is of the ghost bike for Liz Byrne.  It is located on the corner of McGuinness Boulevard and Kent Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn:

Liz Byrne, age 44, was killed while bicycling on the busy street on Friday, September 23, 2005.  Her sister, Annie Byrne, requested that a ghost bike be installed in her honor.  You can read more about this particular memorial on the ghost bikes website.

Here are pictures of Liz Byrne’s ghost bike taken on Sunday, March 18, 2012:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photographic memory(alization) – A person, a camera, and 1,854 pictures of roadside shrines

Terry Cook has dedication, passion, transportation…and a camera.

Terry visited my blog a while back and left a comment.  Curious about this commenter, I clicked link after link and followed a line of social media until I came to the Flickr photostream of MT Silverstar.  I was absolutely amazed at the images I found there.  Terry has perhaps the most impressive, immense, and diverse collection of roadside memorial photographs I have ever seen.  Not only is each memorial treated in a compassionate and thoughtful manner (any known details about the shrines and the people they memorialize are included), it is clear that the photographer has often made an effort to re-visit many of the shrines after the initial encounter:

               

          

There are photographs of smaller shrines:

and photographs of larger ones:

…photographs of new-age shrines:

          

and photographs of traditional shrines:

The photographer has an eye for detail…

And an eye for individuality:

I always wonder what draws people to these unique markers and was especially curious about what led this particular person to put so much effort into stopping and taking the time to lovingly photograph nearly every roadside memorial that would otherwise have flashed past.  I asked Terry and this is what I received in response:

“When I was very young I used to see the Montana American Legion fatality markers ( a small white cross on a red pole) along the road and they seemed a little spooky to me. Later I worked for many years as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff, and while attending to motor vehicle accidents was a routine part of the job, having to go to someone’s home to tell them that a Son, Daughter, Wife or Husband would not be coming home was a task that I dreaded. Each time I knew that what we or I was about to tell someone would change their life and would be something that they would remember forever. I’m pretty sure that those experiences lead me to my interest in (or obsession with) the memorials that families and friends create for their loved ones.”

Thank you, Terry, for sharing these beautiful images.

Albion Street – A poem and a place of death

“On 2nd February 2009 at 11pm, 16 year old Andrew Bornen was handcuffed by police and left lying face down on Albion St, Brassall. He was subsequently hit by a car driven by a young woman who failed to see the police try to flag her down. He later died of head injuries in the Ipswich Hospital.”

This is the postscript to Brett Dionysis’ poem, “Albion Street,” which is dedicated to Bornen.  Dionysis, a grammar school teacher from Ipswich, UK, won several awards in the 2011 Ipswich Poetry Feast, including first prize for “Albion Street.”  He writes about tragedy and loss in his English hometown, visiting makeshift memorials around the community as inspiration for his poems.  I wanted to share this quote from the article, “How tragedy inspired poetry,” followed by the poem itself.  In a way, Dionysis’ poems stand as extensions of the shrines–they carry the memory of the dead beyond the death itself.  They catch our attention and force us momentarily to consider an individual life and the implications of a tragic death.

“I believe that writers should explore their sense of place, and a part of that is the tragic sense of place, which is sometimes not covered.”

Mr Dionysius said his latest poems tried to “make sense of the insensible; of senseless acts that occur in utterly tragic circumstances”.

“It’s not that Ipswich has a tragic history, it’s just that I’m drawn to trying to make sense of parts of life,” he said.

Mr Dionysius said he was personally affected by the death of Mr Bornen on Albion St, as he lived near the scene in a “tight-knit community”.

“I remember the night that it happened, we heard the sirens pass our house,” Mr Dionysius said.

“It affected a lot of people, and the effect rippled out into the Ipswich community.”

Mr Dionysius said his Albion Street poem explored the event from the perspective of the natural environment and place, with monuments and statues being a major theme.

“In some cultures, battle and loss sites become sacred, and we’ve become obsessed with monuments ourselves,” he said.

Brett Dionysis at the makeshift memorial for Andrew Bornen. Photo by Claudia Baxter.

Albion Street 

by Brett Dionysius
Woodend, Qld

For Andrew Bornen

(i)
The bitumen was a blue scab short-healed & sticky
Where its edges had been picked at by cars & trucks
That gained bodily pleasure from teasing out its pain.
Its crusted lip was infected & boiled, as the Ipswich
Heat sank its knee into the road’s soft, navy groin.
A bridge pulled like a stitch across the Bremer’s tan
Cut, traffic laced over it & tied off the river’s deep
Wound. A monument bled brass words on the wet
Crossings’ historical news; a white pyramid, it stood
As memory’s speed hump, something to slow down.
Light fled the scene without telling anyone as night
Injected itself into the squabble; a scheduled painkiller
That cooled the hot sweat & turned the road to bruise.
Rainbow lorikeets spewed out the animals’ white noise.

(ii)
The bitumen gave a bit as he stepped onto it; like boys
Poking their fingers into a mother’s set jelly & bending
Matter. The road had sunk into an abyss of cobalt &
Wobbled under his bare feet as he took centre stage.
A breeze enveloped him in its fluid net & he looked
Towards the river, tracing the road’s curvature until
He spotted, just after the bridge, a giant’s white tooth
Cemented into the ground. The Bremer, a soggy mouth
Sucked in all sound, so he didn’t hear the night’s repeat
Command; to lie down in its arms. Fruit bats formed
A furry vortex as homogenous dusk moved in & draped
Its black wing over him. They picked him up clearly, as
Their radar signals bounced harmlessly from his head.
Headlights spotted him & they gave him up for dead.

(ii)
With the switch of a torch they transformed him into lead.
He spotlight froze in the backyard at night, where possums
Sucked him in with the pitch-black bathplugs of their eyes.
These men were trees to him. Pouches full of institution.
He fell into the sapphire road’s slick embrace as his body
Ripped its park brake & he jack knifed to a stop. His lips
Smeared some rouge on the bitumen’s blue shirt, he swore
They had filled his lungs with concrete, all he could get was
A squelchy breath. His muscles ran their instant marathon.
They tagged him with steel bracelets, & supported a cause
No one else could appreciate, charity having fled back into
Pandora’s Box to tape her sore wrists up. Time out of joint.
Like water-birds blind at night, they trailed a broken wing
To distract the hunter, who suddenly burst in on the thing.

(iv)
Nothing is as frightening as the telephone’s midnight ring.
Sound will take you, if you stop & listen to it. Voices rise
& fall like a sleeper’s automatic chest or a kestrel’s clawed
Collapse, when breath-quiet, a mouse never hears its death.
The azure bitumen was oddly comfortable, like in the school
Playground when, big lunch perched, he would eat as if there
Were no tomorrow. It could be warm as any beach, or stretch
Like old chewing gum, but here, right now it only cradled him
A father’s pumped arms, a mother’s pliant breast, it stood in for
The care of atoms & earthly stuff. He was touched at the last.
He was a fallen statue carved from sixteen years of love, that
One small blemish kept from calling a masterpiece. He knew
That a giant’s tooth could chip, as the road’s indigo cloak
Engulfed him. He never listened to the chisel’s final stroke.

On 2nd February 2009 at 11pm, 16 year old Andrew Bornen was handcuffed by police and left lying face down on Albion St, Brassall. He was subsequently hit by a car driven by a young woman who failed to see the police try to flag her down. He later died of head injuries in the Ipswich Hospital.

Where They Left — Roadside Memorials & Descansos

I found this video on youtube posted by user ‘bridgesoflosangeles’.  It is a series of photographs of roadside memorials in Los Angeles, California with the song “Corre, Rio, Corre” by David Lanz in the background.  I’ve come across several amateur videos featuring shrines and soothing or sorrowful music.  What interested me about this one was the written blurb beneath the video:

“The Mexican tradition of the road side memorial – or “Descanso” – has spread to Los Angeles County. It is common to see these home made alters at the spot where someone died, usually in an automobile accident but for other reasons as well. They are of course sad but they are also symbols of love. For me, they are a kind of home made folk art, something assembled with a passion and power beyond the limits of the materials used. They are on a road from sadness to healing.”

‘bridgesoflosangeles’ describes spontaneous shrines as a type of folk art, stemming from the Mexican tradition of descansos.  I like the fact that this video locates itself in a particular time and place.  The photographs featured in the video excellently portray some of the characteristics typical of California shrines.  As a native Californian, these are the types of shrines I grew up passing frequently on the roadsides.  Many of them are constructed by and for Mexican Catholics and often have devotional candles for patron saints.  Keep an eye out for these tall, glass candles as you watch the video!

Music as Memorial in Jim Fox’s “Descansos, Past”

I recently came across a Music From Other Minds interview with composer Jim Fox about his album entitled Descansos, Past.  The entire interview, which was conducted via email, can be read here.

Fox begins his written interview:  “As mentioned in the CD’s single sentence of liner note, the piece was written “in memorium” for a friend, John Kuhlman, who took his own life in 1996.”  I find it interesting that Fox chose to use only a single “in memorium” sentence for the liner notes.  Liner notes are often extensive pieces that go into detail about the artist(s), composition(s), lyrics (if there are any), “thank you”s, etc…  In terms of CDs, it is rare to come across a recording with such minimal explanation.  However, if one is thinking of this piece as a memorial, it is not so unexpected.  Shrines, also called descansos, are often dedicated with only a few words– the deceased’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a short personal message.

Fox goes on to explain his use of the term descansos in the title:

“”Descansos” are little roadside memorials that one commonly finds throughout the Southwest, marking the spot where someone died. They may be simple (just a cross or wreath) or ornate (a small shrine), and are a recognized form of Mexican-influenced folk art. The word itself means “rest,” and I have encountered two prevailing stories as to its roadside-memorial use. The first suggests that the idea arrived from Europe with the Conquistadors, who marked the death of one of their own with a small marker, usually a cross, referred to as a “descansos,” at the spot along the road where a person died–that individual’s final “resting place.” This story rings true to me. The second story seems a less-reasonable explanation: The markers originally marked the spots where pallbearers carrying a coffin to the graveyard would stop to “rest” during their journey. Tied to this story is another that relates the markers and pallbearers’ journey to the Catholic Church’s “Stations of the Cross” concept. In short, I believe the simple marker where a traveler (or anyone on a road or roadside) fell/died, dating from the time of the earliest European conquest of the Americas, is the most reasonable “descansos” history, and in agreement with present usage.

Perhaps I should point out here that in my use of “descansos” I dissociate the word from all particular religious meaning. I’m not a religious person in any sense whatsoever, but I find fascinating the ways that man has throughout history thought about and commemorated death, his own and those of his friends and enemies. And I feel a certain yet amorphous “resonance,” which I suspect most of us do, when strolling old cemeteries and battlefields and other places where death and life coincide directly. Perhaps this is tied to the simple sense that we’re all headed into inevitable oblivion, and for the moment we pause with that thought, we share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”

One of the often controversial aspects of roadside shrines is the obvious use of religious objects and symbolism.  In the debate over shrines and public vs. private space, allowing a religious symbol to stand on public land is a definite point of controversy.  Fox seems to suggest that although descansos have a religious history, they are recognized–along the roadside–as more than just religious symbols.  They are recognized as places of death.  They are places where people may “share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”  It is this coming together of the living and the dead–this point of crossing boundaries–this liminal space, that make spontaneous shrines such complex entities.  Therefore, I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that someone who does not consider himself a religious person should choose to use a musical descanso to commemorate a lost friend.

Although Fox’s piece of music is not typical, I believe it nonetheless should be considered a shrine, of sorts.  It is for a particular person, was constructed specifically for that person (“in memorium”), and is meant to not only commemorate but to call attention to this death.  It calls for a pause– to remember and to think and in this case, also to listen.

Roadside to film to canvas – artwork and shrines of the Southwest

I’m back in my hometown of Riverside, California for the holidays and I’ve seen some unique roadside memorials along the highways.  There is a particularly vibrant shrine culture in Southern California and throughout the Southwest due in part to strong Catholic influences.  While I work on tracking down information about a few of these local memorials, I’ll share a site that I came across a while ago.

The people at Barhead Goose Studios drove from Cerrillos to Taos, New Mexico and recorded many of the roadside shrines along the way.  They use the Spanish term descansos meaning ‘resting places’ to describe the memorials.  Their photography is beautiful and captures some of the most exquisitely decorated shrines I’ve ever seen.  But the thing that caught my attention about their Descansos project was the series of gouache sketches they did of the shrines.  It is rare to find such evocative artwork of descansos.  Below is their video of the project which includes live footage of the shrines, their photos, and their drawings  which wonderfully illustrates the careful progression from roadside to film to canvas.

 

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Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics...They are, I believe, the voice of the people." --Jack Santino

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