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Highland Park Artist Helps Her Community Transform Grief Into Action

Firearms


First I noticed the stones: some painted, some wrapped with orange yarn, all of them a little flat and small enough to fit easily in the palm of a human hand. Then the candles: cylindrical and about eight inches high, encased in glass adorned with images of Jesus or the Virgin of Guadalupe. Sharing sidewalk and ledges, these Jewish grave-visitation stones and Catholic Mexican veladoras jointly mark sacred space for remembering the seven people gunned down during the Independence Day parade on that very street this summer — and beyond, the more than 40,000 people on average lost to gun violence in the United States each year. 

Those are far from the only items that make up a stunning ad hoc public memorial in Highland Park, Illinois, the suburb of Chicago where I grew up. Though I left there in the mid-1970s — a few years before gun companies began selling to civilians the military-style weapons that now dominate the market — my mom still lives there, and visiting two weeks ago, I stopped by the memorial to pay my respects.

Those stones and veladoras grabbed my focus for the way they evoke the mix of mourning traditions among Highland Park residents and even more, for a palpable sense of the many individual hands that placed them there. They sit among myriad testimonial objects arrayed within a covered walkway — a pavilion of domed skylights over brick pavement — that runs along a stretch of Central Avenue, the town’s main drag (and part of the July 4 parade route). Thanks to the efforts of the artist Jacqueline von Edelberg and a handful of other volunteers who have stepped up to maintain the site, it has become a dynamic interactive installation and continual communal gathering place unlike any I have ever witnessed. 

Though I have been to powerful memory sites in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and around the US, studied commemorative practices, and written about some, I wasn’t prepared for the mix of intense emotions that roiled within me at the installation in my hometown: grief, fury, fear, a surprising contemplative calm that soothed me like a soft breeze, and an unexpected eagerness to engage with other people there. 

The memorial is located within a covered walkway that runs along a stretch of Central Avenue, the town’s main drag and part of the July 4 parade route.

That’s not just because I have a personal connection to Highland Park. After all, I witnessed, up close, the second plane crash through the World Trade Center on 9/11, in the city that has been my home for twice as many decades as I lived in Highland Park, and I lost a firefighter-friend in the Twin Towers rubble; yet Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” 9/11 memorial in New York leaves me with a kind of cold, conceptual appreciation and closes me within my own thoughts. Amid a sense of requisite solemnity as I gaze into its gaping voids, I feel insignificant and powerless against the geopolitical forces that stoke horrific violence. At the corner of St. Johns and Central Avenues in Highland Park, I felt unexpectedly energized.

Of course, the mammoth scale and national scope of New York’s 9/11 memorial differ from the intimate and local sensibility of the Highland Park installation as vastly as the massive granite of the former contrasts with the diaphanous orange fabric that dominates the latter. And how one responds to a public monument recalling communal trauma is as personal, and unpredictable, as trauma itself. Still, the ways the Highland Park installation inspired an urge to commune with others — and indeed, a desire to return to it again and again — offer some clues for how sites of collective mourning might mobilize visitors rather than leave them in paralyzing sorrow. 

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Von Edelberg had such activation in mind when she began what she calls “gently curating” the assemblage of commemorative items at the pavilion. Within a couple days of the shooting, which also left 48 people injured, the California-based artist couple, Noah Reich and David Maldonado, arrived in Highland Park with wooden-framed altars featuring blown-up digital photos of each of the fatal victims and placed them at the pavilion, like they had done with similar striking cenotaphs to those murdered in mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, Buffalo, New York, and Sacramento, California. Von Edelberg, who had moved to Highland Park a year earlier after several decades living in Chicago, appreciated Reich and Maldonado’s installation, but found something “overly sad” in the heap of teddy bears and flowers still in their plastic left by people who “arrived in silence and sadness and left in silence and sadness.”

Von Edelberg said she’s “gently curating” the assemblage of commemorative items at the pavilion.

So, drawing from her 20-year practice of making interactive public art, von Edelberg brought to the site bins of orange yarn (the color of the movement for gun control) and tied a ball to each of the couple dozen pillars that form the pavilion. What, after all, might someone do after stopping by, she wondered: Go home and cry? Go back to work? Go get coffee? She hung out at the space and invited people to wrap a pillar in yarn; scores of visitors accepted. The simple physical activity — “it’s beautiful, seems purposeful, and there’s no mess-up factor,” von Edelberg said — offered participants time to ponder, process, and often, converse. Some stayed for hours, many returned day after day. With the Sharpies and cardboard tags she put out, they wrote notes of anguish and exhortation and hung them on the wrapped pillars: “Choose love;” “Enough!” “HP Strong;” “Ban assault weapons now.” Some 7,000 messages now festoon the space. Those on the photo altars are reserved for visitors close to the fallen: “Thank you for being my first teacher”; “I love you, Papi”; and in Spanish, “We will love you always. Your grandchildren. ”

Von Edelberg had developed techniques for sparking civic engagement in public art projects like the Vote Tree in Atlanta for Georgia’s January 2021 Senate run-off election: Beneath a famed local mural honoring the civil rights leader Hosea Williams, residents gathered over six weeks to decorate the area with yarn, swaths of fabric, and messages of hope, while picking up business cards with a QR code that took the user directly to the official site for requesting mail-in ballots. The project helped deliver 24,000 votes, according to von Edelberg. There, and elsewhere over the years, von Edelberg has used ribbons of cloth symbolically for installations and events promoting causes like reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and gun control. In June, only a few weeks before the July 4 shooting, her exhibition on gun violence, Enough, went up at Highland Park’s Art Center. Comprising 30,000 strips of orange fabric, each representing a child killed by gun violence in the decade since the Sandy Hook massacre, it had appeared earlier in cities around the country and in neighborhoods of Chicago where gun violence is chronic (and media attention and resources for coping meager). “These are the literal threads that connect us,” von Edelberg told me, gesturing toward the flutter of orange cloth from Enough now suspended around the pavilion. “It’s the same pain when a child is lost on the south side of Chicago or the north side, and it’s the same responsibility for all of us to solve this problem.”

Visitors to the memorial have left more than 7000 messages of anguish and hope.

A small team of volunteers quickly began maintaining the pavilion with von Edelberg — unwrapping the flowers and putting them in buckets of water, sorting the objects people have left — and the memorial kept growing, acquiring a folksy sophistication as the reach for available common tropes like teddy bears and roses gave way to more individual and specific expressions. Indeed, a key to the memorial’s success has been its open participatory nature: Each contribution seems to inspire responses and further additions. In social media invitations, von Edelberg encourages participants to use orange, stay positive, and avoid logos and egos — to recognize that whatever anyone adds might be moved or changed by the next person who comes along. 

A knitter named Amy made yarn monarch butterflies and chunky orange hearts to place around the memorial, and more knitted objects began to appear. A construction worker named Luís rebuilt the altars so they could withstand wind and rain, then a local engraver made small name plaques to attach to each. A decorated mailbox collects “Cards for Cooper,” as part of the initiative by Illinois state senator Julie Morrison to deliver words of encouragement to Cooper Roberts, the eight-year-old boy paralyzed by a gunshot to his chest. Along with von Edelberg and a neighborhood printer, a surviving victim made seven Tibetan prayer flags, each bearing the name of one who was killed.

While there is no call for monetary donations, not even a discreet basket somewhere — “we don’t want the space to be in any way transactional,” said von Edelberg — businesses in the area have contributed small rugs (for comfy sitting spaces), stones, and art supplies. Despite Home Depot’s national company earning an “F” score in-store gun safety from Business Must Act and remaining a top corporate contributor to candidates who are darlings of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the local store provided potted plants and a crew to help move piles of stuff. The music journalist and producer Lynn Orman Weiss, has been helping to curate a live concert series featuring Chicago-area musicians every evening, a way of “amplifying the good of humanity,” she said. It’s blues one night, an oud player another, and “a rabbi singing Dylan tunes,” as von Edelberg described the folk style of Benyamin Herst who, along with Ely Cooper, serenaded a mellow crowd of about 30 the late August night I visited. (Yes, he is really a rabbi.)

A mailbox collects cards for Cooper Roberts, the eight-year-old boy paralyzed by a gunshot to his chest.

Perhaps this sense of openness, which gives anyone who wants it a stake in the content of the memorial, stems from von Edelberg’s not coming from art world: When a photographer friend complimented her on creating social practice art, she had to look up what he meant. Rather, this work has evolved from her own community activism, beginning with efforts a couple of decades ago to improve the Chicago school her kids attended. No doubt, it has also been informed by her knowledge of democratic process — she abandoned an early academic career in political philosophy; her PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago assessed Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the US legal system in his 1835 book Democracy in America.

Von Edelberg’s own politics are progressive and many of the messages inscribed on the dangling tangle of tags call for stricter gun control in a town that had banned assault weapons in 2013 and, in August, passed a resolution calling for state and federal bans on semi-automatic guns, body armor, and high-capacity ammunition magazines. And the memorial hosted a live reading of the messages by the local branches of Students Demand Action and March For Our Lives, which the groups billed as also a “call to action.” Still, the memorial itself promotes no specific policy positions. The QR codes on small cards available at this site take users right to the US Congressional switchboard. “There’s nothing that tells them what to say. This is a nonpartisan effort,” von Edelberg said. But it is hard to imagine that anyone standing amid the collective capacity to create beauty amid grieving and anger, would be moved to call for more access to assault weapons. In any event, an essential aspect of the memorial is that it erects no barriers.

It’s doubtful that the installation can withstand the coming Chicago winter, but the bigger question is, should it? How long should this kind of memorial last? Von Edelberg demurs: “As long as it is useful.” Acknowledging that it has provided healing for some people while being “re-traumatizing for others,” Highland Park authorities will be scaling it back soon (and promises to archive its materials) while the town begins to consider a permanent memorial. Across the street from the installation stands “Freedom’s Sacrifice,” the community’s monument honoring soldiers from Highland Park who perished in war: a curved granite wall with photographic images of marching troops and an aproned woman waving farewell, and metal medallions in the brick pavement below. Right after the July 4 shooting, people left flowers and other tributes there, but no one returned to hang out, share feelings, build community. Perhaps that’s the nature of stone and bronze. As the scholar James Young has argued, permanent monuments can take the place of the experience of remembering and absolve the public of the responsibility of responding to the atrocity they memorialize. Whatever happens to the installation she has helped to sustain as a space of public encounter, exchange, and restoration, von Edelberg holds out one hope: “That anguish turns into action.”



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