On Sept. 16, when Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg finished setting up her display by the Washington Monument of one flag for each American felled by COVID-19, she oversaw the planting of 666,600 small white flags.
On Wednesday, Firstenberg and volunteers pulled up 701,000 flags, the most up-to-date number of deaths.
When the Bethesda resident began imagining the tribute and was told she could use the National Mall in September, her first thought was that the pandemic would be winding down and her display would be in remembrance. But the deaths kept mounting, and Firstenberg now views her art installation more than just a way to honor the dead.
“We did this to recapture their dignity and to make a statement that each person matters,” she said as she separated the 15,000 flags with tributes written on them from the solid white ones. The number of deaths is so “huge,” she said. “I wanted to make it understandable. It was so large it became too easy to dismiss.”
She named her work In America: Remember.
A few years ago, the social activist artist created another display to honor the dead. That one paid tribute to those who died of a drug overdose. On clotheslines, she hung one pair of worn blue jeans for each death. The jeans were displayed in Rockville and at the Bethesda metro.
Firstenberg came to art later in life, when she was 50 years old. She spent much of her career in the pharmaceutical industry and also worked as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). She decided to take a summer ceramics art class at Landon School in Bethesda and then continued taking classes at Montgomery County College and Glen Echo, where she learned n stone carving.
She credits those classes and her 25 years as a hospice volunteer for much of the ideas behind her installations.
The COVID-19 display was on the National Mall for about three weeks. “I’ve been here 10 to 12 hours everyday since Sept. 14,” she said.
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