By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post
When the National Park Service told Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg that her next art installation will be given the most prominent display in the nation — on America’s iconic front lawn — it should’ve been a dream come true.
But honestly? Every inch of her exhibit is a gut punch.
“Last fall, I had to place two additional orders for flags after my initial order of a quarter million,” said Firstenberg, 61, a local artist who created a riveting field of white flags symbolizing every covid-19 death in the United States last autumn. “It literally made me feel sick.”
When she opened her first exhibit related to the coronavirus pandemic in October, it was a stunning, fluttering expanse of little white flags on the spread of lawn outside the D.C. Armory, tucked away near decaying RFK Stadium. It looked like an early snowfall, and commuters pulled over to gawk and shake their heads at the physical representation of so many covid-19 deaths.
“How can you not stop and look?” Kenneth Nguyen, 31, said to me after he got off his motorcycle at the edge of the installation last fall and began taking pictures. “It’s just amazing to see it all out here.”
The death toll that morning: 221,247.
She updated that toll on a huge banner at one end of the field every day, swapping numbers held on by Velcro strips whenever Johns Hopkins University released a new total.
“We have a new number!” said Firstenberg’s husband, Doug Firstenberg, on the morning I met them.
Riiiip, riiiip, riiiip went the Velcro: 222,220.
On that day — Oct. 22 — 1,041 people died of covid-19. And we shook our heads as we tried to come up with comparisons to understand that magnitude.
It’s more than two 747s full of passengers crashing into the sea. It’s like vaporizing nearly all the people of St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It’s like losing the audience in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
By the time Firstenberg dismantled the project in November, the death toll had reached a shocking 250,000.
She applied for a permit to move the installation to the National Mall for the presidential inauguration. And didn’t hear back.
Instead, the Mall was filled with 200,000, tiny American and state flags to stand in for the crowd that wasn’t allowed to be there because of pandemic restrictions. It was evocative of Firstenberg’s project, but not the same.
On that day, Jan. 20, 4,440 people died of covid-19.
(That’s almost all American casualties in more than seven years of the Iraq War. It’s more than all the people killed on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s nearly the entire population of Luray, Va.)
The death rate kept climbing as folks returned from ill-advised winter gatherings with fruitcake, jet lag and the coronavirus. Firstenberg was restless.
“I felt morally obligated to honor all those deaths,” she said.
And then, just as the deaths began reaching incomprehensible numbers, the National Park Service called Firstenberg. It found her old application and gave her a thumbs-up.
This time, her installation — “In America: Remember” — will be more than twice the size.
“Seeing rapidly rising hospitalization rates – the leading metric on deaths – makes me want to cry,” she said. “These are preventable deaths.”
The current death toll is more than 607,000. That’s close to the number of American combat deaths in the Civil War, World War I and World War II; the ones with the big permanent, marble monuments. Combined.
She will get 17 days starting in mid-September on 22 acres of the Mall to help us visualize the magnitude of this pandemic.
“I want Americans to understand that our strength derives from our valuing of each other,” she said “A country is not a concept; it is the individuals who comprise it. All of them.”
There will be a technical component that will allow folks to personalize a flag to honor a loved one, then see footage of the flag as it’s being planted and flutters in the breeze. (You can do that on the installation website: inamericaflags.org.) “Mirroring the art in a digital space,” Firstenberg explained.
Now we’re averaging about 300 deaths a day as more Americans are getting vaccinated and the nation is beginning to reopen.
Still, experts warn that the more contagious delta variant is sparking a new surge in cases, especially in areas where vaccination rates are low, and Firstenberg thinks the timing of the new exhibit — Sept. 17 — will make an effective warning, just as schools and activities are reopening.
Her target audience is those who practice “the opposite of patriotism” by not getting vaccinated.
“Because of, and likely for the vaccine refusers, I have ordered extra flags,” she said.
It will be sickening if she runs out of them again.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.