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Poppies and the art of gratitude, resilience this Memorial Day
West Lafayette senior community’s new art installation remembers as it dealt with getting through isolation of a COVID year. Plus, a WWI Honor Roll and ... see you at the parade
Good morning. A few notes ahead of today’s Memorial Day parade in Lafayette – details below – and other ways to commemorate the day …
It’s not huge, the array of dozens of ceramic poppies that cropped up this week on the Westminster Village campus, a West Lafayette senior community.
And it’s not particularly conspicuous, tucked behind a basketball court, in the manicured lawn out of sight from Salisbury Street, near Westminster’s LiveWell Fitness and Rehab Center.
But there was something right about the art installation “Reflect and Remember” ahead of this Memorial Day.
Rachel Witt, art programming coordinator at Westminster Village, posted shots from the outdoor exhibit that recalls a century-old tribute of “In Flanders Fields,” a World War I-era poem by Canadian poet and wartime surgeon John McCrae – “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row …”
Turns out, the project spoke to a sense of purpose, as well as remembrance, in a year when pandemic-driven lockdowns left senior communities isolated for months on end.
“Last fall, when COVID-19 got into the facility, remembrance and keeping perspective felt very heavy,” Witt said. “Gratitude is a little harder to grab hold of sometimes. … It was really the right project at the right time for us.”
Here’s some more …
Q: How did the project get started?
Witt: The poppy project at Westminster really began in late fall/winter of 2020. When COVID rates climbed in our area, restrictions were tightened again within the facility and the stress and weariness was very much apparent on the staff and residents of Westminster. The timing with the onset of cold weather meant the outdoor family visits we enjoyed last summer were also less feasible. In addition to medical concerns, isolation and loneliness were a daily battle.
As the art programming coordinator at Westminster Village, it's my job to facilitate art making every day in the studios at Westminster Village, but It became clear to me that it was important to start a special project that was purposeful, collaborative and gave us all an outlet to remember with gratitude and maintain our perspective.
Q: How many people were involved? And how did the project come together, from medium to process to finishing?
Witt: The project started with 15 dollar-store colanders and about 75 pounds of wet clay. At that time, wearing PPE and observing strict distancing and sanitization protocols, I was able to hold small classes in different living areas of Westminster.
I started first in Assisted Living, where residents created the first dozen poppies using different tools for design and texture and then carefully assembling the wet clay sections inside the colanders to shape and dry. Later, Independent Living residents used the same technique to complete an additional 30 or so poppies to complete the display. After drying and firing the individual poppies, residents set aside their personal projects again to carefully glaze all of the poppies inside and out and ensure they were both beautiful and durable for outdoor display. We made a decision to vary the glaze colors slightly in various shades of red, orange and pink for a more natural appearance, but keep the centers all the same for unity.
In total, 26 different residents contributed hours over nearly six months to complete the exhibit. There are no two poppies alike. They range in size from 8 inches to 12 inches in diameter and each weighs around two pounds. Their weight created its own interesting challenge, but the solution was found in the plumbing aisle as each poppy was adhered to a flange and then threaded onto a pipe.
Q: How were you able to get it done under the restrictions of COVID-19 lockdowns? You mentioned that the project addressed some of the isolation concerns during the pandemic.
Witt: As we worked through the months of the project, residents and staff were able to receive the vaccine and restrictions were slowly lifted. The poppies piled up in a display case outside the studios as they were finished, waiting for installation. They became a symbol of a lived experience of resilience. Working together on a collaborative project meant even when we couldn't be in the same room, we had tangible evidence of our individual efforts to a common goal. Where one resident would need to stop, another would come along and finish.
WHERE TO SEE THE INSTALLATION: The “Reflect and Remember” poppies will be on display through June 4 in a greenspace near the LiveWell Center at Westminster Village, 2741 N. Salisbury St. in West Lafayette. Members of the community may not enter the facility but are welcome to park near the basketball courts and follow the walkway to the view the outdoor exhibit.
At the Memorial Day Parade
Canceled last year – along with just about everything else as the COVID-19 pandemic advanced – Lafayette’s Memorial Day Parade returns today. The parade steps off at 11 a.m. at 16th and Alabama streets, turning on Main Street and ending in Columbian Park. It usually lasts less than hour, before a program in the park to honor the fallen.
Rewind: Indiana’s amazing World War I honor roll
One of more specific consequences of COVID-19 protocols – at least for me and my reading and research habits – has been the lockdown of the Tippecanoe County Public Library’s Indiana Room.
Tucked in a corner of the library and crammed with high school yearbooks, old phone books, city directories, histories of 19th century Lafayette architecture and random tomes about everything from Purdue standouts to local bowling legends, I can get lost in the Indiana Room for hours.
(Until the pandemic, that is, when you need to tell reference librarians what you’re looking for and wait for them to come with the key and bring out what you want. I love the county’s reference librarians – they know just about everything, for real. But the Indiana Room experience – random finds and all that stuff – is never going to be the same filtered through lock and key.)
The gravitational pull during those browsing, time-wasting sessions is strong from the “Gold Star Honor Roll,” the state’s compilation honoring Hoosiers who died during service in World War I. Flipping pages to read an entry or two, all catalogued by Indiana’s 92 counties, can be gut-wrenching and humbling. It’s an amazing document.
In 2015, I wrote a piece for the Journal & Courier about how the state assembled the Honor Roll and a handful of stories about the Tippecanoe County fallen.
That account started this way:
In early 1919, just months after the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, was signed to end World War I, the Indiana Historical Commission set out to chronicle the state's role in the Great War.
The first volume, the commission agreed, would document the lives of the men and women who died during service in the war.
For the next two years, commission members combed newspaper accounts, enlisted the help of American Legion posts and traveled to town halls, tracked down distant relatives on dusty rural routes, and begged mothers and fathers to trust them with precious photos of their children and, in many cases, the handwritten letters chaplains sent from the front lines to inform them their soldiers were gone.
The result was a rich, albeit grim, yearbook dedicated to World War I sacrifice.
On page after page of "Gold Star Honor Roll," the faces Indiana's soldiers, sailors, marines and nurses are arranged by county and stacked five deep with essential biographical information: Parents, birth date, hometown, occupation, service record, date and place of death, and where they were buried.
In all, "Gold Star Honor Roll," published in 1921, gave essential sketches of "3,354 sons and 15 daughters of Indiana," as Gov. James Goodrich noted in an introduction to the tome. Of those, 55 were from Tippecanoe County. Another 192 were from the seven counties surrounding Tippecanoe County.
"These records are really quite amazing. It's awe-inspiring, when you look at it. Unprecedented, even," said Pam Bennett, modern-day director of what now is called the Indiana Historical Bureau.
"I think about what it took, the great lengths they went to. We're talking about the early '20s here — no Internet, no easy access, a lot of times no good roads," Bennett said. "This probably was a labor of love, in a certain way. … And the book, itself, really is just the tip of what was collected."
She's right. It's just the tip.
John W. Oliver, director of the Indiana Historical Commission in 1921 and editor of "Gold Star Honor Roll," hailed the collection and the tireless work and often personal expense that went into gathering it, even as he lamented in the volume's opening that 700-plus pages weren't nearly enough to tell stories beyond the necessary, uniform details.
But copies of every paper, every commendation, every newspaper clipping, every photo and every letter shared with the commission remain in 57 boxes stored at the Indiana State Archives in Indianapolis.
"You're looking at a wonderful, wonderful resource, starting with the book," said Alan January, director of patron services at the Indiana State Archives. "But as you go through (those files in the archives), in many cases, you really get a glimpse at what the families were going through."
For the full story, the J&C has a version posted here.
That will tide me over until I can poke through that volume again, unfettered, when the Indiana Room reopens.
See you later this morning at the parade.
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