Artist calls for ‘army of volunteers’ to help remove COVID memorial exhibit

Volunteers help remove artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s “In America: Remember” exhibit at the National Mall in D.C. (WTOP/Gigi Barnett )
Flags removed from the exhibit that were personalized will be saved and archived in Firstenberg’s Bethesda, Maryland, studio. (WTOP/Gigi Barnett )
Those interested in volunteering can visit the white tents located on the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue in Northwest D.C. (WTOP/Gigi Barnett )

Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg spent three days in September installing more than 660,000 little white flags on the National Mall to memorialize those who died in the pandemic. At the time, she had a slew of volunteers helping create the exhibit.

When it was completed, visitors traveled from across the country to pay tribute to loved ones who died of COVID-19.

“We were knitting people together who would have never had a chance to meet,” said Firstenberg. “We had a chemist who lost her grandfather and a guy from Oregon who lost his dad.”

The large-scale art project, dubbed  “In America: Remember,” ended Sunday, and Firstenberg has until Thursday to pluck each white flag from the ground. With rain in the forecast, she is calling for an army of volunteers to help.

“If people will just show up,” she said. “They can come to the corner of 17th and Constitution and look for the white tents. All they have to do is bend over and pick up white flags.”

Firstenberg said volunteers are still connecting with the exhibit and thinking about family and friends lost to COVID-19 as they clean up the site.

“The art exhibition has ended, but the stories are still coming,” she said.

Firstenberg said her work with the flags isn’t over. More than 14,000 were personalized by visitors with messages memorializing loved ones, so she plans to archive them at her Bethesda, Maryland, studio. The rest will be recycled.

She is also looking for volunteers to help her clean, photograph and document those personalized flags over the winter.

Firstenberg must meet the tight Friday deadline, or else her exhibit will be in the way of a film crew that already has permission from the National Park Service to use the space.

Her race against time and weather is tricky because she only wants human hands for the job.

“I’m actually really glad that we can’t bring some kind of flag picker-upper machine,” she said. “I don’t think it would be respectful to these flags. They were very lovingly installed, and they have meant so much. “

Volunteers interested in helping remove the memorial should go to the corner of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue to register at the white tents there. Firstenberg said any time given is appreciated.

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