The public art installation honoring the victims still draws a crowd

Blair Miller and her four young children had often driven past the public art installation in Highland Park honoring the victims of the July 4 mass shooting, but it was weeks before they stopped to look at it.

Finally, a few days before the children started school in mid-August, the family came to the pavilion on Central Avenue, its poles wrapped in bright orange yarn, the color adopted by the anti-gun violence movement. Thousands of luggage tags, bearing handwritten messages of hope, sadness and defiance, hung from the columns and from easels bearing portraits of the seven people killed.

“Sending love! Be strong!” read one typical dispatch, written in purple ink.

The Miller children took to writing their own messages. The family was at the parade that was shot at, Miller said, and three of her children attend the same Highland Park elementary school as Cooper Roberts, the 8-year-old who was shot and paralyzed that day.

“I hope this goes on for a very long time,” Miller said. “When you see all the notes people have written and all the items they’ve brought, certainly nothing is wrong, but it’s comforting to know how much love there is, especially in times of grief and heartbreak. “

But makeshift memorials tend to be short-lived — the city of Uvalde, Texas, removed one six weeks after the massacre at Robb Elementary School — and some in Highland Park told the Tribune that the project, located in the heart of the suburb’s downtown, has been there long enough.

“The memorial is not a place we keep coming back to … for arts and crafts,” said one resident who escaped gunfire during the parade. “It’s long past time to take him down.”

City Manager Gida Neukirch said there are no plans to remove the installation, but because some residents find it triggering, officials want to see it scaled back.

“The request is if they can consider how they could reduce this artwork so that it’s not as visible,” she said. “We still want to create a place where people can come and gather and reflect and grieve and remember, but not make it so incredibly visible that it’s uncomfortable for people.”

Such is the range of opinion about this striking installation, which began as an artist’s vision before taking on a life of its own.

Jacqueline von Edelberg, who moved to Highland Park a year ago, had done several public art projects highlighting the victims of gun violence before it hit her new hometown. The basic pattern is the same: she and her collaborators tie strips of fabric to suspended ropes and wrap trees and poles in yarn to create colorful scenes filled with meaning.

Her anti-violence installations, which she assembled in Chicago neighborhoods and on the US Capitol lawn, include the color orange hunters wear in the woods to ward off gunfire. Activists took him up on their cause after Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in 2013.

The mass shooting in Highland Park inspired several instant memorials with photos, candles and stuffed animals, but von Edelberg said he wanted to add something that would allow people to feel productive in the face of tragedy.

“I tied a ball of orange yarn to each of the poles in the pavilion,” she said. “When people came, I just asked if they wanted to wrap a column and people said, ‘Yes, yes, I want to.’ I would like to do this. And many people stayed for five minutes, five hours, five days and packed everything in sight.

With the help of community members and visitors, the installation grew even bigger, adding a blizzard of orange fabric stripes, giant name cards with dozens of signatures, and thousands of luggage tags with messages. On a recent afternoon, Lynn Orman Weiss of Skokie, who volunteered to tend the installation, arrived with buckets of fresh flowers to replace those that had wilted.

She said the pavilion has become a center of unity, with musical performances almost nightly, the distribution of donated cookies and numerous visitors who, like her, have made a ritual of preserving the memorial.

“It just evolved,” she said. “Obviously the vision was to bring hope, to bring transformation out of tragedy, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Paul Farber of Monument Lab, a public art and history studio in Philadelphia, said the Highland Park memorial is similar to other public art projects that address issues such as AIDS and climate change.

As with the installation in Highland Park, which features a QR code that connects smartphone users to Congressional headquarters, Farber said the idea behind these pieces is to stir action, not just reflection.

“They are part of a growing conversation between artists and organizers who are ensuring that acts of remembrance and advocacy go hand in hand,” he said.

Chicago artist Scheherazade Tillett has worked on similar projects around the city, including a “takeover” of Douglas Park to commemorate the police killing of Rekia Boyd in 2012. Mourners hung yellow ribbons with personal messages on tree branches, and Tillett said some of those ribbons are still there four years later.

She said like any memorial, the takeover project aims to ensure that what happened at the park is not forgotten.

“Going into spaces and not knowing (what happened there), that kind of erasure adds a different level of trauma,” she said. “It’s almost like a betrayal of the community.”

Local residents who shared their views with the Tribune generally praised the Highland Park installation, though some were concerned about preserving the messages (von Edelberg said he plans to digitize them). Sonya Cohen said she visits almost every day and occasionally leaves her own message.

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“Most times I stare at the faces of my neighbors who have been killed and try to connect with them,” she said. “I find it incredibly comforting, but also meaningful and important.”

Von Edelberg said he is still talking with the city government about the future of the installation and will follow its direction once a decision is made. Highland Park officials say they eventually aim to build a permanent memorial, but that work has not yet begun.

Meanwhile, visitors to the pavilion keep coming.

One recent afternoon, a solitary woman lingered over a poem written on a placard. Wearing an “HP Strong” bracelet on one wrist and two orange bracelets on the other, the woman, who declined to give her name, said the installation helps her to process what happened in her hometown.

“I couldn’t figure it all out, so the first thing I did was write it down and mark it up and put it out there,” she said. “It gave me a chance to start healing step by step. I’m going back to it, growing a little more.”

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