A ‘Sad Kinship’ as Towns Build Memorials to Victims of Mass Shootings

Sandra Mendoza picked a forest green panel to recall the S.U.V. her husband, Juan Espinoza, a car aficionado and restorer, proudly purchased before his life was taken.

Trenna Meins chose the phrase “Embrace the possibilities” to carve on a bench because her husband of 36 years, Damian Meins, was “always game for anything.”

Shannon Johnson, a county health inspector who died shielding a co-worker, is memorialized in an alcove bearing his searing last words: “I got you. Lord, have mercy.”

If design is a window on the culture, perhaps there is nothing more revealing than the Curtain of Courage Memorial unveiled last week in San Bernardino, Calif., a sculptural ribbon of patterned bronze and steel meant to enfold the Mendozas, Meinses and Johnsons, among the families who lost 14 loved ones killed in a mass shooting in 2015, in its sinuous communal embrace.

“We didn’t want a place of sorrow, but of light,” said the landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, who thought about the solace of cathedral chapels in his first work commemorating individuals lost to gun violence, and the survivors.

The opening of the Curtain comes on the unrelenting heels of recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., Uvalde, Texas, Orange, Calif., Indianapolis, Ind., Oxford, Mich. — and a phalanx of permanent memorials in progress has been spawned by the deaths. These reflect “a part of the cultural landscape in which violence is overtaking the public realm, with a loss of life from city to city,” said Hood, a MacArthur fellow and a professor at the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2021 alone, there was an average of more than one active shooter attack a week, in which one or more shooters killed or attempted to kill multiple unrelated people.

The curving layers of chain in the new memorial are intended to evoke bulletproof vests. Near the employee entrance to the County Government Center, the $2.3 million work, paid for by the county, is the denouement of a community design process that began just months after the terrorist attack on Dec. 2, 2015, which also left 21 wounded when a radicalized couple with semiautomatic weapons burst into a San Bernardino County Environmental Health Services staff meeting at the Inland Regional Center.

At once public and private, the memorial is composed of 14 alcoves representing each family’s loss as well as the community’s collective strength. The spaces were personalized to reflect the spirit of the slain, beginning with the glass panels inserted into every niche that cast light and shadows in the manner of stained glass. A fitting quote is inscribed on concrete benches, which also contain hidden keepsakes chosen by the families.

Mendoza included an image of a miniature hot rod and a family photo plucked from her husband’s wallet, encased in a resin cube.

Tina Meins, the daughter of Trenna and Damian Meins, recalled traveling to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and eating street food together in Vietnam. “If people go to the alcove, they’ll know who my dad was and why he mattered,” Tina said.

The power of memory in the landscape has been a longstanding preoccupation of Hood’s, from a vertical sculpture at Princeton University representing positive and negative aspects of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy to Hood’s landscape for the International African American Museum, now under construction in Charleston, S.C., that recalls the enslaved Africans packed into the holds of ships and trafficked and warehoused on the site at Gadsden’s Wharf.

Designing for families stricken by gun violence was “quite a heavy burden,” Hood told the Dec. 2 Memorial Committee, which included survivors, emergency medical workers and public and behavioral health experts. “He gave each victim thought,” said Josie Gonzales, the committee’s chair and a retired county supervisor.

It did not take Gonzales and her colleagues long to realize that there were numerous communities from which to seek advice. They traveled to Aurora, Colo., for the dedication of a sculpture of flying cranes honoring the 13 dead and 70 wounded in the July 20, 2012, shooting at a movie theater. (Likewise, the chair of Aurora’s 7/20 Memorial Foundation attended last week’s ceremony in San Bernardino.)

“We know how each other is feeling,” said Felisa Cardona, a county public information officer. “It’s a very sad kinship.”

The number of memorials across the country is “innumerable,” said Paul M. Farber, director and co-founder of the Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit public art and history studio. “For every official site of memory dealing with gun violence,” he said, “there are the unofficial places, from T-shirts inscribed with names of gun violence victims placed outside churches to young people memorializing their friends on Instagram.”

Homegrown memorials can also speak volumes. Brandon and Heather O’Neill, of Richardson, Texas, set up 19 maroon school backpacks on their front lawn, in rows resembling a class photo, with two larger packs to represent the teachers who lost their lives at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

The outpourings of flowers, wreaths and stuffed animals after mass tragedies are joined by artists wanting to contribute. “You feel helpless,” said Abel Ortiz-Acosta, an artist and the owner of Art Lab Gallery in Uvalde. With the nonprofit Mas Cultura in Austin, he is in the midst of enlisting artists from across Texas to participate in “the 21 Mural project” to create portraits of the 19 children and 2 teachers massacred at Robb Elementary School last month.

Michael Murphy, the founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group, was prompted to take on the issue of gun violence during the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., where he met Pamela Bosley and Annette Nance-Holt, two activist mothers from Chicago who had each lost sons to random shootings and told Murphy there should be a memorial to their children. “I began to ask the question, ‘What would it be like to memorialize an epidemic that we are in the middle of?’” he said.

The result is the Gun Violence Memorial Project, now on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with “Justice Is Beauty: The Work of MASS Design Group.” Initially exhibited in Chicago, the design — a partnership with the artist Hank Willis Thomas and two gun violence prevention organizations — consists of four houses built out of 700 glass bricks, each brick representing the average number of American lives lost to gun violence in a given week. The project was inspired by the participatory nature of the AIDS quilt, with each brick a see-through repository for mementos — hundreds contributed by families nationwide.

“People want to give something of themselves to connect with someone lost,” Murphy said. “It’s a revelatory human act.” The project seeks to spark a dialogue about a permanent national memorial to gun violence victims.

The San Bernardino memorial has reached fruition, but in other traumatized communities the task continues. Nearly 10 years after 20 first graders and six educators were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, a $3.7 million memorial is nearing completion, including “sacred soil” from the thousands of flowers, letters, signs and photos that were eventually removed and cremated. It has been a long and emotionally fraught process. “People were upset about everything and anything,” said Daniel Krauss, chair of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission.

Set in a forest clearing near the rebuilt elementary school and surrounded by flowering dogwoods, the design is intended to be “a walking meditation in a spiral” around a central body of water, with the victims’ names carved in granite, said the landscape architect Daniel Affleck of SWA Group. The memorial will open first to families and then more widely on the 10th anniversary of the massacre.

The staggering list includes a third commemoration of the 23 people killed at the El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, this one by the artist Albert (Tino) Ortega and commissioned by the city, and the architect Daniel Libeskind’s reimagining of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, incorporating a new sanctuary, a memorial, a museum and an antisemitism center beneath a “Path of Light” skylight zigzagging its way across the structure’s length. The Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, a trauma support network established after the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival that killed 58 people and left at least 413 wounded, is collaborating with county and state officials on a memorial at the venue site.

“It’s rare to be part of a project that will be here on Earth when we’re no longer here,” said 26-year-old Karessa Royce, who was 22 when she sustained a critical gunshot wound and had subsequent surgeries to remove shrapnel from her throat and spine.

The most ambitious may be the onePULSE Foundation’s plans for a $45 million National Pulse Memorial and Museum at the site of the gay nightclub where 49 people died and 68 were wounded, the deadliest L.G.B.T.Q. attack in U.S. history. The design, by Coldefy & Associés, a firm based in Lille, France, brings to mind Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília. It is essentially a district, with a reflecting pond, garden and parabolic canopy around the nightclub site, which was designated a National Memorial last year. The concept also encompasses a blocks-long “Survivor’s Walk” and a six-story museum. The plans have spawned a Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum, which, among many issues, objects to “turning a mass shooting into a tourist attraction” — including “remembrance merchandise” currently for sale.

As Congress struggles to eke out a bipartisan deal on gun safety, these sobering monuments show no signs of abating. At the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist gunned down nine Black parishioners during Bible study, the architect Michael Arad — who describes his contemplative waterfalls and pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers at the 9/11 Memorial as “absence made visible” — has been absorbed with a memorial to the “Emanuel Nine.”

But before ideas for courtyards, gardens or Fellowship benches shaped like angel’s wings were even discussed, Arad, the Israeli American partner of Handel Architects, was asked about his understanding of forgiveness — an echo of the sentiment expressed by church members that stunned and impressed the nation during the bond hearing for the shooter, Dylann Roof. (Roof was ultimately sentenced to death.)

The reconceived grounds will be a place to grieve, to celebrate resiliency and to help others learn by the example set by the families of those killed in the racist attack, offering the possibility of transformation. The Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, the church’s senior pastor, said: “I pray that regardless of where we were when we come into the space, we can leave differently.”

In San Bernardino, Robert Velasco, who lost his 27-year-old daughter, Yvette, put it another way. “It was a very emotional time,” he said of that December day. “It still is.”