It’s hard to conceive a mass tragedy. To even imagine half a million deaths, much less mentally and emotionally process the magnitude.
But this colorful room filled floor to ceiling with paper birds is one way to begin to sense — through art — the effects of coronavirus on the United States.
At first glance, the new art exhibit at the Museum of Boulder appears whimsical and even cheerful. Origami cranes in different sizes and colors hang from the ceiling, creating a spiral pathway to walk through. When you reach the center of the spiral, 10 more strings of 100 cranes create a colorful cluster.
They symbolize even more devastation, unique to Boulder.
The Memorial Crane Project was borne out of sadness and loss, during the 2020 quarantine. Artist Karla Funderburk, of California, says as the death numbers continued ticking up, she became overwhelmed with waves of sorrow. Driving to work, she would crumble into tears. A close friend lost her mother and then mother-in-law, without being able to say goodbye in the hospital. Funderburk says the tragedy was incomprehensible, and it continued to grow.
One day, she was watching the news. Emotional and unsure what to do, she ripped a page out of her journal and just began folding an origami crane. She had learned how to fold cranes years ago from her two godchildren, whose mother is part Japanese.
Funderburk thought about the historical symbolism and legend of the Japanese origami crane. As legend goes, anyone who folds 1,000 cranes will have their wish granted with eternal good luck, good health, peace, safety and safe travels into the next life. That seemed fitting, as a memorial for the lives lost from the virus, Funderburk says.
She also thought about the story of a girl named Sadako Sasaki, who folded 1,000 cranes before she died from radiation exposure after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Sasaki’s wish: peace on Earth.
Funderburk began folding cranes, with the goal to fold one per person who died from coronavirus.
“Folding origami cranes has helped me process and contemplate the volume of the souls we were losing from this pandemic,” she says.
But no matter how fast she folded, she couldn’t keep up. Mid-May 2020, the U.S. number reached 88,000 (today, it’s getting closer to 600,000). She decided to do the math and figure out how long this memorial project was going to take her.
She would need about 24 years to fold 88,000 paper cranes.
The size of the tragedy began to fully sink in.
She needed help. Funderburk invited the community to help fold cranes, and soon she began receiving boxes and envelopes of cranes in the mail daily. She set up a drop box outside her art gallery door. As the cranes flooded in, she began stringing them and hanging them up in her gallery window. That grew to fill her entire gallery. Word continued to spread beyond her community and across the nation and world, to ultimately encompass cranes from 46 different states and nine different countries. More than 200 people contributed more than 130,000 paper cranes and growing.
People began sending in cranes with names and stories of their lost loved ones, too. That’s when Funderburk realized she could make the memorial more personal. She began posting the names of some of the people who died on her website (memorialcraneproject.org) and incorporated it into her display. She also added audio recordings of stories to her website.
Recently, the Memorial Crane Project became a nonprofit and began raising money for the families impacted.
And it began touring around the country, as more museums and galleries open up to the public. That’s how the Memorial Crane Project landed in Boulder mid-April. Local artist, Rick Dellago (rickdallago.com), knew Funderburk and connected her with the Museum of Boulder.
Boulder’s exhibit feels like it contains infinite paper cranes, especially due to the lighting that casts shadows throughout, but it is composed of only 10,000. Another batch remains on display in Funderburk’s gallery, and volunteers are stringing more cranes for future exhibitions planned around the country. The Memorial Crane Project will remain in Boulder until Sept. 17.
But Boulder’s display has one thing no other exhibition will have: the 10 strands of 100 birds each in the middle.
Those are in memory of the 10 lives lost in the King Soopers shooting earlier this year. The name of each victim is written on a ribbon tied to each strand, including one group of all blue cranes to represent the law enforcement officer who died.
“They didn’t die from Covid, but it’s marking a historical moment in time in America,” Funderburk says. “The spiral embraces those 10 lost lives; you end up in the center where the 10 strands of 100 are hanging, and it’s pretty powerful. You definitely feel moved by it.”
Funderburk says especially after the past year of so much isolation, it’s important now to come together and mourn collectively.
“Because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to have traditional funerals or wakes. People weren’t allowed to gather and mourn,” she says. “For me, the cranes symbolize coming together, unity and a prayer for peace.”
After all, this art exhibition is the collective effort of hundreds of people from around the world.
“People are folding alone, but when they send the cranes, they’re all there together. They’re installed flying together, representing those people who died alone,” Funderburk says. “You get the sense that we are not alone.”
How to Help
At the Museum of Boulder, you can find a box of papers and instructions on how to fold the crane. The cranes folded in Boulder are intended to be used in future exhibits in other cities.
Also, visit memorialcraneproject.org to donate money, learn how to send in more cranes, share stories and names of lost loved ones, listen to stories, buy merchandise whose profit benefits children left behind and more.