GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — More than 650,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. An ArtPrize artist has memorialized every single one.
On Christmas Eve 2020, Kym Nicolas’ house was quiet. Only she and her husband were there, foregoing any parties because of COVID-19. She had been paying attention to the ongoing pandemic on the news, along with all the turmoil and arguing that came with it.
“All I could think about in the background was, ‘But people are dying. People are dying,'” she said.
She said she felt compelled to create a visual tribute to those people and to make a memorial for their loved ones. So she set out to make a prayer flag: “Love and Loss in the Time of Corona.”
“How can I make something that is stunningly beautiful and passionate for the people and the families, the remembrance — but also has a subtext that shows what’s going on in our society?” she said she considered as she formulated the work.
Keeping track in a little notebook, she began to drop tiny dots of white paint onto a giant black cloth to mark each death.
From Christmas through the spring, she worked almost every single day, only taking two days off: once for her birthday and once for a dentist appointment.
The prayer flag slowly started taking shape. She had no presketched design, only following her intuition as she created a permanent record for every life lost to the pandemic, marking about 6,000 to 10,000 deaths each day.
One dot for each death. One dot for every family mourning the loss of a loved one.
Though Nicolas typically works with colorful pieces, she chose to use only black and white for this piece.
“Death is very black and white,” she said. “There is no in between there.”
The dots look like beads or pearls. As the design took on a life of its own, the movement followed the flow of water. Nicolas said water is life but it also symbolizes spirit.
Four gallons of paint and 60.5 feet of cloth later, phase one was done: 500,000 dots laying out the shape of a wave.
Nicolas said phase one loosely represents 2020, pre-vaccine and during the Trump administration. Phase two, a prayer flag that is still ongoing, marks 2021, post-vaccine and during the Biden administration.
She no longer has to work on it every single day but is still pouring hours into it, adding more dots every 6,000 deaths or so.
Nicolas plans to keep going and is prepared to work throughout all of next year if she needs to.
“Some people have asked me, ‘How do you keep going?'” she said. “I think about that some days when I’m really tired and I get real emotional about it. I think, this is nothing compared to the doctors and nurses and what they’re doing every single day. All I’m doing is making a record. They’re having to face it, face to face, head-on, and it’s just got to be crushing for them.”
Phase one is displayed horizontally. Where it hangs at United Methodist Church for ArtPrize, people can walk along with it to watch as the story of the prayer flag progresses.
Phase two is meant to be seen vertically to symbolize hope. It already stands more than 17 feet tall, but Nicolas has added wings to the sides as she continues marking the COVID-19 deaths of 2021.
She hopes that when those who have lost someone to the virus see her piece, they will be comforted.
“I hope that some people feel comforted that somebody took the time and cared. I know that there’s so many people who were not able to have memorials or any kind of service or even be with their loved ones,” she said.
“First and foremost, I want it to be a memorial and a tribute to all of the loved ones and friends and family members who have died,” Nicolas said. “If somebody sees some of the other things and symbolism in the background, that’s awesome. And if they don’t, that’s OK.”
But she also hopes that it will serve as reminder to others that people are still dying.
“I hope that some people will look at it and when they realize that all of the dots that are on the prayer cloth represent one person who died, that it will take their breath away and it will wake them up,” she said. “There’s so many people who are walking around today as if we have no pandemic. They’re tired of it. They don’t want to think about it anymore.”
She said she wants people “to look it square in the face,” as she does every day.
“Bottom line is people are dying,” she said.
VIEW IT AT ARTPRIZE
Phase 2 was originally installed on the wall vertically but it fell before ArtPrize began. Because of this, it is now on display on the ground next to phase 1.
People are welcome to bring flowers and other things to pay tribute to those who have died, Nicolas said.
Nicolas, from Big Rapids, has been an artist for the majority of her life and has worked professionally as an artist for over 40 years. This is her first ArtPrize.