Roses mean a great deal to devoted Catholics. Mother Mary is intimately aligned with roses, and the rosary includes a selection of prayers to Mary as a spiritual bouquet, of sorts.
But to internationally renowned artist Marcos Lutyens, roses mean even more. To Lutyens, and to a growing number of people backing him in a grand, noble project that began last August, one rose honors one American who died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. “I like the idea of roses because it’s a symbol used in the U.S. in a lot in funerals,” the native of Britain says. “And they’re used to symbolize courage and valor. Every rose has a beautiful value to it.”
Thus far Lutyens has created five community installations in Southern California, as well as two out of state, displaying hand-made felt roses, each separately attached to mesh netting. The first of Lutyens’ memorial displays, in East L.A.’s Boyle Heights community, included some 200 roses.
The latest Rose River Memorial, now located on the Christ Cathedral campus, includes more than 4,600 of the felt flowers, created by sponsors and community volunteers. They represent the number of O.C. residents who have died of COVID to date. A similar display, composed of 4,000 roses, was displayed at the Orange County Museum of Art from March 1-7. Some 600 O.C. residents have died between the beginning of March until the day the Christ Cathedral Memorial was installed. “That’s 600 people in 22 days,” Lutyens says. “And it’s not over yet.”
Lutyens thinks big. When he first envisioned a memorial composed of felt roses, he saw a permanent national display in Washington, D.C., honoring every American who has died of COVID. At the time, the country’s death toll was 170,000. In just seven months, that figure has surpassed 500,000. “If we built the national memorial today, it would spread over three acres,” he says.
However, Lutyens – whose work has appeared in such lofty locales as the Guggenheim, the Royal Academy of Arts and MoMA – remains undaunted. He and his team are working on other memorials to appear in several other states. Grieving volunteers have mailed Lutyens felt roses from throughout the country. As support grows, so will the number of community memorials. He hopes that more than half a million roses will eventually be combined and displayed permanently.
As he saw the COVID death toll rising last August, Lutyens was saddled with an emotion that remains all too common during the pandemic: helplessness. “Although I hadn’t lost anyone close, I saw the front-line workers in crisis, I saw the mental health crisis, all the mourning. I wanted to do something.”
While Lutyens notes that many of the roses used in the installations are made and donated by surviving family members, most are created by those who haven’t undergone a terrible loss. “Making and donating roses helps people to process the grief and do something tangible to counteract that feeling of helplessness,” he says.
The memorial at Christ Cathedral is sponsored by the O.C. Autism Foundation, an organization that spreads disability awareness throughout the county and globally to the Vietnamese community. It pushes for equal access to health care and education for those living with autism and other disabilities.
“Our community is stronger when we come together for a common cause and lend our support to one another each day, especially in times of need,” says Julie Diep, the O.C. Autism Foundation’s founder and director. “We want to celebrate each person in Orange County, in our community, who has died of COVID. Each individual should be honored. That’s why it was so important to partner with [the Diocese]. Faith-based organizations really help families and communities come together and heal.”
“Julie [Diep] has been amazingly supportive,” Lutyens says. “She originally put us in touch with the Diocese. And everyone here has been super supportive and welcoming.”
The acclaimed artist was also impressed with the Diocese’s home. “Christ Cathedral is such a fitting and nice shelter for this memorial. Most cathedrals feel very heavy, as they’re made of stone, whereas this is made of glass and is light all the way through.”
During a memorial dedication on March 23, Bishop Kevin Vann blessed an example display of roses set up on the Christ Cathedral campus. “Today we offer blessing to these roses as a reminder of all those we have sought to minister to this past year, and have prayed for and been with them as they went to their eternal reward, and to remember them today,” he said. … “Bless these roses, which we offer this day, in thanksgiving.”
The memorial will be on display in the campus’ Small Gallery, near the Arboretum, through June 30. Stories and photos of those who have died from COVID will be included.
To contribute roses and view detailed rose-making instructions, or to help fund the project, visit www.roseriver.memorial. (The web address has no “dot-com”.)
“I’m hoping for more outreach,” Diep says, envisioning a permanent national Rose River Memorial. “Hopefully people will want to say, ‘I want this in my city. And we’ll go to Washington, D.C., to celebrate when it’s done.’”