Sacred Spaces – Part 1

Sacred: highly valued and important; deserving great respect

What makes a place sacred?

 Loss of life?

I live near the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War that took place July 1-3, 1863 in Gettysburg. In one single day, 57,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

Brady photo

I always have trepidation when visiting memorial sites…frequently I find them too big or too controlled or too orchestrated or too pedantic and the emotions too difficult to access. I want to honor those who died and somehow connect to the feelings of those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children who suffered their loss.

From our double-decker bus, we look across fields where 8000 soldiers were buried; 3000 horse carcasses burned; where the smell of blood and death and smoke permeated the land for weeks. We drive by the monuments erected to commemorate each regiment or battalion. (The difference escapes me. At this moment in time it hardly matters.)

There are 1,300 granite, marble and bronze monuments and markers throughout the 6,000 acres. The survivors erected many of the monuments.

imagesLincoln wrote in his Gettysburg address:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The battlefields envelop the town of Gettsyburg with its souvenir shops, fast food places, and points of interest – like the home of Jennie Wade wedged between a Holiday Inn and a gift shop.

 Jennie Wade – 20 year of age – was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen door as she was making bread. She had been baking for the hungry soldiers who appeared at her door daily.


It is said that her mother baked 15 more loaves after seeing her daughter die.

It is said Jennie was the only civilian casualty of that battle.

Is that place where she fell, sacred?

What makes a space sacred?

Acts of social change?

Heifer International Headquarters are located in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock is experiencing a downtown renewal and a focus on sustainability – and the future.

imagesHeifer headquarters received a platinum LEEDS rating – fully sustainable. LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.

A year ago, I was invited to exhibit my work: Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth as part of the 70th anniversary commemorating the Seagoing Cowboys.

Little Rock is also home to the Clinton Library. The structure cantilevers over the Arkansas River echoing Clinton’s campaign promise of “building a bridge to the 21st century.”

clintonlib1Little Rock is also connected to the past. From the Clinton library, it is about a 30-minute walk to Daisy Bates Drive through long established neighborhoods filled with Colonial revival, craftsman bungalows, four square homes – reflecting a diversity of design that at one time reflected the diversity of the population in the early years of the city

2120 Daisy Bates Drive is the location of Central High School – a National Historic Site.


Daisy Bates published the Arkansas State Press – an African American advocacy publication – highlighting among other issues – violations of the Brown V Board desegregation ruling.

Bates was the adviser to 9 students, known as the Little Rock Nine, as they attempted to enroll in the all-white Central High School.litlrck2

Inside the Visitor Center the displays tell the story of the civil rights movement leading up to the events in Little Rock. There are oral histories, video, photos, timelines.

Outside the Visitor Center you step back in time. The houses that existed in 1957 still stand. The trees are taller. A restored Mobil gas station anchors the corner and Central High School occupies an entire block.

Today, 2419 students attend CHS. And in the late afternoon sun on a sultry afternoon, a diverse body of students – white, Asian, African American – stream out of the building at the end of the school day.

What makes a place sacred?

Acts of violence?

In 2001, I visited the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while conducting interviews related to the WW2 McGinty – the ship on which my dad had served in WW2. I wanted to know if the ship and crew had been stationed at Nagasaki after the bomb. If so, it may have contributed to the rare cancer he had. He could have been classified as an atomic veteran and possibly qualified for benefits.02McGinty

After months of research in the National Archives, I found the name of the ship’s doctor that served with my dad. He was living in Oklahoma and invited me to visit and interview him. I learned more about his life on the McGinty and life on a destroyer escort but not the answer to my question.

It was several years after the Oklahoma City Bombings when I entered the museum doors. I had to leave midway as the displays were too graphic, too violent, too raw.

In the field next to the reflecting pool stand 168 chairs – in nine rows to represent each floor of the building. Each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children.


This year, some of those pre-schoolers would be graduating from college.

What makes a place sacred?

Acts of heroism?

The site of the crash of Flite 93 is spare and somber. Unlike the Oklahoma City Memorial site located within a city with its buildings, gardens, museum, Flite 93 Memorial is located off of Highway 30/Lincoln near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The approach to the site and visitor center is along a winding road through wildflower fields and wetlands. At the time of the crash, the site was being restored as a wetlands park in a former coal mine.

As you crest the hill to the parking lot, nothing resembling a traditional memorial is visible—no large visitor center blocking the view; no museum buildings. (The Visitor Center Complex is under construction and scheduled for dedication, 2015)

There are several small kiosks with photos of the 40 passengers and crew who died. There is a walkway – a black walkway – lined with stone barriers into which small niches are carved to provide places for notes, mementos.

Flite 93-1

There is this ever-present insistent wind that accompanies you along the path. There are ‘listening posts’ where you hear architects explain their design.

As you stop at each numbered post, it is easy to separate yourself from the reality – the memory of the event – the sacredness of the place.

Suddenly, you realize you are following the flite path taken by the plane as it was directed by the passengers…to crash.

Midway along the path, you notice a large boulder and a grove of trees – some old, some tall—swaying in the wind. They seem to be protecting a small group of newer saplings. In 10 years time, they have grown enough to begin to eradicate the black hole punched into the grove of trees by the crashing plane.

Hemlock grove

It has been more than 150 years since the battle of Gettysburg

It has been 57 years since the Little Rock 9 entered Central High School.

It has been 19 years since the Oklahoma bombing.

It has been 13 years since 9/11.

In 13 years, a grove of trees fills an empty landscape.

In 19 years, an entire generation of preschoolers has graduated from high school.

In 57 years, there is an African American President.

In 150 years, battles are re-enacted without shedding blood.

George Santayana:

We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.

Conversations with Strangers

You never know where a conversation with a stranger will take you.

Three years ago, I was on the ferry that runs from Peaks Island to Portland, Maine. I always go topside – Casco Bay is a jewel that shines no matter the weather or time of year.

Leaning against the rail was a guy wearing a computer backpack that looked really comfy. (Unlike my messenger bag that hangs off one shoulder and keeps my chiropractor in business.) During the ensuing conversation, we passed Bug Light Park. Located on land that during WW2 was a shipyard that built more than 236 liberty ships, Bug Light is home to a memorial to “ thousands of men and women who worked at the South Portland Shipyards; the seamen who faced the dangers of war on board the Liberty Ships; all of those who served in the war and their families; and the South Portland residents who shared their backyard with a booming shipyard.”

As we passed the memorial, I talked about the retrofitting of  liberty ships to transport livestock to Europe following the end of the war. They sailed from ports throughout the US – even from Portland. He was a professor of maritime history at the US Merchant Marine Academy and had never heard about the use of liberty ships as cattle boats.

The Quest:

In 2003, as we were once again preparing for war, I was searching for a topic for my MFA. My quest to find a personal response to the impending war coincided with my search for a thesis theme.

There are several peace  based churches in my town. I began attending the Pipe Creek Friends Meeting House. I met with the minister of the local Brethren Church.  During our conversations, we talked about conscientious objectors who volunteered for starvation experiments to support the war effort. He told me of men in his congregation who participated in LSD experiments. I learned that farmers received deferments from the draft. He then told me that following the end of WW2, more than 4000 cows passed through our town on their way to the port of Baltimore where they were loaded on liberty ships headed for Europe. Maybe I would be interested in interviewing the woman on whose farm these animals were cared for.

The Vision:

As WW2 came to an end, Olive and Roger Roop, Union Bridge, Maryland attended a sermon led by Daniel West. So horrified by the starvation of children following the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Brethren minister had a vision. He wanted to send livestock – heifers – to farmers in war torn Europe. Each calf born would then be passed on to another farm and so on.

Roger Roop was an inveterate farmer who (as Olive said in her interview) “when he saw something that needed to be done, he found a way to do it.” So he offered to care for the donated animals and prepare them for transport.  And he did. And Heifer Relief (now known as Heifer International) was born.

Olive was working in her garden when I arrived. We toured the now silent dairy barn. We examined the contents of file drawers and the boxes of newspaper clippings and other ephemera that documented the beginning of Heifer and the story of the seagoing cowboys.

Passing on the Gift:

While I was interviewing Olive, Peggy Reiff Miller, Indiana, was looking through files and boxes at the New Windsor Brethren Service Center. Her grandfather had been a seagoing cowboy. She had found his diary and wanted to write a series of young adult books about the effort.

Long story short: which as you can see, is hard to do when talking about synchronicity because there are many twists and turns before the actual moment of synchronicity takes place.  The completion of my thesis exhibition entitled Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth coincided with the 60th anniversary of the beginning of Heifer International. I approached the Brethren Service Center to host a seagoing cowboy reunion. We called it: Passing on the Gift. More than 30 cowboys attended and exhibited their memorabilia. We scanned their photos, copied films, and collected their oral histories.

Back to the Beginning:

The American Merchant Marine Museum is located on the campus of the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY overlooking the waters of the Long Island sound. The museum was once the private home of William Barstow, Thomas Edison’s partner and inventor of the electric meter. The AMMM is a national repository and exhibition center for artifacts, artworks, ship models and maritime ephemera.

Dr. Joshua Smith, Interim Director and my companion on the ferry, had invited me to tour the museum. His next major exhibit: Convoy! would highlight “the Allied effort to supply its forces and civilian populations.” As a companion to the Convoy exhibition, he invited me to install Heifer Relief.

Three years after first meeting Josh, my assistant and I drove a 15’ truck filled to the brim with supplies, sculpture, tools, and NOT my dress clothes across the George Washington bridge to the US Merchant Marine  Academy. We unloaded and began the process of installing the work.

After an arduous 5 day build out, including a visit from the Secretary of DOT, Ray Lehood, removal of VERY HEAVY exhibition cases and the need for a front end loader, Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth a multi media installation opened. Peggy Reiff Miller presented “The Seagoing Cowboys: Cattlemen of the U.S. Merchant Marine” based on her 10 years of research.

You just never know where a conversation will take you:

  •  To unearth memorabilia in a basement file drawer…
  • To interview a sea going cowboy…
  • To creating a vision for the future without forgetting the past; or

To Indiana to find a stone for a library sculpture. Stay tuned.