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Monday, October 27, 2008

Reflections on Visiting a Hillside of Crosses


All kinds of people from church-goers to gangsta-rappers wear crosses. It’s a powerful and almost universal aesthetic device that pre-dates Christianity by many thousands of years; what began as a tool for veneration of the nature god is now a piece of trendy bling.


Its ubiquity does not diminish its fascination. In the foyer to our apartment I have a simple rustic wood cross, a memento of my visits to Santa Fe, that I bought there because it reminded me of some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Several years ago I went to an Ad Reinhardt show in Los Angeles and saw all kinds of crosses in what seemed, at first glance, to be monochromatic paintings. These were crosses as aesthetic devices, not religious symbols.


Riding east on the BART train towards the Lafayette station a hill comes into view that at first glance looks to be covered in tall white flowers; they might perhaps be lilies, or, if one’s eyesight is growing unreliable, melting snow, but within a few seconds it becomes clear enough that they are white crosses, insubstantial memorials to the dead. Yet the slope is too steep to be a cemetery, the crosses are too close together to be grave markers and are too flimsy to be permanent.


A simple black number on the hillside, like those on amateur athletic fields, is updated regularly; today the count is 4770, the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. The memorial has been controversial since it was begun a few years ago by a man named Jeff Heaton and some local peace activists.


A few days ago I returned to the site and walked around to get a closer look. There are no stickers advertising anybody or anything. A few crosses have been adopted to represent specific individuals with names, photos, jackets, beads, and flowers. While most of the crosses are white, some are multicolored, and a few are covered in mosaics or plastic flowers. Some have Islamic and Jewish symbols as well as Christian. I am reminded of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, not in terms of the material or permanence, but rather in the core idea: that the people who gave their lives in an unjust war must be recognized. This war has inflicted pain on all of us. No member of my immediate family has gone to Iraq, but the raging debate over the Republican administration ended some good friendships.



Walking up the hill behind the crosses in the late afternoon I can see a vista that captures the essence of living here. The beautiful golden hills and oak trees in the autumn afternoon feel unchanged from my childhood, although now the transit system provides a link all the way to the airport in San Francisco. Looking down the hill again I wonder again what do the crosses here really mean? Are they an aesthetic device within a common language or do they relate to an evolving understanding of what a core Christian symbol might mean in this modern age?


From any angle the crosses fill much of the hillside, but there is room for more. The Bush administration does not let the media show any of the soldiers killed in action nor any coffins coming home. Indeed, unless we know a combatant personally we have no way of understanding the damage to our soldiers until we see the occasional veteran interviewed on television. And those are the ones who survived. In this way, the crosses may be the simplest possible reminder of each American life lost.


But again, what about the symbolism of the crosses? When I was young my family went to churches of many denominations all over the East Bay. In the end we didn’t really settle on one particular church, although my parents made a relatively easy choice and sent an annual donation to the church a block away – now known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. It was a beautiful building by Wurster Bernardi and Emmons, but there wasn’t a cross in sight. Perhaps God wasn’t so much in the cross as all around.


Crosses have beautiful proportions. Ad Reinhardt painted crosses in almost all of his mature work, but he always said that he never intentionally painted anything, including crosses. He was like the artist Donald Judd – it’s just what’s in front of you. With Reinhardt, it takes a while for the eyes to adjust and see the different layers. Go slow and they come into view.


I have often wondered why Georgia O’Keeffe painted crosses so many times. Living an often solitary existence in New Mexico her work is contemplative, but not necessarily Christian. Her Black Cross, New Mexico from 1929 uses the cross to divide the canvas but not evenly. She wrote, “For me, painting the crosses was a way of painting the country.”


In this stretch of an Arcadian suburb I am moved by the grass roots spontaneity of this simple memorial that reminds commuters that individuals, over four thousand individuals and their circles of friends and family, have been devastated by this nightmare. Maybe the cross was the easiest symbol at hand. Might there be a more permanent symbol of this war and these eight years of hubris and arrogance? The crosses on the hill don’t offer up any easy answers. But contemplating them for a few minutes in the afternoon light, like looking at Reinhardt or O’Keeffe, and wrestling with the angels and demons that make up the life of this country, may point me in the right direction.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

As time goes by it gets difficult for me to find personally relevant, ways to honor service, especially on Veteran’s Day. This year I thank Kenny for focusing my thoughts.

I have been struggling for weeks to come to grips with the October 18, 2008 “Design Faith” blog. Not because it isn’t moving and thoughtful, it is that and more. Rather, I’ve been struggling with the use of those crosses to make a political and moral statement so close to a public space. And while I don’t really like having someone’s point of view prominently positioned in a place I can’t easily avoid, I admit I do appreciate that someone challenged my point of view. I appreciate the effective use of emotionally charged symbols to evoke reflection.

Those stark white crosses crowding a hill evoke so many emotional responses for an American living in the 20th and 21st centuries that many interpretations jump to mind. And over the last few weeks I’ve come to realize that whatever the design intention, I can discern my own interpretation. I do not have to accept any stock interpretation of the display.
For me, those nearly 4200 sticks of plain white wood, constructed in a certain way, placed for a certain effect on a hill near a freeway and a parking lot reflect so much faith: faith maintained and faith surrendered. I am humbled by the faith in public expression. I am reassured by the faith that policies can be changed. I am saddened that our faith in those we chose to elect was so misplaced. I am awed and humbled that so many had so much faith that they gave their lives for their country.

Thanks for the blog.

Steve Minniear

Gill C said...

Kenny - I am very much enjoying your writings. I am impressed by your observations and your thoughts. It makes me think that I should stop dashing around so much and spend more time in reflection.

By the way - you have the honour of being the first blog site that I have visited and being the recipent of my first ever comment.

Good luck with it all.

Amanda Walter said...

As a daily passerby, I think the crosses are an appropriate memorial to the people who have given their lives in this war, but each time I'm reminded by the controversy it stirred. I am bewildered by people who can't find the merit in this statement regardless of which side of the issue they stand.

Anonymous said...

seeing your piece on the hillside of crosses reminds me that a week or so ago i was on BART to SFO late in the evening and there was just an older black guy, about my age, and me on the train. he was a bit inebriated, and had earlier been muttering about young people, etc. but, we got to talking. he had been in Vietnam at the age of 17, and said, no matter who Obama is, he has to get the troops out of Iraq. then, he started talking about taking BART to Walnut Creek, and the hillside of crosses. "there's no way you can be on that train and not see them", he said, "it has to make people think."

cheers, Greg