The Memorial Crane Project
A Public Art Installation
Pay a visit to the lower level of CREATE Center for the Arts these days and be surprised: hanging in the towering, two-story space above the slanting walkway are thousands of dangling paper cranes, an art installation, a moving COVID memorial and a delicate exercise in community cooperation all in one.
The pastel, multi-colored cranes are, in fact, some 20,000 folded origami artifacts, crafted and provided by numerous people, including 3,000 of them made by students at the Palm Valley School. Suggesting the welcoming harbor of a gigantic shade tree, they are just part of a collection amounting so far to 170,000 works of the ongoing Memorial Crane Project, conceived and run by Los Angeles gallery owner Karla Funderburk.
This remarkable project is a journey, beginning with her personal grief and growing, crane by crane, into a worldwide movement of healing and renewal — and visual beauty. “When the pandemic first hit, when cases were surging in New York, I’d watch the numbers go up, and I didn’t know anybody myself but knew that people on earth were dying,” she said. By the end of April, 2020, two friends had passed from the disease. “These were two people I had deep intimate moments with, and now they were gone. The list was no longer a number.”
She was meanwhile inspired during a plane ride back from Israel she shared with, as she likes to put it, a fellow grandmother who boasts a Japanese background and who taught her in flight how to fashion the cranes. She also explained their commemorative import. A centuries-old tradition holds if you fold 1,000, your wish will come true, but a young girl named Sadako Sasaki, who was only 2 when the atomic bomb fell on her city of Hiroshima, developed leukemia and undertook the folding of cranes for another purpose: to achieve world peace and safekeeping for all. Once home from her trip, Funderburk began folding cranes herself, one by one. “At night, watching the news, I’d find myself crying, so I started folding the cranes for comfort. I’d toss them in a Trader Joe bag near my bed, one for each victim.”
“You take a square piece of paper, no larger than 8 inches by 8 inches, and you transform it into a bird,” she explained. “The crane, even before Sadako, was the symbol of safe transportation of a soul into its next life. It fit everything I was trying to fulfill. I felt we needed a transformation to take us beyond our political divide, of acknowledging our need for a greater whole and a safe passage to the next world.”
When the American COVID fatalities neared 88,000, she realized that, at 20 or so a night, it would take some 24 years to finish by herself. She reached out to others and wound up creating a project that by its very nature illustrates the communal transformation she envisioned. She began stringing them up at her gallery and invited others to contribute as well. Passersby took notice, Spectrum aired a story about it, and an Associated Press reporter stopped in, learned about it and eventually wrote a story that enjoyed worldwide distribution. Funderburk launched a website, and she saw her collection mushroom to 500 or so cranes and then 5,000. “I started receiving boxes and boxes cranes from all over the world.”
Implicit in both the age-old origami tradition and its Hiroshima historical connection is a moving evocation of the universal human struggle with death and grief — a window on our COVID zeitgeist. “We were already moving there, no longer just saying goodbye when parting. Now, we said, be safe, be healthy. It was a new way of looking out for each other. ” It is a shared enterprise of community, born of the spiritual need to bid safe transportation from one state to another. A shady tree indeed.
The crane project is spreading from city to city, from Funderburk’s L.A. gallery (at 5880 W. Pico Blvd.) to Palm Desert, Tarzana, Seattle, Boulder and plans for Las Vegas. And it has deepened. She began to record observations and stories from visitors to the gallery, many who’d lost loved ones, and those stories are accessible via smartphone as part of the CREATE exhibit and on the web site. “They would come in, sometimes lonely at first, isolated from the quarantine and mourning a lost loved one. But they’d tell me the story of an uncle who taught his nephew to pitch, for example. Suddenly I was privileged to know about that soul.”
Groups now work together making the cranes like in quilting bees. There are grief counselors who use them in therapy sessions. The project is taking on a life of its own, soaring metaphorically through the air like, well, a flock of birds.
“I’d love for more and more to be installed around the country, in every state,” she said. “If I close my eyes and dream, I see them some day, all of them, assembled in one display. Like what happened with the AIDS quilt, united and flying together.”
The CREATE installation is scheduled to be on view for three months. To learn more about Karla Funderburk and the project, click the button below.