Saturday, August 22, 2015

My remarks at the 107th commemoration of the Battle of Brooklyn at Fort Greene Park's Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial, Brooklyn, August 22nd, 2015

Holly Fuchs, the Secretary of the Society of Old Brooklynites graciously invited me to lend some remarks to 107th annual ceremony commemorating the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial and the Battle of Brooklyn. Over ten thousand Americans perished on British Prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn side of the East River. American prisoners languished in horrendous conditions for seven years in the fetid hulls of these prison ships. I include the text of my comments:

"I would like to thank Holly Fuchs of the Society of Old Brooklynites for inviting me to speak at the Prisoners' memorial commemoration for 2015's battle week. Holly spoke in March at the reception for my exhibition 'HMS Jersey' at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, where I teach art. At St. Francis, I exhibited drawings of local public statuary in an exhibition entitled 'HMS Jersey', including one of this monument. The theme of the show and an accompanying pictorial essay, accessible from my blog, is the lack or neglect of monuments on the battlefields of Brooklyn, particularly to those who perished on the revolutionary war hell ship 'HMS Jersey'.

The Society of Old Brooklynites advocates for a change in this pattern. I am an artist not an advocate and as an artist, working on the Anna Pierrepont Series for five years, I have become increasingly interested in how art functions in the public square and its use as a vehicle for civic remembrance. Also coincidentally, how other things are buried, forgotten or ignored in this process and what these choices reveal about collective values.

The public square is the site upon which we declare who we are and what we consider important enough for permanent memory, in this case, the historical record contains this exhortation quoted in 'HMS Jersey':

“there ought to be raised a Colossal Column whose base sinking to Hell, should let the murderers [the British] read their infamy inscribed upon it; and whose capital of Corinthian laurel ascending to Heaven, should show the sainted Patriots that they have triumphed”

These words resulted in this column

Considering the remarks that I would make at this memorial, I remembered a line from my pictorial essay 'Erasure' that was published in the literary magazine 'Newfound: Art and Place in 2014. In the essay, I described my drawing of the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial in the late fall of 2014. A link to 'Erasure' is also available at

I wrote that I made a drawing of this monument while "Skateboarders alternated between practicing tricks and hanging out at the base of the monument".

In 'HMS Jersey', I mention the odd coincidence that two skating rinks had been constructed over two major battlefields from the Battle of Brooklyn.

The young skateboarders practiced tricks on the stairs of the monument on that blustery day. I remember them careening down the stairs, attempting to maintain balance, but more often than not, falling to the ground to the amusement of their friends. They would spring up from their falls and like determined athletes grab their skateboards and try over and over again to successfully ride the steps to the bottom.

Today I form a mental image of entering the crypt below the skateboarders and plucking a random bone fragment from a pile of remains and using the techniques of modern forensics to confirm that it was from a youth of a similar age to that of the skateboarders.

This young man witnessed his youth disappear as he passed the hours of his short life within the dank, dark and squalid hulls of hellships like the HMS Jersey, before ultimately giving, what Lincoln so eloquently described as, 'the last full measure of devotion'. The skateboarders in 2014 experienced joys and freedoms denied this earlier youth and yet his suffering is the foundation of the skateboarders happiness. The latter's untroubled abandon would not have transpired without the suffering and sacrifice of the former. The earlier youth's sacrifice contributed to the establishment of the American nation that the skateboarders reap the benefits of.

As I watched these youths frolic and play, I was fairly certain that they did so with only a dim awareness of the remains beneath the wheels of their skateboards and do not see their lives as intersecting with those of an anonymous youngster who traded the pleasures of youth for self sacrifice. The skateboarders' ability to partake of life's bounty was a direct consequence of the young patriot's choice to forgo these pleasures and take upon himself unspeakable suffering before being cast from life's mortal coil.

This is the way of the world, we stroll, dance, romance, eat, sing and yes skateboard if we are fortunate enough to live in a world where the call to sacrifice is a dim echo. This commemoration is an attempt to attach, ever briefly, the bounty of the skateboarders to the sacrifice of the young patriot. What if, upon the day I made this drawing, the patriot youth had been floating above the monument, the skateboarders and I, he would probably have said to himself, thinking of his sacrifice, 'well done'.

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