Thanks to the Society of Old Brooklynites for offering me a place on the dais to reflect on the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument on August 27th, 2016. I include the remarks and a link to the video.
My remarks begin at 6 and one half minutes in.
I would like to thank the Society of Old Brooklynites for inviting me to speak today and Michael Spinner, the organizer of this event, the Society’s president George Broadhead and Holly Fuchs for this invitation.
On this late August day, we gather on a battlefield of the revolution with patriot graves just behind us. In his first inaugural address in 1861, Abraham Lincoln stood at a dais like this one and stared over a sea of celebrants gathering in the early moments of the Civil War. He evoked the mystic chords of memory that stretched from revolutionary war battlefields and patriot graves to swell the chorus of the Union. If we close our eyes and listen for a moment, can we hear the chorus?
I teach art at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights and have been working for the past five years on drawing New York City's public monuments, including the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, for my project, the Anna Pierrepont Series. I then combined the drawings with essays that explore how public monuments function to compel or bury memory in the public square.
My work concerns, in drawings and words, how or indeed if the monuments scattered through our physical environment strum memory’s mystic chords and ‘swell its choruses’.
My current book length project is damnatio memoriae, which concerns the destruction of public monuments for political reasons. Damnatio memoriae includes dozens of on-site drawings of remainders from these attacks that have been deposited throughout the art museums and public plazas of New York City.
My last major work 'HMS Jersey' was exhibited and recited at St. Francis in 2015 and is to be published in War, Literature and the Arts. I quote a 19th century plea that was included in HMS Jersey.
“there ought to be raised a Colossal Column whose base sinking to Hell, should let the murderers read their infamy inscribed upon it; and whose capital of Corinthian laurel ascending to Heaven, should show the sainted Patriots that they have triumphed”
This column arose from these word to continue the binding of the American union to Revolutionary war battlefields and patriot graves.
In my pictorial essay 'Erasure' that was published in the literary magazine 'Newfound: Art and Place in 2014, I described my drawing of the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial in the late fall of that year.
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 also mention the odd coincidence that two skating rinks had once 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 with the durability and energy of youth grab their skateboards and try over and over again to successfully ride the steps to the bottom.
A young farm hand perhaps in tattered broadcloth standing on a ridgeline just south of here on this day in 1776 must have possessed similar youthful energy, and joked with his buddies as troops from the world’s most powerful empire were descending upon him before dragging him in defeat past his fallen brothers on the field of battle to confinement in the hull of the Jersey.
This young man then witnessed his youth disappear as he passed the hours of his short life within the dank, dark and squalid belly of the Jersey, before ultimately giving, what Lincoln so eloquently described in Gettysburg 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 their happiness. The latter's untroubled abandon would not have transpired without the suffering and sacrifice of the former.
As I watched these youths frolic and play, I was fairly certain that they did so with only a dim awareness of the remains of that young farmhand and his brothers beneath their wheels 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 world we live in, 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. Lincoln was urging his listeners to remember the patriots such as our young farmhand, whose sacrifice resulted in the Union that they were being urged to defend and that we, 240 years hence celebrate with dancing, singing and yes skateboarding.
I ask again, do you hear the chorus?
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 and observing those skateboarders.
He may have felt the wistful desire to join them in their joyful American lives but having that opportunity foreclosed by his sacrifice, he most certainly would have said to himself of that sacrifice 'well done'.