Putting a face with the name

Remember the old Minnesota state hospital cemeteries? The ones with anonymous graves for people with disabilities? The same cemeteries that […]

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Remember the old Minnesota state hospital cemeteries? The ones with anonymous graves for people with disabilities? The same cemeteries that are now getting restored with headstones that have names, birth and death dates? Here’s a question for you: how did they ever figure out who was buried where, and what their names were? And what did these people look like, anyway?

Jenny Johnson took part in a Remembering With Dignity exercise to put faces to the names in Minnesota’s institutional cemeteries.

A free new interactive art exhibit goes on display noon-4 p.m. Sat. May 29 in Newell Park, Fairview Avenue and Pierce Butler Route, St. Paul. Advocating Change Together’s (ACT) Remembering With Dignity project presents See Their Faces, a series of new portraits and an interactive game that gives the public a chance to experience the process of turning a clearing in the forest that was an abandoned cemetery into a place of dignity and remembrance. See Their Faces offers new art created by people with disabilities who are members of Remembering with Dignity. Each artist created a piece related to the story of a person with a disability in the past century that lived and died in one of Minnesota’s state hospitals,and was buried in an anonymous, numbered grave. Remembering with Dignity works to highlight and celebrate the lives of people with disabilities who lived and died in the Minnesota state institutions.

“We’re turning numbers to names,” said Carol Robinson when describing the work to convert numbered grave markers to proper headstones.  When the project began in 1994, Minnesota had more than 13,000 unmarked or numbered graves. Since then, the legislature has provided funds to restore 5,629 markers. “I worked on a portrait of Eddie Walesheck,” said artist Liz Koltes. “He died when he was 42 and was buried under number 424 in Faribault. That could have been me.”

Since late 2009 experienced artists and teachers supported Remembering With Dignity members as they embarked on a new path as emerging artists. “We came in two times a week,” said Kelly Lee. “We worked on drawing faces. We worked on drawing shapes. It was fun; and hard. I even came in on my days off.” Each new artist kept a sketch book, and wrote his or her own artistic statement. “I went through seven sketch books” said Carol Robinson.

“The project had two equally important goals,” said Halle O’Falvey, Remembering With Dignity organizer and lead teaching artist for the exhibit. “We’re educating society about a powerful piece of the past, and providing an opportunity for the people with developmental disabilities to see themselves as artists.” The exhibit includes a game that mimic’s O’Falvey’s job of researching and verifying the identities of the former inmates/patients buried in the cemeteries, not to mention
finding the markers themselves.

“Finding those old numbered markers was pretty tough,” said Larry Lubbers. “We had to walk through the woods looking for old concrete cylinders made from coffee cans.”

Visitors will look for numbered grave markers hidden in Newell Park, starting at 1 p.m. When they find the numberedmarkers, they will then have to match the number with the name. Various files will be available for this process,including cemetery records, admission records, coroner reports, death certificates and birth certificates. All of this must be done to verify that the information is correctly spelled and dates are correct.

‘See Their Faces’ has been a great and honorable feat,” said O’Falvey.” Nearly every member began this art project thinking that they were not artistic and could not draw. Look what they did.” For more information, call Remembering With Dignity organizer Halley O’Falvey at 651-641-0297.

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