This article originally appeared in the December 03, 1996 Charleston Gazette
AUTHOR’S NOTE: As a journalist and essayist of many years, some pieces fall out of your memory. I discovered this one doing a Google search to stir memories of older pieces.
By Douglas Imbrogno
At first, you think — what a dumb idea.
Take one magnificent monument — Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’s Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Copy all 57,661 names on the polished black granite wall onto metal panels.
Shrink the whole thing down to one-third the size of the original. Stack the panels in a truck, with a load of screwdrivers and struts.
Ship the thing off on tour.
Piece your little wall together in a riverfront park in Huntington, West Virginia. Place it above ground, where Lin never intended it to sit. Open the gates and invite people in.
What do you get?
You get an unexpected lesson in the power of art.
I had no intention of visiting the mini-wall when it stopped for three days in Huntington the first weekend in November. I had seen the real thing in D.C. several times. I had felt firsthand the monument’s powerful impact.
I had experienced how it tugs tears out of you, no matter how together and indifferent you think you are about a war that ended two decades ago. The monument hits you you where it hurts. Somehow that’s a good thing.
Every time I see it, I am impressed with Maya Lin’s risk. Our usual response to war memorials is mild interest or no interest at all. But Lin’s memorial helps people to do something usually not permitted in American society — to grieve openly in publicly.
Veterans groups at first hated her concept — they called it “The Wall of Shame” and “a black hole.” Yet veterans groups brought the mini-wall to Huntington. They hoisted a big vinyl banner that said: “The Wall That Heals.”
They know the power Lin’s wall has, how people track down the names of brothers, sisters, fathers, friends, grandfathers, how they trace their fingers into the grooves of the names, hold them there, head bowed. How they leave flowers, photos, stuffed animals and letters at the base of the wall, in such profusion there are now guidelines for their placement and weekly cleanup crews for collecting these homages.
But that’s the real thing. What could this little one do?
Oddly, almost exactly the same thing as the real monument.
It was a crisp, cool Saturday afternoon as I strolled downtown Huntington. What the heck, I thought, I’ll walk down to the river and see that monument.
I walked through the huge floodwall gates that open into Harris Riverfront Park. The mini-memorial was set up to the right in a field, dwarfed by the 20-foot-tall floodwall.
But you noticed the memorial wall. Even at a third its size, it grabbed you.
So many names! On and on they went.
The shiny metal reflected back your body just like the real monument, so you saw your ghostly image melded with this roll-call of dead teenagers, men and women. (Thinking, too, how the Vietnamese list was 20 times the size of this one — with estimates of more than a million people dead.)
The riverfront park is usually full of shouting and horseplay. But the memorial had generated a hushed zone all around it. People spoke quietly. Wiped tears and hugged. Crouched and touched names. Reverently placed pictures and flowers at its base and stood back.
We live in an age that places little public value on art. Our government spends more money on its many military show bands than it does on funding for all of the arts.
It’s good to be reminded that art in the form of a public monument can rock people to their cores.
And when it’s true art, you don’t even need the actual object itself. That’s how powerful it can be.