Powerful, overpowering, overwhelming … that’s how two Montgomery College students described their feelings as they helped gather the flags planted at the National Mall as part of the art installation titled, In America: Remember, by D.C. artist and MC alumna Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg ’12. The exhibit sought to honor the more than 600,000 people who have died as a result of the COVID-19 disease in the United States.
Kevin Ferrell and Gladys Ndalama answered Professor Patricia Ruppert’s call for volunteers to remove the flags after the exhibit at the Washington Mall closed earlier this fall. Ruppert, who teaches Philosophy, World Languages, and Women’s Studies at MC, connected with the project through her husband’s company, Ruppert Landscaping, which helped install the exhibit during its first iteration in the fall 2020. That exhibit, In America: How Could This Happen, was located near RFK Stadium in D.C. and featured 165,000 flags, the death toll from the pandemic at the time.
Ferrell and Ndalama both have loved ones who died of COVID-19. Ferrell’s great-aunt recently passed away, and Ndalama, originally from Tanzania, has lost many loved ones back home. Volunteering for this project proved to be cathartic for their grief.
“I had to do something good for myself to make me feel like I wasn’t that helpless during this time of the pandemic,” Ndalama said. “My second motivation was … the people who I lost back home. They are people who made an impact on the person am I today, so I felt like that was the biggest sign of respect I could give, since I wasn’t able to actually pay my last respects to them.”
There was an aesthetic experience in being there that helped all of us connect with this tragic event in our lives.
She said since the experience of removing the flags, she has felt at peace. Before all the flags were taken down, Ndalama wrote a message on one flag, as many loved ones had done, to honor the people she lost. “I almost cried, to be honest, because here in the U.S. they care about the numbers, and I admire that very much,” she said.
Ndalama has been at MC since early 2020 and is majoring in public health sciences, but she has a love for philosophy and is secretary of the Philosophy Club.
Ferrell, who moved to Montgomery County from Texas and started at the College in January, found the visual and emotional experience “breathtaking.” He, his girlfriend, and their dog spent three hours at the site. “It made me stop in my tracks and be thankful for still being here on this Earth. And incredibly sad for every one of those flags and every person who represents and every family member or friend that knew one of [the people represented by] those flags.”
Back in March 2020, Ruppert remembers her students being shell-shocked and isolated. As time went by, they started sharing stories of loved ones getting sick, and in some cases, of their own experiences with COVID-19. That was when she decided to get involved with the project her husband’s company was working on. Ruppert and Firstenberg discovered their shared MC connection—both had shared a mentor, colleague, and friend, the late professor Lincoln Mudd, who passed away in 2018.
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There is a healing power in art, Ruppert believes. “Art has this way of speaking to us that sidesteps all the divisions, all the polarization,” she said. “People are just standing there listening to the sound of those flags, not just seeing but hearing them, as the planes are going overhead behind the Washington Monument. And you go: ‘This is death and life, all at the same time.’ There was an aesthetic experience in being there that helped all of us connect with this tragic event in our lives.”