Art and About
Engaging with the creative force in everyday life

November 4th, 2007

Make Art, Not War

Posted by christina in Web Columns

I live in the residential neighborhood directly behind the Crosses of Lafayette, as they have come to be known in the national media. If you are not familiar with the Crosses of Lafayette, it is an installment of almost 4000 white crosses, Stars of David and crescents of Islam on a hillside across from our local Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Lafayette, California. The Crosses can be viewed well from one of our most popular commuter routes, Highway 24, as people make their way into work in San Francisco and Oakland. A sign at the top of the hill keeps count of the number of American soldiers who have died in the Iraq war. There is one cross, star or crescent for every dead soldier. The crosses for female soldiers are painted pink.

The Crosses of Lafayette is on a piece of private property and every weekend, volunteers from all over the Bay Area come to erect and paint more crosses to represent the newly dead. Individual crosses have been decorated to suit individual purposes. Some have names on them. A couple have been covered in mosaic. Some have flower wreaths around them. Many have red ribbons attached. A rainbow-painted cross repeatedly attracts my daughter’s attention.

The Crosses have attracted a ton of media coverage, and almost as much controversy. Many see them as an anti-war protest although those who created the Crosses call it a memorial. Political demonstrations both for and against the war are regularly held on the hillside. There have also been several incidents of vandalism destroying portions of the Crosses. The memorial is always rebuilt.

The Crosses first went up a year ago this November. I immediately saw it as an art installation to raise awareness about the cost of American lives in this war. For the first time since leaving my newspaper job, I wished to be back on the beat to cover this extraordinary bit of artistic expression.

The Crosses quickly taught me to be in the moment, with respect to the war. I admit, with two young kids and a busy life, I wasn’t following the saga beyond the headlines. I disagreed with the war when it started, and I can easily become angered when I think about it, but keeping track of the day-to-day minutia of war was not on my agenda. The Crosses changed all that. Every day now, I consider the dead and say a little prayer for it all to end before they have to increase the number on that sign again.

As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the Crosses, I have seen it look beautiful and I have seen it look unsettlingly ugly. When it was installed, we had already had plenty of rain so the grass of the hillside was green. The contrast with the white crosses made it beautiful in the way Arlington National Cemetery or the American Cemetery in Normandy are beautiful. But six months later, the rainy season was ending and the long grass was turning brown. I wondered about weed abatement for the property owners, something the fire marshal requires us all to do to protect ourselves from grass fire in the summer. The Crosses were starting to look overgrown and shabby.

I went on vacation for a week and when I returned, patient souls has weed-whacked around each cross and everything was trim and neat again. During the summer, the twigs of remaining brown grass disintegrated revealing the crumbling dirt below. Suddenly the Crosses looked ominous and desolate. The scene made the most sobering, starkest statement about the war to date. They probably won’t ever look beautiful again to me, even as we head back into rainy season and anticipate green grass surrounding them once more.

I’m not the only one who considers this memorial to be an art statement. The people who live directly across the street launched a protest of their own for several months. The put large signs in their front yard saying things like (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Crosses Don’t Make Art, Children Do” and “Children Shouldn’t Have to Live in a Cemetery.” The Crosses never angered me, but these signs did. First off, ANYONE can make art, not just children. I find this narrow-minded view of creativity most frightening because I know the residents of this one home are not the only Americans to think such nonsense.

I was bemused by the reference to the Crosses as a cemetery. There are no bodies buried on the hillside. It is not a cemetery, but merely a representation of one. My young children are able to understand this concept. I wonder if anyone has explained it to the children who live in this neighboring home? These neighbors took their signs down when they put out their Halloween decorations. I guess some things are more important than art protests.

Another time I was angered by a reaction to the Crosses was when, during a discussion, my companion commented on the amount of money the landowners were losing because as long as the Crosses are on their property, they wouldn’t be able to develop it. Do you think, perhaps, the landowners feel the Crosses are more important than money? Art trumping greed — what a concept!

The Crosses of Lafayette are succeeding on so many levels. Despite my personal feelings about the war, the Crosses make me feel proud and patriotic. Some of that has to do with free speech in action, especially when the speech is done with powerful, simple symbolism. A lot of that has to do with a contentment I feel when art sparks dialogue, even heated dialogue, within the community, the nation, and in my own home. A few blocks away from the Crosses, someone was moved to put up a giant peace sign adorned with the stars and stripes. This too can be seen from Highway 24. The Crosses show that even in our affluent suburb, passions run deep. Believe me, sometimes it’s hard to tell around here.

It will be a strange day for me when the Crosses come down. Since it seems at this point they are here to stay as long as the war rages, the day they come down could be the day our remaining troops all arrive home safely. That should be a great day. But honestly, I’d like to see the hillside remain an available venue for people to make effective art statements. I’d love to see what else this hillside could inspire.

If you would like to learn more about the Crosses of Lafayette, google the phrase and numerous Web sites come up. There is also a specific blog that keeps track of the many ways people have been creatively moved to respond to the Crosses.

One Response to ' Make Art, Not War '

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  1. Leslie Doyle said,
    on August 21st, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Themelis Cuiper’s SocialGarden Business videos : socialmedia marketing & sme had a hyperlink to your post. Any idea why? So your blog post is example of something. :-)

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