Art recognizing Orange County COVID-19 deaths unveiled as U.S. memorial efforts take root

Marcos Lutyens, creator of the Orange County Rose River Memorial, at the Orange County Museum of Art.
Marcos Lutyens created the Orange County Rose River Memorial, an art installation made of handmade felt roses, each one representing someone in O.C. who has died from COVID-19 at the Orange County Museum of Art on Monday, March 1.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Adorning the entryway of the Orange County Museum of Art through Sunday is an art installation whose vibrancy takes on a poignant new meaning when viewers contemplate the message behind it.

A swath of vibrant red felt roses provides a sobering visual representation of the nearly 4,000 county residents who have lost their lives to COVID-19 and the countless individuals impacted by that loss. As of Tuesday, the county’s death toll stood at 3,952.

Partially handcrafted by community volunteers, many of whom wish to memorialize loved ones lost, the Orange County display is one of several cropping up in Southern California near the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Orange County Rose River Memorial
Orange County Rose River Memorial is an art installation made of 4,000 handmade felt roses, each one representing someone in O.C. who has died from COVID-19.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Each rose signifies a life lost to COVID-19, according to Los Angeles-area artist Marcos Lutyens, who’s created “Rose River” memorial projects in Santa Monica, East L.A. and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

“One rose represents one family that has lost someone and is grieving. Or work mates who were best buddies for life,” Lutyens said Monday outside OCMA, where he and a handful of museum staff participated in a virtual nationwide “COVID-19 Memorial Day Vigil.”

An artist interested in exploring consciousness through a variety of media, Lutyens, 56, began offering virtual hypnosis sessions last year for friends and others feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic.

“There was a lot of fear and anxiety and this kind of feeling Western civilization was collapsing,” he recalled. “It started dawning on me that this wasn’t going away and that we need to memorialize this.”

He came up with the idea of using red roses, the national flower of the United States and a symbol of courage and valor, to stand in for the mothers, fathers, friends and other loved ones lost to the coronavirus.

Located in the county seat of Santa Ana, where residents have endured a disproportionateimpact of coronavirus infections and COVID-19 deaths, the currently closed Orange County Museum of Art seemed a fitting place to house the outdoor Rose River Memorial installation.

Orange County Rose River Memorial
Orange County Rose River Memorial contains 4,000 handmade felt roses representing Orange County deaths from COVID-19.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

OCMA Senior Curator Cassandra Coblentz said when the museum put out the call for volunteers to pick up some 400 rose assembly kits over two days in early February, the community response was overwhelming. Ultimately, staff handed out more than 900 kits.

“We couldn’t buy enough glue to meet the demands of all the people who wanted to make roses for us,” Coblentz said Saturday. “People were so eager to come together and share their stories and grieve. There haven’t been enough opportunities to do that yet.”

Some rose shapers inscribed or even stitched names among the felt petals, while others affixed tags or messages of support. “Rodolfo Andrade, November 15, 1950 – February 9, 2021, My Loving Husband,” one tag reads.

Orange county resident Sarah Sambolich created roses to honor her uncle, whom she could not be with in his final days due to the pandemic. She shared her “COVID grief story” with Lutyens and Rose River Memorial organizers.

“He was a great support to me growing up and was there when I needed him — I wish I could have been there for him in his last days,” she said of her uncle. “These roses are the most tangible way of saying goodbye and, at the same time, giving comfort to those who also lost loved ones.”

The Rose River memorials are among hundreds of vigils and tributes being assembled nationwide to honor the pandemic’s increasing death toll. The effort to memorialize such losses is gaining national momentum as organizations beseech lawmakers to pass a resolution that would annually recognize the first Monday in March as “COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day.”

On Monday, San Francisco-based nonprofits Marked by COVID and Reimagine launched a COVID-19 Memorial Day virtual vigil that aimed to unite the individual efforts of politicians and organizers of memorial projects. Lutyens and Coblentz participated live from the OCMA installation.

Marcos Lutyens and Cassandra Coblentz, Sr. curator at OCMA's Rose River Memorial
Marcos Lutyens and Cassandra Coblentz, Sr. curator and director of public engagement at the Orange County Museum of Art pose in front of the Orange County Rose River Memorial.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Lutyens has a goal of joining the Orange County art piece with other regional Rose River Memorial tributes and recruiting even more volunteers to handcraft roses to represent the nationwide death toll during the pandemic which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s online COVID Data Tracker, stood Tuesday at 513,122 individuals.

His plan is to take the giant installation to Washington, D.C., to mark a second annual COVID-19 Memorial Day. He acknowledges he will need a few more hands to bring that vision to life.

“We will really need people’s help to make roses,” he said.

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