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‘Broken pieces of our lives’: A Laguna Beach gallery memorializes COVID-19 victims

"Shards: In Memoriam" is a ceramic memorial on display at Coastal Eddy Gallery in Laguna Beach.
The names, ages and states of Wyatt Gary Gibson, 5, of Georgia, and Sister Mary Luisa Wawryzyniak, 99, of Michigan, are two out of the 3,000 lives lost that are recorded on broken ceramic pieces as part of “Shards: In Memoriam” a ceramic memorial at Coastal Eddy Gallery in Laguna Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The collective grief of the coronavirus pandemic finds an artistic outlet inside the walls of the Coastal Eddy Gallery in Laguna Beach. That’s where “Shards: In Memoriam” remembers the deceased through pieces of broken ceramics gathered on the floor, each adorned with the name of a loved one passed on.

It’s a simple and solemn display — one that continues to grow.

Robin Lee Riddell, owner of Coastal Eddy and a ceramic artist, felt the pandemic’s toll weigh heavily on her mind a year ago. The gallery remained shuttered as the deaths continued to mount.

“I just kept hearing about all these people dying,” she said. “I thought I needed to create some sort of memorial.”

Riddell took clay pots, mugs and bowls from previous artwork and hammered them into shards. She turned next to the May 24, 2020 front page of the New York Times that marked the first 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus. The artist wrote the names of the thousand people eulogized in the newspaper on the shards she’d created.

“They’re sharp and broken,” said Riddell of the shards. “It’s the pain that we feel and they’re the broken pieces of our lives.”

As Riddell considers Coastal Eddy to be a platform for social issues, the memorial also makes a pointed political critique. Above the assemblage of shards decorated with lavender flowers and votive candles is an unattributed quote, dated Feb. 27, 2020, from a former president who surmised that COVID-19 would disappear “like a miracle” one day.

“Everybody who reads the quote knows who said it,” she said.

Artist and owner Robin Lee Riddell of Coastal Eddy Gallery in Laguna Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The gallery hosted a socially distanced and masked event in October to publicly introduce the memorial during visiting hours. Since then, Riddell estimates that more than 2,000 shards have been added to the collection, a total tally still shy of the 5,200 people who have died from COVID-19 in O.C. alone since the beginning of the pandemic.

Sometimes visitors to the gallery will contribute to the name of someone they knew, as happened recently with a married couple who shared the story of a cousin who didn’t get vaccinated and passed from the disease. Other times, Riddell searches obituaries and reaches out to people grieving online.

Either way, the memorial has prompted visceral responses, from the artist and viewers alike.

“I’ve had people be moved to tears and cry,” said Riddell. “Most find it very meaningful and take a picture of it. They feel like people are remembered. Others, when I tell them about it, have no reaction at all and walk out. That, to me, is really heartbreaking. We’re so divided over something that shouldn’t be divisive.”

Riddell plans to create a new artwork from the shards in the future, but isn’t sure what shape that will take just yet. Until then, she invites anyone who’s lost a family member or friend to COVID-19 to contact the gallery and have a shard contributed to the memorial in their name.

“Hopefully, it will wind down at some point,” said Riddell. “I’m hoping, some day, I won’t be adding to it anymore.”

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