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Correction: The names of the landscape architects who designed the Embrace were not included in this piece. They are Tina Chee and Marc Salette of CHEE SALETTE.
Eleven years ago this past weekend, on Jan. 8, a gunman opened fire at a political event in Arizona. That moment in 2011 underscored both the dangerous divisions and the epidemic of gun violence in America. Stephanie Sy visits Tucson, where a Jan. 8 memorial is steeped in symbolism starting with its location. It's part of our arts and culture series, CANVAS.
This past weekend, January 8, marked the day when, in 2011, a gunman opened fire at a political event in Arizona. It was a moment that underscored both the dangerous divisions and the epidemic of gun violence in this country.
As part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, Stephanie Sy visits a memorial in Tucson that is part of a new and tragic American art genre.
Tucson's January 8th Memorial is steeped in symbolism, starting with its location.
Rebeca Mendez, Artist:
It's like walking into healing arms.
Coming into view as one passes through the portico of the historic Pima County Courthouse and near City Hall. The memorial to Tucson's deadliest modern mass shooting sits in the civic heart of the city.
That was intentional, says artist Rebeca Mendez, a professor at UCLA, who along with landscape architects, designed the memorial.
It became clear that this was an attack on democracy, an attack on the very — most — the most important right that people.
Meeting with a congressional representative.
Exactly, meeting and exercising your right to have a democratic process.
It was during a meeting between then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson and her constituents on January 8, 2011, that a gunman opened fire, targeting Giffords, who was severely wounded; 18 others were shot, and six victims died, ranging in age from 9 to 79.
One year ago, on the 10th anniversary of the shootings, the memorial was quietly dedicated. It was the height of the pandemic, so it received little attention. It's called The Embrace. Two berms curve toward each other. The structure is surrounded by desert blooms within six gardens, one for each of those killed.
On the inner walls, punctures that conjure bullet holes. At night, they look like constellations. Golden light illuminates the voids. Some of the bullet holes are filled with modern-day petroglyphs that symbolize the varied lives, values and ideals of each victim and survivor.
The Embrace honors the victims of a modern-day mass shooting, but it also symbolically and subtly references the way guns have shaped the region's history, especially for the indigenous tribes, who consider this their ancestral land.
Bernard Siquieros, Tohono O’odham Nation Elder:
It affected all of us that live in the area.
Bernard Siquieros is a member of the Tohono O'odham Tribe, whose people have lived in this cactus-strewn desert for more than 10,000 years. A former tribal arts educator, the memorial's designers sought his input during their research.
To incorporate that and that kind of memorial, I think, is very honoring and appropriate.
Petroglyphs, he says, were traditionally used to record events before written language existed among tribes here.
These symbols in a memorial, especially now, in modern times, where you have written language and video and other kinds of things, this memorial using those symbols will continue to tell that story so that people don't forget.
Mary Reed, Mass Shooting Survivor:
I was only in the hospital 24 hours.
Many can't forget.
January 8 in Tucson is beautiful.
Mary Reed remembers the day of the shootings in stark detail.
We heard what sounded like fireworks.
I got a sting in my arm, and my body started moving. No thought. I picked up Emma, and I threw her against the wall. And I just covered her with my body, and then the screaming started.
Emma is her daughter, then 17.
And you could hear gunshots then very clearly, and a man walking towards us.
He was deliberately aiming for Emma?
And that got my ire up. And I, without letting her up, turned around to look him in the face, because I thought, you're going to shoot me another time, you better be looking me in the eye.
Mary Reed's most evocative petroglyph? A mama bear and her cub.
Mary's story, there's nothing more courageous.
Reed has described the memorial as playful. Visitors can make rubbings on the petroglyphs, bringing a piece of the memorial home.
Twin reflecting pools overflow with water that caresses the names of victims as though with falling tears, every detail researched, sketched, and sometimes, says artist Rebeca Mendez, disputed. She had wanted the memorial to take a more overt stance against guns.
This country has an epidemic. It's a disease of gun violence. My statement, my personal statement, would have been stronger. And, at the same time, when you are doing public art, you really are intertwining yourself with the community, and there is a give-and-take.
It is a conversation other communities in the process of building tributes to victims of mass shootings are having.
Artist renderings show plans for memorials in Newtown and Orlando. Completed mass shooting memorials include Columbine, El Paso, and Aurora. The memorial in Tucson, seen from above, shows an abstraction of the figure 8 for January 8 and, in the artist's eye, another symbol.
The idea of January 8, if you think of the Mobius, is the number eight sideways. So, in your walking, meditating, in a sense, you could create that Mobius. And it really is the idea of continuity. We will prevail as a civilization. That is my hope.
The Embrace tells a somber story, repeated so many times in this country that memorials to mass shooting victims have become their own American art form.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Tucson, Arizona.
So hard to accept that gun violence is so common in this country .
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Phil Maravilla is the senior producer of PBS NewsHour West, NewsHour’s bureau at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, which is primarily responsible for covering the Western US and updating the nightly broadcast when news warrants for airings in the West and online.
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