The clay tiles are slowly taking on the shape — and the spirit — of those who have died of COVID-19.
Fifteen people are sitting around a U formation of desks at a recreation center on the south side of Tucson. They are molding the clay tablets with their hands, wooden styluses, rolling pins, sponges, stamps, stencils, seashells, and all sorts of personal and artistic artifacts, bringing out the memories of their lost loved ones.
Instead of letting the area’s high number of COVID-19-related deaths slowly be swept away by history, south side artists and local residents are creating a memorial that will endure for generations.
The small clay tiles they are working on will be fired and then plastered onto a wall monument — an ofrenda — to be permanently displayed at Mission Manor Park on 12th Avenue south of Drexel Road, in the Sunnyside Neighborhood.
Artists Alexandra “Alex!” Jimenez and Paloma Jaqueline are organizing the art project, called “In Memory Of” or “En Memoria De.” But community members — the family and friends of loved ones lost to COVID — are the people designing and creating the tiles.
About 1,000 residents of Tucson’s south side have died from COVID, or about a quarter of all COVID deaths in Pima County.
“It’s about grief,” Alex! says of the project, remembering her own mother who died seven years ago, at 52.
She says that for a long time people have been dying young on Tucson’s south side.
“COVID was another predator in an already stressed part of town,” she says.
That’s why she and Paloma wanted to make a memorial about and for the community. “I knew I wanted it to be physical, tactile,” Alex! says.
Paloma is the clay specialist for the project, and agrees on the importance of both working on and displaying something with heft, something you can touch.
“For me, working in clay can be a mode of healing,” she says. “It teaches patience, motor skills, love.”
When the clay tile is fired, it “will turn to stone and last longer than all of us,” Paloma says.
“Clay can withstand the desert, withstand the heat, withstand the wind. You leave your mark in the clay.”
And that is what the project is about, she says: not letting these deaths be lost in the ether of numerical abstraction.
Alex! and Paloma hosted their first workshop in mid-April, during which they talked through and helped residents personalize tiles that will become part of the final wall.
The next workshop is Sunday, April 30 at Wakefield Middle School, from 10 a.m. to noon. People interested in participating and commemorating their lost loved ones as part of the memorial project, can sign up here.
Margie Hernández, 69, lost her brother, Rudy Vidal, to COVID on March 9, 2022. He was 81.
Rudy was a community barber and hair stylist, having worked from when he was 17 into his 80s. Over the years, many clients would follow him from salon to salon, Margie says.
“He was a fun guy, always had get-togethers on the weekends, always the loudest of the bunch,” Margie says as she works clay into a Rudy-inspired comb to put onto the tablet.
“He was a happy guy, always the joker,” she says.
When Rudy passed, Margie went to clean out his apartment and threaded one of his rings, as well as his signature “R” pendant, onto one of his gold necklaces. She’s wearing the necklace over her shirt as she works the tablet.
She wants to commemorate her brother in clay so she can “remember the way he was — a happy-go-lucky guy.”
“It’s helpful to talk about,” she says, holding up the small clay comb that she is still crafting with careful strokes, “and helpful to do this.”
Marina and Tarah are seated with their mother, Theresa, to commemorate their father and husband Gilbert Gutierrez. He was 58, and passed in November of 2021.
Gilbert was a sports fanatic, especially loved watching hockey, something Marina shared with him. He also loved to fish. Their memorial tile for Gilbert has three hearts, symbolizing his daughters and wife.
“It’s bittersweet,” Tarah says. “It feels nice for people to be able to go and feel the true impact the pandemic had here in town. We were being safe, and it [her father’s death] still happened.”
“A lot of people saw the numbers and the statistics, and didn’t think they were so high, but the numbers are so much more than that,” she says. “He had a name and a family. He’s more than just a number.”
Tarah says that seeing their memorial tile up on the wall will make people understand.
“We’ll really be able to see the impact of COVID. He was a person we all loved,” she says.
Drina Ramirez, with her daughters Jolene and Deanna, were commemorating their husband and father Joe Ramirez. He passed on Sept. 28, 2021.
They liked that there would be something lasting for people to remember their loved ones by.
Joe loved nature, going on hikes, fishing, and especially scouting desert rocks. Mother and daughters etched a saguaro into the clay.
“We were really into rocks, he was always looking on the ground when we were in the desert,” Deanna says.
Jolene says that the pandemic “wasn’t like anything else we’d gone through, which is why it’s important to remember.”
After he caught COVID, Joe was in the ICU for six months. In the last weeks before he died, doctors transferred him to Phoenix to try to take him off the ventilator, but the family wasn’t even allowed to touch him.
“We were in masks and gowns, gloved,” Jolene says. The barriers made them feel so distant from him.
“I was torn at first, I didn’t want him to be remembered only as dying of COVID,” Deanna says, “but I wanted to put his name on something the community could see. I wanted to be able to put hands on clay when we weren’t able to touch him.”
The south side community almost feels forgotten.
“Everyone has moved on, but we’re still grieving,” she says.
With one of Joe’s collected seashells, Deanna presses against her dad’s soft clay tile, making an impression that looks like angel wings.
Visuals: Michael McKisson
Editor: Dianna M. Náñez
Copy Editor: Irene McKisson