What began as a practical solution to a problem in my Chicago neighborhood became a public act of meaning-making and a secular memorial.

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In 1993, the residents of Rogers Park, one of the most culturally diverse and artistically active of Chicago’s Northside neighborhoods, established a new tradition to cope with an old problem. Local gang members were constantly tagging a 600-foot-log concrete seawall bench between Loyola Park and the Lake Michigan beachfront, and the City’s cleanup crews couldn’t keep up with the taggers. 

Residents responded by organizing the Artists of the Wall project. For a nominal fee, artists could purchase the right to decorate sections of the wall in whatever styles they liked. After one year, the resulting 600-foot quilt-style mural gallery would be whitewashed to make way for a new gallery. 

The upshot was both a dramatic reduction in graffiti and a new practice of community-building artwork.

In the same year, in Wellington, New Zealand, my best friend Simon was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 25 years old. I wrote his obituary, attended his funeral, and helped his family move his belongings out of his apartment. But thereafter, to quote C. W. Nicol, “My soul demanded a dramatic gesture.” 

In the immediate aftermath of Simon’s death, I created and performed the first of what would prove to be a long series of secular memorial rituals. That one was private. Then over time, they became public retorts to the rather dour, repressed responses to death that we In New Zealand inherited from Mother England. Contextualized as art, these mythopoetic rites were enacted in city streets, community halls, and forest clearings; they drew soulful and playful inspiration from the Mexican Day of the Dead and from the more somber memento mori art of the European Renaissance. 

Ever since then, I’ve paid close attention to diverse thanatocentric ceremonies, especially those developed by secular countercultural artists. 

In 2015 I moved to Rogers Park, and during the Summer Solstice of 2021 was inspired to join the Artists of the Wall project. I painted my roughly four-foot section of the wall a midnight blue, and upon that field I inscribed, in silver, a line paraphrased from Carolyn Forché’s poem The Museum of Stones:

“…with hope that this assemblage of rubble would become a shrine …”

The unorthodox next step was to take advantage of the Art Wall’s bench-style construction by scattering about twenty items found on the adjacent beach upon the flat top surface of the bench structure.  Pieces of driftwood, interesting stones, bricks that had been tumbled around in Lake Michigan for who knows how long—these were the building blocks.

I wondered what would happen next.

When I returned to the site the next day, I was happy to see that others had already started adding to and re-arranging the assemblage, which I considered to be a year-long experiment in interactive public memorial art.

I visited the shrine almost daily, sometimes twice a day, between June 2021 and June 2022.  Here’s a selection of entries from my curator’s journal, with additional contextual commentary:

June 30th: the assemblage is growing. Each time I’ve passed by the shrine, I’ve seen people stopping, taking photos or adding a pebble or two. One of the two stones I’d wrapped with colored ribbon has disappeared. Yesterday I watched a young guy spend about 15 minutes carefully re-forming the cairns and shifting them around. That made me feel good.

July 10th: I arrived at the site of the shrine this morning to find all the rubble gone. I’d been anticipating that this would happen eventually.

I scouted the area and found nothing, then followed a hunch and looked in a nearby recycling bin, and there found most of the large stones and old bricks. Perhaps a Parks employee assumed that it fell under the “litter” category, perhaps something else – who knows? Doing unusual things in public invites unpredictable reactions. I retrieved them and re-established them on the shrine. 

July 14th: Someone has added some kindness rocks to the assemblage, brightly painted and sporting encouraging mottos; “Be Kind,” “Love to all.”  

During August I became engaged in a kind of anonymous running battle with someone—it may have been more than one individual, but I sensed otherwise—who kept vandalizing the shrine.  I’d arrive, early in the morning or during the early evening, to find the stones and bricks scattered within throwing distance, or literally shattered on the concrete. Consider the commitment it would take to routinely throw or smash a collection of about twenty stones and bricks, and then wonder at the vandal’s motivation. 

My best guess was that this person believed very strongly that a shrine could only be one thing, and anything outside that orthodoxy was suspect, if not actively evil.

One morning I watched a man walk up to the shrine, snatch a handful of pebbles off it and toss them into the sand. I don’t know whether he was the serial vandal, but he seemed to have done this before, and he seemed angry.

Each day, sometimes twice a day, I’d replace the broken and missing stones. Eventually my unknown nemesis gave up. 

One beautiful early August evening, my mini-pilgrimage to the shrine brought me into a very long and intense philosophical discussion with an older guy from Mexico.  He was an ex-convict and a devoted Platonist with a wide-ranging interest in lived philosophy; at one point he noted that he refused to fit into the dominant cultural paradigm of dividing people into “important” and “victim” categories. I explained a bit of my own perspective and practice, and we parted friends.

August 27th: This morning I noticed a helicopter hovering over the water near Pratt Pier, which extends out into Lake Michigan very close to the site of the shrine. I often go out to the end of the pier during my walks, tossing a pebble into the lake as a carpe diem/memento mori gesture. As I approached the scene I saw divers, police boats, ambulances and fire trucks – clearly there was a massive search and rescue operation under way, and I gathered that a swimmer had gone missing.

His name, I later learned, was Miguel Cisneros. Miguel had drowned within a few feet of the pier. The structure itself creates extremely dangerous water currents, especially when the wind is blowing from the wrong directions, effectively generating a washing machine-like turbulence on one side and a powerful undertow on the other.

Bystanders had watched from the pier, helpless to assist him.

In the aftermath, the Cisneros family and local residents pressured the Chicago Park District to install life rings at the end of the pier in hopes of preventing a similar tragedy. When the Park District dragged its feet, residents began to fund and install rings of their own accord, but the Park District authority had them all removed. The cause attracted widespread media attention and I was present at a candlelight vigil at the site on the evening of September 7th.

The next morning I found the wax remains of two large candles, one red and one white, that had melted down on the shrine. I was glad that it served a real memorial purpose, though sad that it had to.

The Parks District eventually installed a life ring at the end of Pratt Pier, and then a graffitied memorial painting of Miguel joined that of fisherman Croslene Kettle, who had drowned near the pier in 2018.

September 21st: This morning an older woman approached me to ask what the shrine meant. I started to explain but we were quickly joined by another woman who, as it turned out, used to manage an art gallery, and her explanation was more coherent than mine.

During October someone added a number of metal figurines to the assemblage, including one of a female figure playing the violin. Perhaps she was the Goddess of the Shrine; someone had also been burning incense there. On another evening I met two young women who were filming the shrine for a university documentary project, and the next morning I found it adorned with an empty glass jar and a neat line of three short pretzel sticks. Evidence of ritual activity? Whimsically arranged picnic leftovers? I’ll never know, but the pretzels had attracted an industrious troop of ants.

October 17th: I had the following conversation with a woman who approached me during my morning curation of the shrine:

Her: Ha! I caught you! Here I was, thinking that this all happened by magic!

Me: Well, perhaps I’m not really here.

Her: Good point! I love the way the fairy village changes all the time. I sometimes add a stone or two. I hope that’s OK?

Me: Of course, that’s what it’s for.

By mid-November, there was a sense, somehow, that the shrine had become simply a part of the landscape—probably because fewer people visited the area as the weather cooled, hence less constant change to the assemblage, and partly also because dead Fall leaves gathered against the contours of the cairns, just as they did against everything else. New objects—a stone engraved with the word “Believe”, a scattering of lake glass—appeared when they appeared.

November 27th: I discovered a piece of fabric adorned with an image of the Buddha and (I think) Sanskrit text, a few coin offerings and a rather handsome piece of driftwood as a sort of centerpiece. There’s a cozily communal feel to the shrine now that the cold has reduced pedestrian traffic down to only the more dedicated lakefront visitors.

Still, I replenished my nearby hidden cache of larger stones – gathered from an adjacent beach, about a half-mile away – against the chance that they’d be needed during the winter months. It’s a squirrelish necessity.

December 25th: Someone threw the lintel stone back onto the grass and stuck a “Have a Blessed Christmas”-type children’s book in the middle of the shrine. Perhaps they felt that the Stonehengesque, quasi-pagan or at least multi-denominational nature of the shrine required a specifically Christian addition on Christmas Day.

I’d wondered how the shrine would look under snow, and on January 3rd (the latest first snowfall since records began in 1909) it happened, and I quite liked the effect. I also liked the friendly little figurine made from a lemon with toothpick legs, which showed up at about the same time. 

By early February the snow had finally melted enough to expose the shrine. I was pleased to see that it was still there, including my little frozen lemon friend.

February 15th: This afternoon I lightly tidied the assemblage and noted a few new “offerings” of pinecones amidst the ever-growing circle/pile of pebbles. Perhaps the pinecones were a reminder that the weather would improve. They’d clearly been placed by some very hardy souls; the wind off Lake Michigan will cut through you like a blade at this time of year.

During February and March, I became fascinated by the gradual anthropomorphization of the shrine – the stones and bricks shaped into a structure evoking a human head and shoulders, with arms spread, embracing an ever-expanding assemblage of tokens and offerings. It was like a miniature, communal reinvention of Shinto.

April 21st: The shrine has been completely reformed into a memorial centered around a photograph of a young girl.  I wish that there was a word in English to describe how that made me feel, but it’s mostly humility that I may have helped some people in need.

By mid-May, the shrine assemblage had achieved what was to be its final form: an enclosure of bricks and stones, within which were daily added, anonymously, an eclectic assemblage of tokens and offerings.  A (very) partial list follows:

  • Three bright blue glass beads
  • A scattering of coins and a dollar bill
  • A tiny diorama of a man and woman standing to either side of a pool of water, labeled “love puddle”
  • Acorns, as they came into season
  • A dead cell phone
  • An elaborate bamboo wind-chime
  • Several damaged Christmas tree decorations, including a wooden camel, a fairy, an emu and a rabbit, which lent the shrine an “Island of Misfit Toys” poignancy
  • Two large packs of Chinese incense
  • Three devotional candles
  • A blue ceramic elephant figurine
  • A matchbox wrapped in yellow paper bearing the message “Joy + Jubilation is my birthright + natural State of Being”
  • A collection of shells, lobster claws and a piece of white coral
  • A plush unicorn puppet
  • One small black badge with a skull and crossbones motif, another in pink, with a black heart-shaped motif reading “Grandma Approved” and a third in black with red text reading “No Karen formed against me shall prosper”
  • A hand-shaped Buddhist hamsa amulet
  • An iridescent bone-shaped metal dog tag bearing the name “Obi”

I have no idea what significance many of these items had to the people who placed them on the shrine. But now that the experiment is over—as I write, the Rogers Park Art Wall has just been whitewashed, in preparation for a whole new set of mural paintings—I believe that they demonstrate a largely unrecognized need for a “third way” of public memorial. 

Officially sanctioned memorial sites in cemeteries and grand monuments on public land certainly have their places, as controversial as many of the latter have become in recent years.  It’s also well worth noting the popularity of folk practices such as candlelight vigils and the temporary shrines that often appear in the vicinity and/or aftermath of violent deaths, especially since the death of Princess Diana in 1997. 

Aside from those established methods, I believe that many communities might benefit from the type of secular, artistic and radically inclusive “neighborhood shrine” I created in Rogers Park.  They require active curation, they may attract controversy or vandalism, but I saw, over and over again over the course of exactly one year, that they also provide opportunities for creative expression, for mythopoetic mourning and for community-building. They set a tone, and that’s no small thing.

Tony Wolf is a writer (mostly nonfiction, one prose novel, one graphic novel, one play) and educator, formerly an action director/choreographer for feature films, TV, theater, opera and ballet. Born in...

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