March-April 2021

Lasting impression

Outraged over the rising COVID-19 death toll, a Bethesda mom created a stunning display of small white flags last fall to represent each American who had died

Bethesda artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg at her flag installation marking COVID-19 deaths. Photo by Jonathan Thorpe

Growing up in South Dakota, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg often visited Dinosaur Park, a tourist attraction outside her hometown of Rapid City that features life-size replicas of seven prehistoric creatures. Those figures had been sculpted by her grandfather, E.A. Sullivan, and, more than 50 years later, Suzanne would create her own public art that attracted worldwide attention—a stunning display of 267,000 small white flags, planted on a sweep of green space next to RFK Stadium in downtown Washington. Each flag represented an American who had died from COVID-19 by the end of November, when the installation was taken down, but it lives on. Suzanne was interviewed by camera crews from about 30 nations. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will preserve some of her flags as part of an exhibit documenting the impact of the pandemic, and a digital version is in the works where people can create virtual flags in memory of loved ones lost to the disease.

“I knew people would bring their anger and I knew people would bring their grief. That was the point of it,” she tells me. “I did not realize that they would bring such appreciation. I was just an artist creating something that I thought needed to be done. I didn’t realize the emotional connection people would have with this art. I touched a nerve that I didn’t even realize was there.”

I have known Suzanne for more than 30 years, since she married her husband, Doug—an old family friend and prominent real estate developer—and became our neighbor on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda. Their middle child, Lindy, named for my mother-in-law, is my goddaughter, so I am not a neutral observer of “The Firsties,” as they call themselves. Still, I learned a lot from Suzanne when we talked one sunny Sunday afternoon on my back porch.

She never took art lessons as a child and was in her 50s when she discovered her talent, but at 61 she now realizes: “Indeed, I had artistic genes in my hereditary line. This is something that had been in me all this time, I just didn’t know it.” Her father, a small-town lawyer, had many Native American clients, and “they would pay with artifacts oftentimes,” she says. “So there were times when we didn’t have food on the table, but we certainly had tomahawks and ghost shirts in the attic.” When he took a job with the federal government, the family moved to Kentucky, where Suzanne attended high school and the state university. Then came a master’s in business and a career marketing pharmaceuticals.

She left the workforce to raise her three children and actually took an art class that turned into a disaster. Her first assignment was to draw an apple, but after starting with a circle she was stymied: “The circle on my page stared at me and refused to become an apple. Right? That damn circle just wanted to be a circle. But I didn’t discover myself as a two-dimensional artist. I discovered myself as a three-dimensional artist.” That revelation began when an art teacher at Landon School, where her son, Drew, was a student, offered a summer class in ceramics for school parents. When she struggled with a potter’s wheel, she asked the instructor, “ ‘Could I just go sit at a table with a lump of clay and try to make something?’ And I did.”

The result was the bust of a woman that’s still displayed in her home. “People ask if I was the model for the piece,” Suzanne says. “Absolutely not. I was just trying to make her be a woman of an indeterminate ethnicity who looked like she had something to say. And I fell in love with her in that moment. And yet I was kind of upset with her because she was living proof that I wasted so many years of my life not doing what I should have been doing.”

Firstenberg threw herself into art classes—sculpting, drawing, painting, even welding. As she explains: “I knew I needed to teach my eyes and my hands and my brain what beauty really is.” She focused on projects that contained a political message. In 2016, for instance, she subscribed to the Congressional Record and turned its pages into 10,752 paper airplanes—half striped red, half blue—and installed them at American University in D.C. in an exhibit called “Updraft America,” where a few of the planes crossed paths and turned purple. She did a sculpture of a reclining homeless person, which she called “Surplus,” fashioned with concrete rubble and rebar she scavenged from a Chevy Chase sidewalk. She photographed the eyes of drug addicts and displayed them on glass blocks placed in public fountains because, she says, “Addiction is like drowning.”

Suzanne’s outrage over the COVID death toll mounted all summer. Her many years as a hospice volunteer “taught me the importance of dignity, both in living and dying,” she says. And her work with drug addicts encouraged her to use art to illuminate “deaths that often happen in isolation” and create public spaces for grieving. “So I knew I wanted to do something. I was just trying to figure out what.”

She decided to commemorate individual victims through a common symbol that would convey the scope of the plague and considered various possibilities—Popsicle sticks, bells, wind chimes. “I finally ended up with flags because they’re beautiful,” she says. “They talk in the wind, so that there’s an auditory part to it. And white flags made a whole lot of sense. They could be written on, so they could be personalized. If I planted them in an array, I could evoke Arlington cemetery.” But the logistics were daunting. She wrestled for weeks with the District government before obtaining permission to use the site. Then she found a company in Nebraska that would sell her small white flags, generally used by engineers, for 10 cents apiece. A Laytonsville business, Ruppert Landscape, donated 400 hours of free labor and helped her create a system of flat boards with holes punched in them at precise intervals so workers could create a symmetrical effect.

Suzanne describes the visitors who came to view her work: “They’re struck by the beauty, but at the same moment horrified that it’s beautiful because it represents something so sad and so incongruent. We as Americans are not typically reflective of our failures. We don’t celebrate them. We don’t discuss them. We don’t create art about our failings, but this struck at one of the most visible failings in our history.”

E.A. Sullivan’s granddaughter did not fail. She carried on his legacy, creating a work of art that captured a profound moment in American history and preserved it for the ages.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.