During my regular commute from the Bowdin Street T stop on the Blue Line up the hill to classes at Suffolk University, for many months, I passed by the construction site for a high rise government office building. Often that climb up the steep incline was defined by the weather. Good feelings on a warm spring day, gloom on grim winter ones. Bracing for a class to commence momentarily, and the ongoing tension of negotiating the busy elevators in the lobby of the Sawyer Building.
But during that routine passage, several weeks ago, something riveted my attention. There was a great pile of smooth river rocks that masons were putting into place in an interesting pattern. Exotic tall grass was being planted with what looked like a fountain in the middle. It was still closed off as construction continued but perked my curiosity. Only momentarily, as I hurried to get to class on time.
Then one day there was a stunning revelation as a graceful and poignant bronze sculpture “Ibis Ascending” was mounted at one end of the plaza soaring toward the heavens from the top of a rounded, pink granite wall.
In a stunning and shockingly painful moment it all came into focus. This was the realization of a project I had been aware of for some time. There was a bronze maquette of the sculpture in the last show of furniture and sculptures by Judy Kensley McKie. I learned that it was a work editioned to raise money for a memorial. (There are still available sculptures, at $1,500 each, through Gallery Naga on Newbury Street) A couple of months ago I received a request for contributions and an invitation to the dedication of “The Garden of Peace: A Memorial to Victims of Homicide.” I made a modest donation and was astonished to receive a remarkable, hand written note from Judy. It was so moving and thoughtful. I gasped at the power and passion of the words. Since many individuals responded to the request for funds I was stunned to receive such an individual and personal acknowledgement.
It also brought me back to that moment more than a dozen years ago when so many in the Boston art community gathered in the Quaker Meeting House in Cambridge in a memorial service for Jesse, the only child of Todd and Judy McKie. It was a deeply disturbing and emotional service. So unlike the neat and orderly smells and bells of the Catholic funeral rites that I am used to. There was no such restraint. Instead there were a seemingly endless number of remembrances of his many friends and school chums. Never have I felt more drained by such an event. Not even for members of my own family. But there was also something cathartic about the lack of constraints, the freedom, and spontaneity. I had never met Jesse but through this event I emerged feeling that I knew a lot about this young man. His passion for rap music, multi culturalism, and apparently spastic, frenetic dancing.
These are some of the very same human qualities that made me self consciously smile and laugh during a remarkable speech by Todd during the well attended dedication of the new memorial park. There were many speakers describing the brutal murders of their loved ones: Children, fathers, spouses, cousins. And also words from the many individuals and politicians who worked for a number of years to realize this important project designed by landscape architect, Catherine A. Melina, and Judy.
Of all the speakers only Todd made me laugh while warmly remembering his beloved son Jesse. But there was no humor when he discussed the years of trials and appeals. About days in court so draining that they went home to bed at 5 in the afternoon. The long drawn out process to convict individuals Todd described as “monsters.” Five young men who surrounded their son and demanded his fancy jacket. Then threw him to the ground, stomped and stabbed him. Left him to die in a snow bank. And how they chased down and stabbed to death a witness. The father of an infant. Two lives senselessly destroyed for a fancy jacket.
It was a long dedication ceremony as I stood on the periphery trying to ease the strain on my back. Eventually, I spotted some artists in the crowd and found a bench somewhere to share the experience with a friend.
The next day I told my students about the plaza, just steps away from their daily routines. We talked about memorials and I asked who had been to Washington, D. C. and visited the Vietnam Memorial? We talked about the famous Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint Gaudens which we Suffolk folks pass daily on our way over Beacon Hill past the State House and on to Park Street T stop. So many memorials. So many generals on horses. So many long ago wars. And yet a need for ever more memorials. How to celebrate and grieve for lost loved ones? Particularly for victims of war, terrorism and murder. What is it about human nature that is capable of such violence.
And why ultimately does it become the domain of artists to make the healing act of visual closure. Here, a soaring group of Ibises and a bed of river rocks with names of murder victims. Many stones waiting, sadly, for later inscriptions. Surely no end to the killing and human suffering.
How strange that these thoughts and emotions are provoked by the sculpture of Judy and the words of Todd. They are both artists uniquely know for the wit and humor of their work. Judy is regarded as among the elite of makers of studio furniture and sculpture. Todd’s work has always been about whimsy as is evident in his current show at Victoria Munroe Gallery in Boston.
Over many years Todd and Judy have made me smile and laugh. How very odd then that they also lead me to tears. Through Judy’s remarkable sculpture, and Todd’s unfailing support of her efforts, their son Jesse, and those many other loved ones, will live on in our hearts and minds.