Canadian gives voice to New York's lost souls

Sat Dec 31 2011

Byline: Randy Boswell

Source: Postmedia News


A Canadian artist has become the unlikely keeper of the history of Hart Island, site of New York City's main "potter's field" cemetery for the destitute, the unknown and the otherwise forgotten.

Calgary-born Melinda Hunt, backed with occasional grants over the years from the Canada Council, has produced a unique series of portraits depicting many of the city's lost souls - anonymous men and women whose lives were rediscovered and celebrated through her art.

Her 20 years of devotion to the project have also produced a book, a film, an online gallery and various other works illuminating the little-known story of Hart Island.

And through her creation of an archival database of the island's burial information - laboriously updated as new records are unearthed and added, most extracted from municipal files via legal fights and access-to-information campaigns - Hunt has rescued the identities and stories of thousands of New York's dead.

Even so, hundreds of thousands of deaths - and the lives that went before - remain undocumented. More than 850,000 people have been "invisibly buried" in the unmarked pauper's graves of Hart Island since the 1860s.

Meanwhile, the expatriate Canadian has battled New York bureaucrats to gain greater access to interment data and - since Hart Island was closed to most visitors in the mid-1990s - to the 40-hectare graveyard itself, all part of her mission to bring light to perhaps the darkest, most haunting corner of the great American metropolis.

"AIDS has been a big part of my development as an artist," Hunt, 53, said in an interview. "That's how I sort of became sensitive to Hart Island."

Having left Canada to pursue an art career in the U.S., Hunt took a teaching post in the early 1980s at the State University of New York following stops in Oregon and Texas. Skilled in sculpture, sketch artistry and mixedmedia creations, Hunt was drawn to the story of Hart Island while working on a 1991 installation that blended the themes of homelessness, poverty and AIDS.

"In the early '80s there wasn't very much discussion at a national level about curbing the epidemic, and that's how it got out of control," she told Postmedia News, noting that many of the "unclaimed" people buried on Hart Island in the 1980s died of the disease. "People didn't come and claim their family member who died of AIDS in New York City, because it wasn't discussed and people were also afraid of the epidemic."

Between 1991 and 1994, Hunt visited Hart Island frequently with collaborator Joel Sternfeld to recapture images of the place visited a century earlier by photographer and social activist Jacob Riis.

Riis's stark images of the mass burials at the 1.5-kilometre-long island, situated in Long Island Sound, were intended to give America its "first exposure to urban poverty," said Hunt, adding that her project is meant to rekindle awareness of such deep divides within society - even within families.

"Hart Island is a place outside the vision and minds of most New Yorkers, even those who have family buried there," Hunt wrote in her 1998 book about the place. "It represents the ultimate melting pot, a place where individual lives are blended beyond recognition."

The book, Hunt said, prompted interest from people who suspected they had sons, daughters or other family members buried on the island.

"I started getting contacts from people around the world for help finding their relatives," she recalled.

Her exposure to the life stories and personalities of those interred at Hart Island led to the portrait series - poignant, spare sketches of the dead giving a glimpse of who they were while living.

A number of those works are on display this month and next at Hunt's Shades of New York exhibition at the Center for Digital Arts in suburban Westchester County, where the artist lives after 22 years spent downtown.

Looking back across the generations of Hart Island burials, Hunt says the cemetery is filled largely by four groups: "Infants, immigrants, victims of crime and victims of epidemics" - from the Spanish Flu near the start of the 20th century to the AIDS tragedy near its end.

More than 1,000 bodies - each one placed in a simple wooden box - are ferried to the island every year for stacked burials in long trenches. Inmates from nearby Rikers Island prison are paid a nominal wage to perform the gravediggers' work.

The immigrant artist has also become an advocate for families seeking solace by reconnecting - in tangible and intangible ways - with lost loved ones. In October, Hunt pleaded with New York City officials at a municipal hearing to allow relatives greater access to visit specific burial sites on the island, a simple act of commemoration and reconciliation that she has described as having "ancient roots" and filling "ancient needs."