Lessening the pain of loss

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2003

OAKLAND, Calif. It's quiet inside the small, circular chamber, just the thin whisper of a stream of salt falling from ceiling to floor and the murmur of children's voices reciting the alphabet.

It should be sad, this exhibit commemorating dead and missing children. But instead it's serene, a womblike space worlds away from the shrill downtown bustle whistling past the gallery doors.

The idea, says Eleanor Coppola, who helped create the exhibit in collaboration with several other artists, was to create a neutral but evocative space, a public vessel for that loneliest of griefs, the loss of a child.

Coppola knows how important and how hard it can be to acknowledge that loss. Two decades ago, she and her husband, director Francis Ford Coppola, lost their son, Gio, in a boating accident.

She found out then how taboo the subject of death, especially the death of a child, is. She even remembers lecturing herself to ''get on with my life.''

''Nobody wants to talk about it,'' she says. ''Nobody wants to go there.''

But Coppola and her fellow artists have gone there.

Inspired by ancient stone structures in Ireland that are believed to have been used for ceremonial purposes, they created Circle of Memory, an installation at the Oakland Art Gallery, they hope will provide on a personal level the kind of catharsis found at major monuments such as the Vietnam Wall.

''This isn't just meant for parents or families of children who have died, it's so much more universal,'' Coppola says. Small tragedies are everywhere, from horrible accounts of children dying at the hands of abusers to photographs of tiny coffins in war-torn areas.

''It's just present in our life experience and nobody seems to want to acknowledge it,'' she says. ''And yet we're all part of it.''

Coppola, director of filmography for the documentary ''Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmakers Apocal-ypse,'' and author of the book ''Notes,'' recounting the making of her husband's film, ''Apocalypse Now,'' worked with a number of artists on the circle. Her collaborators were Academy Award-winning sound designer Richard Beggs, lighting and structural designer Alex Nichols, artist Robilee Frederick, architect Eliz-abeth Macdonald and Jean McMann, who has a doctorate in the history of architecture and is the person who introduced Coppola to the Irish cairns.

The group worked for about two years on the project, meeting at cafes and at Coppola's house to map things out.

''We'd all have an idea and everybody would chew on it and then they'd say, 'No, that's not right,''' Frederick says with a laugh.

The mantra: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

They used bales of straw (simple and cheap) and other natural materials to re-create the form of the ancient cairns.

''Any community can do this,'' says Coppola, who hopes to see more Circles of Memory installed at other locations. ''Everything we did, we did with ladders or using a dolly, something like that. There's nothing high-tech about it.''

The exhibit begins with a sloping passageway leading to a small, round room. Soft lighting and a semitransparent curtain at the entrance to the room add to the aura of sanctuary. Inside the chamber, a row of bales makes a convenient seat on which to sit and watch a thin stream of salt fall from the ceiling to an ever-increasing mound on the floor.

The artists thought about using sand but finally settled on salt as more visceral, evoking tears and the essentials of life.

The salt sparkles as it falls; in the background children's voices can be heard reciting letters and numbers in several languages. The voices blend in a sibilant murmur; occasionally, an individual voice breaks through with piercing sweetness.

Underpinning the exhibit is the warm, summer smell of straw, all the more striking in an urban gallery a few steps from the wedding cake splendor of Oakland's Beaux Arts City Hall.

A few galleries turned down the concept when the artists were looking for a venue. Not edgy enough, they said. But the Oakland Art Gallery was delighted with the exhibit, scheduled to run through Dec. 20.

Visitors to the circle ''just embrace it completely and they get it,'' says Emily Anderson, gallery co-executive director. ''I was afraid it might be a little too heavy, but it hits this soft place where people open instead of close.''

People like Melissa Kellogg who smiled as she walked out of the exhibit a few days after it opened this fall. ''I found it comforting,'' she said, a hint of surprise in her voice. ''Wonderful!'' was Andrea Turner's reaction. ''To walk through it for a moment of silence and to center oneself.''

Part of the exhibit is a stack of blank cards on which visitors may write down their thoughts, then fold the cards and poke them into a straw bale wall. A number of the folded white cards already dot the wall. One man wrote down just a name, Amber Swartz Garcia, a little girl who vanished 15 years ago after going to skip rope in the front yard of her home in Pinole, Calif.

For Coppola, the Circle of Memory is public and personal, a project that's taken a lot of work but also a place of reflection. Here, she's thought about Gio, remembering him as the gangly 22-year-old he was when he died, and imagining what he'd think of her efforts.

''I feel,'' she says, ''like I can sort of hear him saying, 'Yeah, Mom, that's cool.'''

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