Origami crane exhibit remembers those lost to COVID-19

DES MOINES — A colorful, intricate art installation will go on display in the Des Moines metro area on Monday that features more than 7,500 origami cranes, each representing an Iowan who died of COVID-19.

Artist Pam Douglas, of Clive, folded each of the paper cranes by hand and has assembled them in a 12-by-27 foot curtain along with 36 mobiles that will be suspended from the ceiling.

“My main hope is that this will create an opportunity for people to reflect,” Douglas says. “I’m really wanting to create a sense of community over this pandemic experience. I want people to know that others have experienced what they have, they aren’t alone and that a lot of people are thinking about them and caring about what’s going on.”

Many of the cranes carry the hand-written names of Iowans who’ve died from the virus and Douglas is diligently working to add more cranes and names to the installation as more victims are reported — about a hundred every week.

(photo by Pam Douglas)

“The Des Moines Register had collected some names of COVID victims and I used that list to collect names,” Douglas says. “I’ve also visited with a number of people who’ve come to visit the installation and heard their stories and I will get the names of their loved ones and I’ve added them to the wings of the cranes.”

The exhibit has been displayed in several Iowa locations already and Douglas transports it inside more than a hundred cardboard banker’s boxes. While she usually creates paintings or drawings, she says the isolation of the pandemic inspired her to turn to the thousand-year-old Japanese art of paper folding.

“As an artist, I’m a little on the sensitive side,” Douglas says, “so my emotional response was probably what motivated me to do what artists usually do, create something, so I made the memorial.” She’s had plenty of practice — and Douglas says she can now fold a crane in less than two minutes.

A victim of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima began a tradition of folding paper cranes to encourage healing and hope. While Douglas counts herself as very fortunate that she hasn’t lost any immediate family members or friends to coronavirus, she does have a few relatives who work in the medical profession.

“My nephew is a COVID specialist in the ER and he’s shared some of the stories with me,” Douglas says. “What’s heartbreaking is what people experience when they lose a loved one and they aren’t able to say goodbye to them at the end, so that end-of-life process has been changed by COVID.”

The exhibit has already been on display at Sacred Heart Church in West Des Moines and it also spent several months at Reiman Gardens in Ames. It will be unveiled Monday at 11 a.m. in the Student Center on the Ankeny Campus of Des Moines Area Community College. While a stint is planned at Loras College in Dubuque next summer, Douglas says she’s looking for other Iowa venues where the installation can be displayed, and hopefully, bring healing.