An Austin Artist Marked COVID Deaths With Flags In His Yard. Now, He's Ready To Take Them Down.
One year ago today, Texas recorded its first death due to COVID-19. Now, more than 45,000 Texans have died because of complications from the coronavirus. One Austin resident has been keeping a close eye on that growing number.
Shane Reilly, an Austin-based artist, began sticking flags in his front yard in May to honor each Texan lost to the virus.
He started the project as a way to encourage his neighbors to pay attention to the seriousness of the pandemic. The installation eventually became an impromptu memorial — and people began traveling from around the city to see it up close.
But now, Reilly says, it’s time to take the flags down.
“I think that we’ve sort of gotten the message now as Texans,” he said. “I don’t think this is needed so much as a reminder anymore.”
The red and white marking flags now completely cover the yard of his Central Austin home. Many are tattered and discolored, having endured the summer heat and February’s winter storm.
Reilly says the project has been difficult to keep up with. He’s stuck some 20,000 flags in the ground, but he regularly updates the sign that stands above the flags, noting the number of Texans who have died.
“It's gotten away from me as a single person to be able to put out almost 47,000 flags,” he said. “I just can't keep up with it anymore.”
He now wants to focus his energy on a more permanent installation, perhaps one that could be placed in a local park. While the project won’t include the flags, he said he wants it to be a visual reminder of the number of lives lost.
“I still think that the idea of showing the numbers versus just saying numbers is a powerful message and a powerful reminder,” he said. “It also adds individuality to those that we’ve lost.”
As for the thousands of flags stuck in his yard? He’s not exactly sure what he’ll do with them yet. In December, he noticed someone had placed a flag in his yard with a name and date on it. Reilly was moved by that, so he put a sharpie out so others could write names of those they’ve lost, too.
Reilly plans to start removing the flags in the coming days. Anyone who wants one to keep can contact him through his public Facebook page.
“If anybody feels a desire to have some of these flags, if they feel that this represented somebody in their life and they want them, I’m offering them up,” he said.
While daily death counts and new COVID-19 cases have declined since the start of the year, Reilly says he recognizes “we’re definitely not out of the woods yet.” But the vaccines give him hope. He also said he feels people’s attitudes toward masking and social distancing have shifted since he started the project.
“The general attitude of people all seems to be, ‘Put your mask on. Make sure you social distance,’ whereas early on there was a lot of pushback to that,” he said. “I think lately we've now just sort of come to accept it.”
But the need for a memorial hasn’t gone away. He said he still sees people come by to look at the flags on a daily basis.
“I’ve seen people’s need for something, a remembrance in some way to say, ‘This was my loved one,’ and, ‘This experience happened to all of us,’” he said. “I have either intentionally or unintentionally created a work that people have that response to, and I feel that they continually need that.”
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