LA artist uses origami to honor COVID deaths, people worldwide join her Memorial Crane Project

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Karla Funderburk of Matter Studio Gallery says she started this origami crane project to process the COVID-related grief she was feeling and witnessing. Photo by Memorial Crane Project.

It's been more than a year since LA County declared a state of emergency for COVID-19, and since then, more than 22,000 Angelenos have lost their lives to the virus. That means  one in three residents here know someone who died or became seriously ill from COVID. 

So how do you process all that pain and memorialize loved ones? Karla Funderburk, owner of Matter Studio Gallery, folded paper cranes and gathered thousands of them from people worldwide. Her Memorial Crane Project features tens of thousands of these origami long-necked, long-legged birds. 

KCRW: What is the Memorial Crane Project?

Karla Funderburk: “It's an art installation. … I started it about 11 months ago. I started it by myself to kind of give myself a way of processing the grief that I was feeling and witnessing and the sorrow that I was experiencing in my day-to-day world.”

KCRW: What does it look like?

“It's so beautiful. What I did was I reached out within my community because I realized as we were witnessing the volume and the magnitude of all the lives lost, I realized I was not going to be able to fold enough cranes to represent the numbers. 

So I reached out on my Instagram and my social media and through my gallery mailing list. And I have been receiving cranes from all over the world — nine different countries and 45 different states. Within those states, multiple cities. 

And so each person sending cranes, they'll send sometimes … a box of 6000, sometimes it's 100. Sometimes it's one crane with one name and one story. And so there are all these various different sized cranes and beautiful colors and paper. And I string them together and hang them. So these cranes are floating in space and you feel this incredible sense of hope.”

KCRW: Why did you start folding these cranes in the first place?

“My father, he was in the military. … After he retired … he became a minister. And then he also started working in a funeral home. And there was this one conversation that always stuck with me. He talked about the importance of memorializing and commemorating. And as I witnessed the lives being lost, particularly last May when in New York … people couldn't say goodbye to their loved ones, the hospitals were overrun, there was not enough PPE, there was not even enough toilet paper … the pandemic was seizing the United States. And so it was impacting me. 

I know I wasn't alone. I wasn't alone by the feelings of loss and fear and hopelessness. So I started folding while I was watching MSNBC. I would always watch Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow, that whole evening lineup. 

At that point, it was 88,000 and I was folding cranes each night, anywhere from 10 to 20 cranes while I was watching the news. And when it ticked on May 14th, it ticked up to 88,000, I said, ‘Oh my God, how many years is it going to take me? How long is it going to take me to fill that many?’ And it was going to take 29 years. And I said people aren't recognizing the volume of people we're losing.”

KCRW: Are there any stories of all the ones you've received that have stuck with you?

“There's so [sic] many stories. When I post, I always send a hashtag — #youmatter.  You matter to me.

A woman and her best friend … went to college together. When they would sign off, they would say, ‘You matter to me.’ And so she found the cranes because of that closing … Her best friend of 35 years died of COVID early on. … She was 51 and she sent me 51 cranes with her best friend's name on it and her birth date and the day she died on each of the 51 cranes. And then she also decorated each crane in a special way with maybe rhinestones, glitter, a special drawing.

One young boy [Christian Montoya], his … half sister called him and told him that his father [Exequiel Montoya] had died. And it's just so moving.

[Christian Montoya describes his father:] ‘He's called me almost every single Sunday to see how I'm doing, so we could talk, so we could catch up. And whenever he couldn't … I knew it's because of tropical rain storms or the lack of electricity some days. But I knew he always wanted to call. And when he did, he would apologize and I would always understand. But even though he was always physically so distant, he never, ever felt far away. I will love him forever for that.’

Then another one, where a woman [Lawton Boardman] contributed cranes early on … her mom [Bunny Lawton] lived in Georgia … and protected herself and barely came into contact with anyone. But my friend said little did she know that the cranes she was making for Memorial Crane Project would then eventually be there to honor her mother.”

[Lawton Boardman describes her mother:] ‘I feel fortunate that her art will keep her alive in my heart and mind, and as painful as losing her is, it is both fortuitous and comforting to know that her spirit is among the flying cranes that are a part of such an important memorial art project. My mother had polio in her childhood and was isolated then too. Her daddy would wave at her from the garden below her window, and though her family was unable to be near her this time, we were able to connect face to face using the technology she detested. And it's worth noting that by her own design, she left this life singing with my brother and me, the silly songs she taught us when we were little.’

I started collecting the stories because I realized that I shouldn't be the only one that hears these amazing commemorations and the love that these people have and are sharing.” 

How to add your own story to this project

So on my website, Memorial Crane Project, you can add a story to my volume of stories, and you can add a name … by simply pressing a button and stating that person's name. 

Then you can also download a voice message or you can email it to me. I have a crew of volunteers that will read it for you. If you're not familiar with how to record or you might feel like you might, it might be too emotional for you, I have a QR code that's posted on the windows or on the walls, wherever the installations are going, and you can scan it, and then start to hear the volume of precious memories shared by their loved ones.”



Larry Perel


Tara Atrian