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Tucson memorial for shooting victims elevates art born from tragedy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: This past weekend, January 8, marked the day when, in 2011, a gunman opened fire at a political event in Arizona. It was a moment that underscored both the dangerous divisions and the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

As part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, Stephanie Sy visits a memorial in Tucson that is part of a new and tragic American art genre.

Stephanie Sy: Tucson's January 8th Memorial is steeped in symbolism, starting with its location.

Rebeca Mendez, Artist: It's like walking into healing arms.

Stephanie Sy: Coming into view as one passes through the portico of the historic Pima County Courthouse and near City Hall. The memorial to Tucson's deadliest modern mass shooting sits in the civic heart of the city.

That was intentional, says artist Rebeca Mendez, a professor at UCLA, who along with landscape architects, designed the memorial.

Rebeca Mendez: It became clear that this was an attack on democracy, an attack on the very -- most -- the most important right that people.

Stephanie Sy: Meeting with a congressional representative.

Rebeca Mendez: Exactly, meeting and exercising your right to have a democratic process.

Stephanie Sy: It was during a meeting between then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson and her constituents on January 8, 2011, that a gunman opened fire, targeting Giffords, who was severely wounded; 18 others were shot, and six victims died, ranging in age from 9 to 79.

One year ago, on the 10th anniversary of the shootings, the memorial was quietly dedicated. It was the height of the pandemic, so it received little attention. It's called The Embrace. Two berms curve toward each other. The structure is surrounded by desert blooms within six gardens, one for each of those killed.

On the inner walls, punctures that conjure bullet holes. At night, they look like constellations. Golden light illuminates the voids. Some of the bullet holes are filled with modern-day petroglyphs that symbolize the varied lives, values and ideals of each victim and survivor.

The Embrace honors the victims of a modern-day mass shooting, but it also symbolically and subtly references the way guns have shaped the region's history, especially for the indigenous tribes, who consider this their ancestral land.

Bernard Siquieros, Tohono O'odham Nation Elder: It affected all of us that live in the area.

Stephanie Sy: Bernard Siquieros is a member of the Tohono O'odham Tribe, whose people have lived in this cactus-strewn desert for more than 10,000 years. A former tribal arts educator, the memorial's designers sought his input during their research.

Bernard Siquieros: To incorporate that and that kind of memorial, I think, is very honoring and appropriate.

Stephanie Sy: Petroglyphs, he says, were traditionally used to record events before written language existed among tribes here.

Bernard Siquieros: These symbols in a memorial, especially now, in modern times, where you have written language and video and other kinds of things, this memorial using those symbols will continue to tell that story so that people don't forget.

Mary Reed, Mass Shooting Survivor: I was only in the hospital 24 hours.

Stephanie Sy: Many can't forget.

Mary Reed: January 8 in Tucson is beautiful.

Stephanie Sy: Mary Reed remembers the day of the shootings in stark detail.

Mary Reed: We heard what sounded like fireworks.

I got a sting in my arm, and my body started moving. No thought. I picked up Emma, and I threw her against the wall. And I just covered her with my body, and then the screaming started.

Stephanie Sy: Emma is her daughter, then 17.

Mary Reed: And you could hear gunshots then very clearly, and a man walking towards us.

Stephanie Sy: He was deliberately aiming for Emma?

Mary Reed: Emma.

And that got my ire up. And I, without letting her up, turned around to look him in the face, because I thought, you're going to shoot me another time, you better be looking me in the eye.

Stephanie Sy: Mary Reed's most evocative petroglyph? A mama bear and her cub.

Rebeca Mendez: Mary's story, there's nothing more courageous.

Stephanie Sy: Reed has described the memorial as playful. Visitors can make rubbings on the petroglyphs, bringing a piece of the memorial home.

Twin reflecting pools overflow with water that caresses the names of victims as though with falling tears, every detail researched, sketched, and sometimes, says artist Rebeca Mendez, disputed. She had wanted the memorial to take a more overt stance against guns.

Rebeca Mendez: This country has an epidemic. It's a disease of gun violence. My statement, my personal statement, would have been stronger. And, at the same time, when you are doing public art, you really are intertwining yourself with the community, and there is a give-and-take.

Stephanie Sy: It is a conversation other communities in the process of building tributes to victims of mass shootings are having.

Artist renderings show plans for memorials in Newtown and Orlando. Completed mass shooting memorials include Columbine, El Paso, and Aurora. The memorial in Tucson, seen from above, shows an abstraction of the figure 8 for January 8 and, in the artist's eye, another symbol.

Rebeca Mendez: The idea of January 8, if you think of the Mobius, is the number eight sideways. So, in your walking, meditating, in a sense, you could create that Mobius. And it really is the idea of continuity. We will prevail as a civilization. That is my hope.

Stephanie Sy: The Embrace tells a somber story, repeated so many times in this country that memorials to mass shooting victims have become their own American art form.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Tucson, Arizona.

Judy Woodruff: So hard to accept that gun violence is so common in this country .

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