There are many ways to describe Melinda Hunt’s 20-year effort to draw attention to the forgotten souls of New York City’s potter’s field: a multimedia installation, a crusade, an obsession.
Since November 1991, the Peekskill-based artist’s work regarding the urban burial ground on Hart Island has taken numerous forms: a film, a book, a data registry, a photo archive, and, most recently, a speech delivered to the New York City Council demanding better documentation of people in city hospitals.
Hunt’s latest effort to memorialize nearly one million men, women, and children is an exhibition of ink-and-photography pieces. “Shades of New York: An Exhibition of The Hart Island Project” opens December 6 at Westchester Community College’s Center for Digital Arts in Peekskill.
The show’s images of human figures, rendered in black ink and splayed across black-and-white photographs of Hart Island’s desolate landscape, are unrelentingly stark. That is intentional. “This is such a dark story,” Hunt said, “and I haven’t really told the dark side of the story at all.”
The result is akin to the medical examiner outlines of corpses on city streets. For Hunt, this exhibition is yet another way to illuminate a social phenomenon that began during the Civil War and has continued through present-day: the perfunctory municipal burial of the indigent, the friendless, or simply those subsumed by Manhattan’s daily chaos.
She likens the figures to the spirits in The Divine Comedy
who emerge from the ether to speak to Dante. “Each of these people somehow got stuck, and they got stuck in a place in history, and that place is Hart Island.”
For the artist, these images, which she took in 1993, are the latest effort to explore her own relationship with Hart Island, whose graves have been off-limits since 2006, when Hunt’s impressionistic film Hart Island: An American Cemetery
, brought international attention to the area. City officials, she said, simply could not keep up with the deluge of visitation requests. This inaccessibility, she feels, is “offensive”—another indignity foisted upon the departed. Regulations allow passage to the island, but not to the acres of plots. “It’s like going to the Met [Museum] and only going to the gift shop,” says Hunt.
For most of her career, Melinda Hunt was not a politically motivated artist. In 1990, the Canadian national applied for American citizenship. Being “herded around like cattle” gave her a vivid perspective on the lives of those either crushed or erased by governmental machinery. On a chance trip to Hart Island the following year, Hunt discovered a potent symbol for her own sense of dislocation. The invisibility of the deceased began to haunt Hunt.
“It was interesting to me as an artist,” she said, “but it was also interesting to me because I had become a citizen, so I felt like I had some responsibility here.”
The artist became an advocate; her database expedited the location of people lost to the ages. Many family members decided on disinterment, bringing the remains home for burial. Along the way, they shared with Hunt stories of the dead as well as photos, which she collected with an eye toward utilizing them in another artful tribute.
“Shades of New York” is that tribute, as well as catharsis for Hunt. But perhaps not closure. She currently seeks funds to make the database interactive, so people can post memories of the eternal residents of Hart Island. “Is this the end?,” Hunt said. “I hope so—but maybe not.”
“Shades of New York: An Exhibition of The Hart Island Project” will be exhibited December 6 through January 14 at the Westchester Community College’s Center for Digital Arts, Peekskill. (914) 606-7304; www.sunywcc.edu/peekskill