Karla Funderburk: Creator of the Memorial Crane Project Spreads Her Wings

Memorial Crane Project install in Palm Desert. Photo credit Ash Kruthoff.

Karla Funderburk: Creator of the Memorial Crane Project Spreads Her Wings

Create Center for the arts, palm Desert
Through June 2022

Written by Genie Davis
On view through early June at The Create Center for the Arts in Palm Desert, Calif., The Memorial Crane Project soars through a two-story exhibition space. Over 20,000 folded origami cranes, created by a small army of people, flutter across the vast, and vastly moving installation.

Created by artist and gallerist Karla Funderburk, the Memorial Crane Project is a powerful experience that commemorates lives lost to COVID-19. Begun during the isolating early days of the COVID pandemic in spring 2020, Funderburk took her own grief at lost lives and turned it into something beautiful.

Funderburk explains “In May 2020, isolated and overwhelmed by the news of the devastating suffering and deaths from the COVID-19 virus, I started folding origami ‘Ozuru’ cranes. I envisioned folding one for each life lost, a healing practice. I had learned how to fold them from my godchildren’s Japanese grandmother, who taught me how to fold origami cranes when we were flying back to California from Israel, after celebrating my god-son’s Bar mitzvah in Tel Aviv.”

The practice resonated with her during lockdown, when cases were astronomically rising in New York City, and a dear friend lost her mother and husband’s mother within a single week, Funderburk relates. “People were dying alone and at such a rapid pace that the morgues had run out of room and so the hospitals had refrigerated trucks behind them to hold the bodies. Families couldn’t say good-bye or hold memorial services or funerals. They couldn’t commemorate their loved ones in real time and hold rituals and services to honor and grieve those lost too soon. These two dearly loved grandmothers were not just another number to me, these were women I had shared holidays and special milestones with, these were people I cared about.” Overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness, sorrow, and uncertainty, Funderburk remembered having heard the story of Sadako Sasaki, who at 14, diagnosed with cancer because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing fallout, made 1000 paper cranes. Sasaki made them with the belief that those cranes would help carry her to the next life, and as a prayer for peace, and safekeeping.

With that story in mind, Funderburk started folding cranes each night as she was watching the news on MSNBC. “As the numbers of deaths continued to rise, I calculated how many years it would take to fold one for each life lost when the total was at 88,000. At the rate I was folding, it would have taken me 24 years. Given the enormity of this tragedy, and the continuing increasing numbers, it occurred to me that I needed help. I reached out on my social media accounts and, miraculously, I started receiving dozens of parcels from around the world filled with beautiful paper cranes!” She adds, “I was not alone in wanting to memorialize those so tragically lost.”

She began hanging the cranes in her mid-city Matter Studio Gallery. According to Funderburk, “As the memorial grew and as more people were able to witness my installation that I had created in my Gallery and that I had posted on my social media accounts, I realized I needed to start collecting the names and the stories that people were sharing with me. This project caught the attention of some journalists, and word spread quickly worldwide.”

She hung 7,500 cranes, suspending them from copper wires to form a walk-through maze of cranes. But soon, she was receiving hundreds of cranes daily, over 180,000 cranes.

To continue to share them, there’s much work ahead. In October 2021, she received her non-profit status, officially making the Memorial Crane Project a 501c (3). Together with her team of volunteers, contributors, and board members, she intends to create Memorial Crane Project installations throughout the U.S., to “build unity and healing through this tragedy, by honoring those lost and by holding space for those left behind.  Our intention is to eventually participate in creating a permanent Covid Memorial,” she states.

Her work with The Memorial Crane Project reinforces and works “in total alignment” with Funderburk’s plans for Matter Studio gallery. “My mission for my gallery is to create a vital community hub that celebrates and supports inclusiveness and multicultural perspectives, experiences, and a broad range of mediums and materials, to provide a platform for artists to engage a broader community.” She explains that as a collaborative community generated-and- supported memorial installation, the Memorial Crane Project honors those lost during the pandemic, by holding “the space for another’s pain and suffering. We find our oneness and connectedness and can open our hearts and minds a bit more, [recognizing] that your suffering is my suffering and that you are not alone, that I am not alone and those we have lost are not alone either, as they all fly together in the Memorial Crane Project installations.”

The installation in Palm Dessert is the largest number of cranes exhibited together so far, including 20,000 origami cranes in a foyer/access ramp entrance at the Create Center. “The ceilings are 19 feet,” Funderburk says. “The cranes are suspended from the ceiling, floating overhead as you walk through the switchback ramp. When I first sat on my bed trying to find solace in folding the cranes, I had no idea that this memorial project would grow to its current scale. I have received cranes from 9 countries, 5 continents, and 46 states.”

Currently, Funderburk has installed seven “chapter sites” throughout the U.S. And still the project keeps growing, broadcast to news agencies all over the world. “I have received cranes from Dubai, Tibetan Monks in Tibet, students from the Hiroshima Foundation send me cranes, Boy Scout troops, universities, upper and lower grade school students,” Funderburk says. “The Japanese Cultural affairs have hosted talks, MSNBC, KCRW, Spectrum news, and even Fox news has featured the Memorial, just to name a few. What this has taught me is that we truly are one, and that we truly need one another.” She adds “The shared stories and transformation of spirit that I have had the privilege to witness as people walk through the labyrinth of cranes touches and transforms me forever.”

According to Funderburk, the purpose of the Crane Memorial Project is simple, but deep. “I want people to recognize that you are not alone, that what impacts you, impacts me. Your suffering is my suffering, and through our empathy and compassion for each other and ourselves we can transform fear to love and conflict into peace.”

With that in mind, she’s heard from many viewers who have become deeply moved by the exhibition. “I hear how they feel so much hope, a hope that they haven’t felt since the pandemic began, and some have said never felt before. People share sweet memories of loved ones locked deep inside that come to the surface as they move through the labyrinth.”

Witnessing tears shared and a visible love and compassion come over viewers, Funderburk attests that “One person stated [the experience] so eloquently, [saying], ‘like the paper transformed into an origami crane, my experience of loss has been transformed. I no longer feel alone.’ Just as those honoring their loved ones aren’t folding alone, the loved ones that have passed are no longer alone. They fly together in this installation in unity, collaboration, and community.”

The Create Center for the Arts is located at 73600 Alessandro Drive in Palm Desert. Hours are 10-4 Tuesday-Friday; 10 to 2 on Saturday. It is closed Sunday and Monday.

The Memorial Crane Project Website


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