Missing persons

Boots symbolizing the U.S. dead are touring the country in an artwork meant to emphasize the toll of the Iraq war.

By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times

March 14, 2005
Michael McConnell is a former priest, part-time poet and full-time peace activist who has no training as an artist. Yet his creation, "Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War in Iraq," a high-concept memorial consisting of more than 1,500 pairs of boots, has engaged crowds throughout the United States, standing, literally, as testament to the war's death toll.

The equation behind "Eyes Wide Open" is spare: One pair of boots equals one member of the American military killed in the Iraq war.

McConnell, Midwest director for American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker Church pacifist organization that sponsors "Eyes Wide Open," says, "The concept came out of living with the question of 'How do we visualize the human cost of the Iraq war?' The Pentagon outlawed any pictures of flag-draped coffins coming home, so the challenge was to represent the lives that were being lost daily without battering people with real images of war."

The answer came to McConnell as he flipped through an issue of Time magazine. "I happened to see a graphic of boots, and it just clicked: That represents a life. It helps people imagine someone who should be standing there but is not."

As casualties rise, the scale of the exhibition has tripled since the day in January 2004 when it opened with 504 pairs of boots planted on Federal Plaza in Chicago. The installation, which includes a "Wall of Remembrance" with the names of 11,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, plus a smaller display of shoes to symbolize them, has traveled in the last 15 months to about 50 cities, shifting shapes for each site. The boots assumed a circular formation in New York's Central Park, a wedge at Philadelphia's Independence Mall and lined up straight and narrow in Washington, D.C.'s, National Cathedral.

"Eyes Wide Open" can be seen Tuesday in Long Beach, followed by a two-day installation in Pasadena. On Saturday, the L.A.-area tour will culminate in Westwood to commemorate the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.

The man responsible for designing "Eyes Wide Open," day to day, is Marq Anderson, a former real estate salesman who travels the country with a driver and a 26-foot truck loaded with plastic tubs containing the boots. "I enjoy putting this up where what I call the accidental tourist will stumble across it," Anderson said last week as he prepared to set up outside the San Diego County Administration Building.

"When people come out of their offices for lunch and turn the corner and walk onto a plaza and see all these boots in front of them — you can just see their mouths fall open. They kind of pause and take it all in and shake their heads, not knowing what to make of it."

The cumulative effect may catch the casual visitor off guard, but for families who come to mourn, each pair of boots is personalized with a tag identifying the name, age, rank and home state of a fallen member of the military. "I put a lot of the tags on myself, and by now, I've met a lot of family members," Anderson said. "As you listen to the stories about their sons or daughters, you begin to feel like you know the occupant of the boots…. Talking with the families is probably the hardest aspect of the job, but it's also probably the most rewarding."

Some families object

Not every surviving family is pleased with the memorial. McConnell says a handful of relatives have asked that identity tags be removed, and American Friends Service Committee has complied. Other families support the effort by contributing photographs, letters and mementos that become a permanent part of the exhibition. Fernando Suarez del Solar, for example, donated the combat boots belonging to his son, Jesus, who died in Iraq in March 2003.

After his son's death, Del Solar said, "My life changed 100 percent."

Formerly a cashier at a San Diego convenience store, Del Solar responded to his loss by visiting Iraq and starting his own humane relief group. He will take part in "Eyes Wide Open" events in Pasadena and Westwood.

"It's not easy for me to go to these things, but I feel it's necessary that people see my testimony, and see that military family members support this activity," Del Solar said. "It's very different to read in the newspaper '1,500 American fatalities.' When you see the 1,500 pairs of boots in one place, it's very powerful."

"Eyes Wide Open" clearly makes a compelling visual statement that connects with the community, but is it art? Jack Becker, executive director of Public Art Review, a not-for-profit Minneapolis-based publication, likens the politically charged exhibition to Greenpeace interventions and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which in 1996 was unfurled on the Capitol Mall in Washington. "I see memorials as a type of public art, a creative expression accessible to the public. What constitutes a memorial these days? Temporary roadside crosses, graffiti murals, billboards, photos attached to fences, flowers spread on the ground? Public art doesn't have to adhere to historical or artistic movements. Like 'The Gates' in New York — there's no way to put that in a context with shows you see in museums. It can be confounding for critics. With public art, the public's response is a lot more important than what critics or artists think about it."

Judith Neemann, a visiting artist at the Art Institute of Chicago, studied "Eyes Wide Open" with a class to explore the aesthetics of public space. "Some of my students felt that the installation's clearly directed message made it too didactic to satisfy them as art," she said, "even as they appreciated it as effective political action."

Gaining stature

However experts choose to explain it, "Eyes Wide Open's" blend of art, memorial and political protest may come to emblemize the cost of war just as emphatically as the crosses planted in a graveyard behind Omaha Beach or Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At a minimum, it has riveted public attention, and the boots keep marching.

Beyond the current tour's conclusion in Washington state next month, McConnell says there's a waiting list of 140 American cities interested in hosting the installation. Community leaders in India, Turkey, England and Puerto Rico have sought the piece for overseas display.

The level of interest would seem to vindicate McConnell's view that a vivid image speaks volumes. "At the beginning, there was an interesting dichotomy in our organization because the more factual thinkers wanted to get the information out there and didn't totally realize the importance of the visual. They kind of tolerated the idea of the boots but didn't see how it would impact things. But I think the way our culture operates, it just seems that images are more powerful than words."


'Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War in Iraq'

Tuesday, Long Beach

Lincoln Park and main library, 101 Pacific Ave. Exhibition open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with noon to 3 p.m. reading of Iraq war casualties' names, 6 p.m. vigil.

•  Thursday and Friday, Pasadena

Memorial Park, 85 E. Holly St. (near corner of Walnut Street and Raymond Avenue). Exhibition 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday; reading of war casualties' names 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday; and vigil 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

•  Saturday, Westwood

Federal Building, 11000 Wilshire Blvd. Exhibition 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with noon to 3 p.m. reading of war casualties' names, 3 p.m. press conference, 4 p.m. performances of peace poems and statements by actress Shiva Rose and others, 6 p.m. vigil.

•  Contact: (626) 791-1978;