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In May, when Shane Reilly, an artist in Austin, Texas, started planting one flag in his yard for every Texan who died from the coronavirus, the state had fewer than 1,000 deaths.
Now, Texas is approaching 15,000 people dead, and the nation will soon hit 200,000.
For passers-by and those who have seen pictures of the memorial, including an image featured on the front page of Monday’s New York Times, Mr. Reilly’s yard serves as a sobering reminder of the losses so many American families have endured this year.
I spoke to Mr. Reilly recently to ask how his project started, and where it stands today. Portions of our conversation have been edited for clarity.
Take me to the beginning. What made you want to do something so public? And how did you land on flags as the way to tell this story?
I’ve got an immunocompromised son, so when the coronavirus hit, I started paying close attention to it. We live on a corner, so I see people walking by every day and I would notice that they just weren’t wearing masks, and I thought, something’s not hitting home with them.
These are real people dying, real Texans dying, and I’ve got a kid in quarantine here at home and people are acting like this is almost a vacation.
So I thought, what could I put out there that would wake people up and make them say, “Oh, this is real, this is something we should pay attention to”?
Where do you get the flags?
I started getting them from Lowe’s and Home Depot. Lowe’s carries orange and pink, and Home Depot carries red and white. When I started this project we were at 850 deaths here in Texas. I thought, “Wow, 850 flags in this yard is really going to wake people up.” So I bought 1,000 just to be on the safe side.
And now we’re at roughly 15,000 deaths.
As I’m talking to you I see a guy and a girl outside, taking photos of my yard. I get a lot of that. I get a lot of people walking by and taking photos.
The response has been pretty amazing. I’ve had several handwritten letters in my mailbox, no name on it, no return address. Just, “Thank you for doing this, I’m a first responder and I’ve seen a lot of deaths from this.” Or, “My mother died of this, thank you so much.” Other people have left bundles of flags outside. It’s been pretty touching.
For people who haven’t seen this in person, can you explain how your yard has changed over time?
In the beginning I was trying to space everything out in an even pattern. I thought that would have more of an impact, to see this uniform field of flags.
Now I’m at the point where there are so many flags I just kind of walk in between rows until I can find a large enough space, and I just plop a bunch of them down. When I hit 3,000, I had people telling me, “You’re going to run out of space.”
What started just in the corner now covers the entire front yard and the entire side yard. I put flags out about every other day, but there were certain times when Texas was spiking that I couldn’t wait two or three days because there would be 1,000 more flags I would have to put out if I waited that long.
Now that you’ve been doing this for so long, does it still carry the same emotional weight?
I never lose sight of the fact that these are people’s lives. That stays with me every time. The other day I put out 300 flags and, you know, that hits you. But also I’m looking out at this sea of flags and it seems never-ending.
I can’t keep carrying that weight like I did earlier in this project, so I’m starting to build a callous. That sounds awful, but I do have to remind myself sometimes that this was someone’s mom, this was someone’s lover, this is real.
As the nation approaches 200,000 deaths, how are you grappling with that?
My first emotion is anger. There was a plethora of information out there to suggest that we could have done things differently, but people in charge chose not to. They actively went in the other direction.
I squarely place a lot of these deaths on them. Proper leadership could have saved tens of thousands of lives.
It’s shocking and saddening and infuriating. And every day, people walk by my house still not wearing masks.