The Oregon State Hospital is the custodian of the cremated remains of approximately 3,500 people, at the time of writing, who died while living at the hospital and other institutions. These deceased were never claimed by family. Their ashes were held in humble copper urns that had degraded badly over the decades.
For more than six years, the Oregon Arts Commission worked with the Oregon State Hospital Replacement Project, a massive effort to build two new state facilities for mental health care authorized by the Oregon Legislature in 2007. Our task was to help shape a program of art projects for the Salem and Junction City facilities, through Oregon’s Percent for Art in Public Places Program. In our first meeting, Jodie Jones, OSHRP Administrator, talked of the unclaimed remains, and the hospital’s desire to properly memorialize them.
In 1976, the canisters numbered 5,000. In 2007, the hospital was given permission to release the names of the deceased, and to assist families hoping to locate relatives. The newly publicized story of the cremains was central to The Oregonian’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital.
Coverage by The Oregonian and The Statesman Journal brought national attention, including from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. It also led photographer David Maisel to the hospital, whose book Library of Dust created a ghostly document of the number and condition of the corroding canisters.
The State Hospital was not a stranger to artistic backdrop and scrutiny. It famously served as the set for Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That film also brought photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, who came to Salem in 1974 to photograph the cast and set. After a year of negotiations, Mark was allowed to live on the women’s Ward 81 with writer Karen Folger, resulting in a book of photography and journalism, Ward 81. These efforts, and many others, have served to call national attention to the hospital’s struggles. When I toured the hospital in 2008, it looked very much the same as in these portrayals, which have been part of the story that allows us to conclude a long-called for chapter, that of the unclaimed cremains.
Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo were selected from an international call to artists for this project. They faced many complexities. The memorial is one of the most important projects in the state’s history, an opportunity to transform a deeply meaningful history into a public memorial of great poignancy and beauty. It was also a project that would navigate many, often conflicting, desires: to create a permanent resting place that also allows for more families to claim cremains; to provide for thoughtful contemplation, but maintain transparency on the high-security grounds; and to employ the highest aesthetic choices of today, while aging gracefully as it stands for the next hundreds of years. Further, the artists, the Arts Commission and the Replacement Project needed the approval of the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission to complete the alterations to a damaged brick façade of the 1896 structure.
This is not a design problem or an issue of abstraction...or aesthetics. It seems to us that this is an issue of emotional alchemy; the opportunity to accept specific human experience and provide the emotional context for individuals to create personal transformations.
Han and Mihalyo, Application Letter
This project required the unending support of so many disparate communities as it reached completion:
The Hospital Replacement Project; Jodie Jones and Sharon Tucker; Senate President Peter Courtney and his staff; NAMI Oregon and Mental Health America of Oregon; the generosity of the Kohler Factory where Daniel and Annie worked 16-hour days for three months to create the new urns; Western Oregon University students who worked alongside the artists in Salem; and the many individuals who wrote letters of support for the historic preservation portion of the project, including Henry Sayre, Christine D’Arcy, Roger and Bonnie Hull, Kingston Heath, Roger Roper, Doug Macy and numerous Salem neighborhood alliances with whom we met.
Lead Pencil Studio’s memorial is the result of exhaustive research and unending commitment to the prime goals of the people and events it represents. Their grounds speak honestly about how these remains were found, while embarking to a more hopeful and open present. As such, it is a retelling of the historic institutional treatment of the most vulnerable in our society. Artists document our cultural ethos and aspirations, and this story is a part of our state’s historic and moral fiber.
Metal filigrees represent another building that was attached to Building 60.