LARGO — Uncle Joe was pushing 80 but still rocking out with a bar band in Indian Rocks Beach, his hometown.
“He decided the shot wasn’t for him,” recalled his niece, who identified herself simply as Kim. “Then he got the virus and died.”
The Largo woman, who attended a COVID victims memorial with her daughter, Sarah, on June 24, said she also lost a cousin in Indiana to the virus.
The mother and daughter were among three dozen attendees at the opening reception for the COVID Ribbon Memorial, now on display in the courtyard of the Creative Pinellas headquarters in Largo.
Created by visual artist Cathy Tobias to memorialize lives lost to COVID-19 in Florida, the artwork consists of several growing strands of entwined colorful ribbons, each representing someone who has died due to the virus.
“I didn’t lose anyone from COVID, but I have lost a child, and so I know the pain of losing a loved one,” Tobias said. “They need us as a country to acknowledge them. I really believe that.”
At the opening, guests were provided marking pens to write the names of loved ones on the ribbons. Visitors also were invited to bring small laminated photos to hang among the ribbons.
Tobias’ multi-strand, multi-hued artwork aims to honor those who lost their lives to the virus, while also offering a way of memorializing pandemic victims. The artist was assisted by her sister and other volunteers in constructing the memorial, whose 37,400-plus ribbons together would span three football fields.
She was moved to begin the project at the peak of the pandemic, feeling “deeply saddened and overwhelmed by the rising death toll.”
Added Tobias: “My head, my heart and my soul desired to create something that was tangible and dimensionally interactive for the viewers. The story, reality and magnitude of the lost lives needed a voice.”
Antonio Fava, who attended the memorial opening with several family members, lost his wife, Amanda, to COVID-19 in February. A Seminole resident, Fava said he welcomes the memorial honoring his wife and the state’s other pandemic victims.
“Even in her passing, she is still able to contribute,” he said.
Pamela Joy Trow, a local artist affiliated with Creative Pinellas, lost her cousin, Paula, in the pandemic and said she finds the COVID Ribbon Memorial a powerful reminder of the pandemic’s human toll.
“I find awe in it because it’s beautiful, but there’s so much pain in it,” Trow said. “My greatest fear is that people will want to put all this behind us. But we have to remember them.”
The COVID Ribbon Memorial will remain on display at Creative Pinellas through Sept. 19. Tobias plans to continue adding ribbons to the memorial and eventually will take it to other area locations, following its summer exhibition in Largo. It previously was displayed on Anna Maria Island and also at the Morean Center for Clay in St. Petersburg.
“We are so honored to host such a moving exhibit,” Creative Pinellas chief executive Barbara St. Clair said. “This is why art and artists are so important and why we do what we do.”
St. Clair called the memorial “a visually stunning artwork and an interactive and communal way for people to mourn.”
Tobias, who also works in photography, lives in Anna Maria and Saint Paul, Minn. She aims to expand her memorial project to other states, including Minnesota, and has a project website at covidribbonmemorial.com.
“As long as people are feeling comfort from the ribbon memorial, I will continue with it,” she said.
Creative Pinellas, located at 12211 Walsingham Road adjacent Florida Botanical Gardens, seeks “to foster and sustain a vibrant, inclusive and collaborative arts community across Pinellas County.” Its programs are funded by the county and various local and state agencies.
Creative Pinellas’ next special exhibit — its annual Emerging Artists Exhibition — opens July 14 with an evening reception. The show will run through Aug. 15, featuring work by 10 promising artists awarded grants by the arts nonprofit.