Buffalo is a city of stubborn monuments to ancient memories.
From the elegant obelisk rising from the center of Niagara Square in memory of William McKinley to the infinite variety and strangeness of the headstones and mausoleums in Forest Lawn, it’s impossible to travel more than a few of blocks in this place without stumbling onto some hulking reminder of the city’s grand past etched in marble, cast in bronze or chiseled from granite.
To this ever-expanding collection of manifest memories, the Buffalo artist Max Collins has added one more – an unassuming black-and-white photograph of a woman’s piercing eyes wheatpasted to the south side of Ró, a furniture and home store in the Elmwood Village.
But unlike the grand testaments to glories long past that litter the streetscape, Collins’ piece – created in memory of Buffalo artist and Ró co-owner Cortney Morrison-Taylor less than a week after her unexpected death in March – won’t last more than a couple of years.
Like the memory of anyone we lose, Collins’ mural will lose its shape and definition over time, obscured by other thoughts and other worries, until eventually its contours wear away and becomes part of the air we breathe. It is a memorial designed to mirror the grieving process itself.
Like any memorial, Collins’ piece turns his subject’s absence into a temporal presence. But while more permanent monuments can become traps and triggers for painful memories – picture Columbus peering over Porter Avenue from his perch in Prospect Park, or the infinite monuments to racism that litter the South – this one contains a built-in acknowledgement of the need to move on. At least, eventually.
As the New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in an illuminating 2002 piece, “Memorials, being fixed in concrete and stone, have an inherent problem because memories aren’t fixed. Perceptions change.”
Collins, whose murals have been appearing on and disappearing from city walls and structures for several years, knows this well. His Elmwood Avenue tribute was a way to honor his relationship with Morrison-Taylor and to keep her memory alive at a time when nothing else – not talking with friends nor staring off into space – could ease the pain.
“It seemed like a perfect fit,” he said. “I remember just calling the printer in tears, asking if they could do it for me on the spot.”
That Monday morning, Collins picked up the image from the printer and immediately installed the piece on the side of the building. It was completed by 12:30 that same afternoon. And almost immediately, it turned the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Breckenridge Street into an ad-hoc site for mourning. Morrison-Taylor’s friends and admirers have often returned there in the two months since she died to place flowers and candles, or simply to look into those entrancing eyes one more time.
And so has Collins.
“I’m not like a huge talker, and at that point it just made sense to go do it. For me, I have those eyes there. Selfishly, it’s just been really nice to pass by and see it,” he said. “Now that we’re two months out, to see the dirt that it’s collected, it becomes this object of time passing, which is what I’ve always found to be beautiful about wheatpasting.”
In that way, Collins’ piece calls to mind of one of the smartest monuments of the 20th century: Jochen and Esther Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism, a 40-foot column installed in a suburb of Hamburg, Germany. Citizens could scrawl their thoughts on the soft lead column with a steel stylus, and when one section was full, it would descend into the ground. Seven years after it was installed, in 1986, it had completely disappeared.
Hayley Carrow, Morrison-Taylor’s longtime best friend and business partner at Ró, knows the tribute to Morrison-Taylor will disappear too. But right now, the sight of it is a daily source of comfort.
“It’s nice to have her on the side of the building, because every day when I walk up, I can see her. She was loved by so many people that in a way it’s nice to walk by on the corner and catch a glimpse,” she said. But asked how she’d feel when the mural eventually disintegrated, Carrow talked about the twin, paradoxical yearnings that grief always demands of its victims: The desire to hold on and the need to let go.
“Right before our furniture launch, he was outside reapplying the glue,” she said of a recent event at Ró where Collins worked to touch up the mural. “That’s his art form. The meaning behind it partly is that it’s not going to last forever. Nothing does.”