Plagued by thoughts of the increasing pandemic death toll across the nation, Mark Harris, a retired Episcopal priest and creative printmaker, struggled with how he could memorialize those who had fallen victim to the COVID-19 virus.
“I was trying to work out how to make real the number of those who had died,” he said. “How to make it something I could handle, make manifest in some sort of art object.”
Unexpectedly, he revealed, the answer came in a dream one night. “What came to me was the idea of a book in which each person who had died would be tallied with a mark of some sort, and the whole collection of those marks would be a book of many pages. I decided to have the book represent all the American dead from January to Nov. 1. The book would be completed and added to the remembering on All Saints Day,” he said.
By early October, he had carved a cover relief plate and more or less determined the way he would construct the book. To mark each death from the virus, he decided to use the numeral “1.” He selected sheets of readily available rice paper, a thin, fragile product, and fed each page though a laser printer with 50 rows of “1,” 40 rows deep, on each page, marking 2,000 lives per page.
When a colleague suggested he ought also to have a book that held the numbers for the rest of the world, Harris set to work on that book as well, working daily in his Milton studio for three weeks.
The complete set, Volume 1 (U.S.) with about 115 pages and Volume 2 (World) with 450 pages, was finished a week before All Saints Day and updated until its publication date – Nov. 1 – during a service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Lewes, where Harris is an associate priest.
“Holding these books in my hands, I hold an outward and visible sign of the dead,” he said in an interview before that service. “At the same time I remember that each ‘1’ is a person made in the image of God.”
He said that what began as a printmaker’s way of making these large numbers “manifest and real” became a sacramental way to find an outward sign of an inward grace. He said, “My dream became a project, became a dream again, this time of spiritual knowing. And because spiritual knowing can lead to action, the book states ‘The dead are remembered, the living held to account.’”