After Boulder King Soopers shooting, artist turns flowers into compost

Artist Ana Maria Hernando’s “Flowering Eulogy” is a tribute wrought from tragedy.

On March 21, 2021, a man carrying a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder. The local community, shocked by the event and stunned by the loss of friends, family and neighbors, reacted with grief, and began transforming the site of violence into a tender memorial with “hundreds of bouquets of flowers of all sizes, browned and blackened and standing there as a love offering,” according to Hernando.

After awhile, the city of Boulder collected the material and gave much of it to Hernando with a request to transform it through her artist’s perspective. She spent many months turning it into compost in her own backyard. On the second anniversary of the event, she presented her piece to the public, in small, brown-bag packages of the fertile, earthy material, accompanied by a letter of introduction and a package of wildflower seeds.

I asked her to help us understand the piece and her process.

Q: I want to start with a difficult question, but one that I think is important: Can you tell me where you were when you heard about the tragedy?

A: Driving back to Colorado from Tennessee after more than two months away. I was crossing Kansas through a strong snowstorm when I got a message from my friend in Boulder about an active shooting at the King Soopers.

Q: In the moments, and even days, that followed, what did you see around you?

A: There was shock, everywhere. The conversations were about the people we knew who had died, or who so and so knew. Boulder is not that big. The stories. The learning of the details. For days, groups of people inside moving cars were carrying bouquets of flowers. You knew where they were going.

Q: So, how did you come into this project?

A: In early June 2021, the organic tribute that had grown all around the supermarket’s site was going to be dismantled. While some things were going to the victims’ families, and others to the Museum of Boulder, there was a lot more left. Matt Chasansky from the office of Arts and Culture saw an opportunity and sent an email to artists inviting us to do something with what was left. I initially said, “Thank you, but no,” because I had no idea how I could contribute anything to it with the way I do work as an artist. Then Matt sent me a personal email asking to reconsider, how he had me in mind when designing the invitation. So, I went (to the site) — my first time there — and I was so moved, I cried.

Q: Can you tell us about the impromptu memorial.

A: The site was surrounded by a chain-link fence set up by the police, going all around the King Soopers parking lot. The fence — two blocks long on its longest side — was completely covered with handwritten signs, letters, stuffed animals, dead flowers, plastic flowers of all kinds, mementos, candles, photos.

Q: Here, we need a little logistical help. How did the city actually collect and deliver the objects?

A: June 7 was the day of the dismantling of the site. It was raining hard. There were many volunteers helping. I went and filled the back of my car (approximately 60 cubic feet of space) to the rim with bags of dead flowers. I didn’t want to take all of them as I didn’t know if others wanted them, too. A couple of days later, Matt let me know he had saved for me dozens more bags of dead flowers; they were waiting in an empty office next to his. I went and filled my car again two more times. I think there were still more flowers left. I brought everything to my backyard in Niwot.

Q: Now, the art. You are this with the material. What did you want to accomplish?

A: A transformation. I wanted to take what was left for dead and make the process of life visible and tangible. I wanted to take the sorrow and give it a voice, tell people that it mattered, that they mattered. I had felt the pain and the tenderness of the people in that impromptu memorial, the powerlessness, and their need to accompany those suffering the worst, and each other.

Q: At what point did you think, “I will make this into compost?”

A: That one day while walking the site is when I decided I was going to make this piece. It became so clear: I was going to take the dead flowers and compost them, and make that available to the community in its potential and renewed self.

You need to know that I am the worst gardener. I knew nothing about compost when I began. I found several compost bins on Craigslist and Amazon. Friends and neighbors helped.

At the beginning, when things were very pokey in the piles, I was using gloves. But as soon as some softness began to round the hard edges, there was a deep pleasure connecting to the earth in that way, and I felt it being nourished and infused with life and hope. There is still compost left for future use.

Q: Tell us about the process of composting. It feels like a metaphor for something. I don’t know, the processing of grief?

A: Compost is a community of millions, working together with one purpose: life. It’s a process of acceptance, diversity and unity; nothing in it is lost and nothing is still about it. All is continuously transforming: The earth eats the heaviness of death and makes it into lightness. It comes up into the air as life, as flowers.

Q: Can you say something about the connection between humans and flowers.

A: I believe flowers are the most exquisite expression of the earth. As humans, we have used them for centuries to say what words cannot convey. We give them as gifts and to generously be present with each other.

Flowers have played a prominent role in the artistic career of Ana María Hernando. This installation, “We Have Flowers,” was exhibited in 2016 at the University of Boulder Art Museum and was made from pins, thread, organza, silk and cotton embroidered by her partners in the piece, the Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of Santa Teresa de Jesus in Buenos Aires. (Jeff Wells, provided by University of Boulder Art Museum)Q: So you create this memorial package of compost and seeds, and what do you envision people doing with them?

A: The packages are an offering, a wish for people to feel agency in the transformation, and empowered in the possibility of helping life to grow. It is an invitation to feel intrinsically and intimately part of the bond of community.

I imagine people will plant the seeds in their gardens or a pot and feed them with the compost. Maybe there is a moment of sacredness in doing so? I hope people feel completely free to do what feels good and honest.

Q: Was distributing the packages on the second anniversary of the shooting the plan from the beginning? (Right now, the compost and seed packets are only being given to victims, friends and family; the rest are being saved for a future memorial.)

A: No. When I envisioned the piece, I knew I wanted to have some of the compost distributed for the victims’ families, and in the community as individual plants. The rest was to be available to use for some permanent memorial. I got the support of Matt and from Mandy Vink from Boulder Arts and Culture. Cortney Stell, from Black Cube Nomadic Museum, got interested in the piece when she learned about it at the end of 2021. Although we applied for several grants, nothing was coming forward. The whole thing felt stuck. I kept going to my backyard to turn the compost over.

When Matt Chasansky asked in a meeting in February 2023 if I would be interested in presenting a version of it for the second anniversary, even though a permanent memorial might not happen for years, if at all, I realized I needed to do some version. It was beginning to feel heavy for me. I am happy I did.

Q: Can you talk about art, and about artists, and about the role they play at moments like this?

A: This is what I wrote in the letter that accompanied the packages:

“For me, art is a verb, it’s active. Art elevates all that we are, offers us a way to transcend, to question, to be awake. It transforms us and blurs the edges of our preconceptions, it expands possibilities. Art fills us with beauty. In this instance of an immense tragedy, my wish is to use my art practice to support our collective grieving and to instill some hope for regeneration and transformation.”

Q: Finally, I need to ask: How are you? This was a tremendous responsibility. How did it leave you?

A: This might be one of the most meaningful things I have done. It never felt like a heavy responsibility. Barely anybody knew I was doing this. It was just something I was quietly doing in my backyard, all with an uncertain future. I feel grateful that I was able to be with all these flowers in their most undone state, that I was offered the possibility of holding the tenderness of the community. For that, I feel honored by the task. Compost feels so compassionate.

Q: Is there anyone you want to acknowledge?

A: This project has been supported by Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum, the Boulder Office of Arts and Culture, BBB Seeds and Botanical Interests Seeds. I also want to thank María Clara Aguirre, Paloma Hernando Kofman, Catherine McCall, Karen Andries-Lumpe, Donna Karmeris, Fernanda Moreno and Mikhaila Friske for their support.

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