Thursday, September 12, 2013

No One Should Be Omitted from History

Melinda Hunt '85 MFA helps lead the Hart Project (Hunt photo)
Artist Melinda Hunt '85 MFA has been on a special mission the past two decades. She works to offer meaning and dignity to the hundreds of thousands buried on Hart Island, a potter's field, just off the edge of the Bronx, NY, in the Long Island Sound.  Hart Island, since 1869, is the home of New York City's public cemetery, where over 850,000 unclaimed, unidentified bodies are interred.  Those buried also include infants, victims of disease, and unknown victims of crime. Because burials are performed by New York City prison inmates, the cemetery is managed by the City's Department of Correction.

Hunt, a Peekskill resident, took on the project 22 years ago to establish a data base of those buried at the cemetery, to share information with family and friends, and to pay respects to those whose lives likely ended without ritual, dignity or blessing.  Hart told the Peekskill Patch in 2011, "By default, it is run by the department of corrections, and their job is to lock things up. My job is to make it visible."

She has also been involved in a project to assemble a compilation of stories of some of the buried, based on accounts of survivors, family members and friends.

The Hart Island Project, a non-profit organization, ensures "no one is omitted from history," according to its mission. The Project now includes an extensive data base of those buried there (over 58,000) from 1980-2011 with the information accessible to family and friends.

"Hart Island is a place outside the vision and minds of most New Yorkers," Hunt wrote several years ago in a book, Hart Island, she co-authored about the island and the project. "(It remains outside) even for those who have family buried there. It represents the ultimate melting pot, a place where individual lives are blended beyond recognition."

The island is just east of City Island.  Inmates from Rikers Island perform regular burials at mass graves. Some have been known to perform personal, solemn acts of ritual as they go through the motions of burying the unknown.
Hunt's work includes ink portraits of unidentified souls (Peekskill Patch)

Hunt is scheduled to speak about Hart Island, the Project and her decades-long work at the Chappaqua Library, Nov. 14.

"A journey to Hart Island reveals fragments of history that have never been woven into the fabric of American life," Hunt wrote. 

In Sept., 2013, Hunt's project and work were applauded by New York Times writer Frances X. Clines in a piece on its Opinion Pages. Hart Island is the gathering place, he wrote, for the city's "nobodies, collected and ferried over to the island's 101-acre potter's field to be stacked and buried in pine coffins." Hunt, he noted, has spent years "challenging the city's secret bureaucracy to open its books." Clines praised Hunt's efforts this past April to get the Department of Correction to include the directory on its web site.

Besides the book about the island, Hunt, the artist, has featured works that depict the souls of the unidentified, unclaimed and the un-mourned. "Shades of America" was the title of her 2011 exhibition in Westchester that included ink drawings of some of the deceased, based on photographs from family members. She directed a 2006 film, "Hart Island:  An American Cemetery," about the project.

As a Yale alumna, she is also involved with the Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance. At Yale, she received a graduate degree in sculpture from the School of Art.


Hart Island, the book, was published in 1998 (Amazon)


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