I'll Cover You: A Homeless Remembrance Project

Design 487: Exhibition Design | Winter 2017
Role: Research, ideation, illustrator, copywriter
Collaborators: Emily Halim, Sarah Oakes, Annabelle Wu
Instructors: Kristine Matthews, Tad Hirsch

When all the leaves have fallen from the trees in Westlake Park, memories fill the branches and ground to continue providing cover for visitors. These memories take the form of the hand-illustrated, colorful interiors of the otherwise inconspicuous black umbrellas that compose our exhibition, I'll Cover You.

Our task was to reveal an invisible part of the city of Seattle. We decided to highlight the homelessness crisis by motivating the living to work together to honor, celebrate, and seek justice for the lives of victims of homelessness - both living and dead.


Overview

I'll Cover You is an interactive memorial situated in Westlake Park - a prominent commercial location where numerous housed and homeless persons mix but rarely interact. From December to March - for however many homeless persons have passed away that previous year - we will have that same number of umbrellas within the space. A portion of these umbrellas will be suspended across the space on cords to form a "cloud" of color, while the rest reside in their stands scattered beneath. During these typically rainy months in Seattle, passerby are invited by graphics painted onto the ground to borrow the umbrellas as they navigate downtown, in hopes that they will be inspired by the memorial hidden within to treat the next living homeless person they meet as an equal human, or even be moved enough to advocate for all in their position.

We do not expect that all of these umbrellas will make it back to their original stands. We know that the individual's story is still out in the world and will be seen, and we will replace the empty stand with another individual's memorial as needed.


Process

Research

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Concept Development

Our initial concept involved flower-filled umbrella memorials scattered across Seattle at specific sites where a homeless person was noted to have died in 2016, with the intention of these providing resources to both the housed and homeless.

We then explored the concept of umbrella-sharing, and how that could be the utilitarian vehicle that brings the stories of hundreds of homeless individuals to all different kinds of people on Seattle's numerous rainy days. From then on we explored the idea of printing on umbrellas, methods of visualizing an individual's story, and how to store and distribute the umbrellas for communal use.

In the end we moved away from informational walls and stations, and instead decided to let the focus be on the form of the umbrellas themselves.

 

Umbrella Stand

Our industrial design-focused teammate constructed a minimalist umbrella stand from 3/8" thick plywood, which was then laser-engraved for personalization.

 

Memorial Canopy

Using imagery inspired by an individual's obituary on FallenLeaves.org, we used Sharpie to illustrate the interior of a blank 52" umbrella. Going forward with this project, we would partner with WHEEL so that this handwritten, hand-drawn interior design would be a joint effort between us and people who were personally acquainted with the individual, if possible. We also would want to experiment with artistic type and different kinds of imagery and amounts of information.

Common copy across the umbrella memorials read:

[He/She/They] passed away from [cause].
But [he/she/they] did not have to die, and neither does the next person.
Please consider donating to SHARE and WHEEL to make sure that someone else gets covered today.

Our Story

While our some of our earlier concepts included a central station that would tell the story of I'll Cover You, in the end we broke our message into small chunks of circular graphics that would lead across the brick of Westlake Park towards our site.

The full copy reads as follows in order, although each graphic can stand on its own: 

"I'LL COVER YOU" is a promise we can make today to prevent the needless deaths of our homeless neighbors.
Each of our umbrellas tells the unique story of a person who died between 2013 and 2016 in King County without a home through the words of those who knew them.

Some were well known within their communities, and others still remain a mystery.
Some may even have had homes and just never got a chance to make it back where someone knew their name.

All of these deaths were preventable, and it's not too late to prevent more.

We can combat death from exposure by funding sustainable shelters.
We can reduce deadly overdoses and combat drug addiction by promoting safe consumption sites for recovery.

Homeless-run organizations need your advocacy as well as your donations.
We need your help to lobby for increased government funding of low-income daycare centers, emergency housing, less-restrictive shelters, and human services.

Even after you have contributed to the safety of your neighbors, take time to get to know them. Say hello, hold a conversation, share a meal, a smile.

With your help, we won't even need to print any new umbrellas.
 

Inspiration

"Grieving keeps me going."
- A member of the Women in Black at the In Our Words: A Discussion With Community Members Experiencing Homelessness panel, February 16, 2017.

We were inspired by the existing Homeless Remembrance Project, a local homeless-led movement that unites housed and unhoused people to honor and remember homeless people who have died in King County. Currently, the Women in Black (as they are known) lead vigils for the dead but also go to city council meetings to demand justice for the living. They have existing installations in the form of the Tree of Life at Victor Steinbrueck Park (near Pike Place Market), as well as numerous bronze leaves engraved with the names of deceased individuals embedded into the ground at various locations. 

WHEEL (Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League) dedicates two sites to this project:
http://homelessremembrance.org/ with obituaries found at http://fallenleaves.org/.

Photo courtesy of The Homeless Remembrance Project.

Photo by Rex Hohlbein.

Photo by Rex Hohlbein.

Our Muse, Byron Barnes

http://fallenleaves.org/byron-barnes/

Not even the biggest umbrella can sum up a soul like his, but through our Exhibition Design project, we hope that such a simple object can share just a bit of the stories of homeless victims of the system so that housed persons will lobby for government support of self-managed shelters, safe consumption sites, and mental and physical healthcare for our homeless neighbors.

This is a part of our city that cannot be invisible or ignored any longer.