BETHESDA – The cutoff jeans moving lazily in the wind belie their meaning. Each one represents someone who died from an overdose.
The project, created by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, is on-display outside the Montgomery County Circuit Courthouse in the Veterans Plaza as part of her Empty Fix effort. The Bethesda resident hopes people will add the names of their loved ones to a pair of jeans and also include a personal note stuffed into a pocket.
The previously-worn jeans – some washed out, some torn, some have fancy buttons – reflect the many different types of people who have lost their lives to drug addiction, she explained.
“I want to use art to make a difference,” she said. “I want to create art that has something to say, that might change hearts and minds.”
While some wrestle with how a loved one became addicted, Firstenberg said the real question is why. She traveled 57,000 miles to more than 20 states, talking to the homeless, people in rehab and many others, to learn about addiction.
“I would meet them on the streets,” she said.
The project was originally displayed along the Bethesda Metro Center for two weeks to commemorate those who died of addiction. Firstenberg likened her jeans project to the AIDS quilt, the giant memorial to those who died of AIDS-related causes. It traveled the country and caused many people to learn about AIDS, and think about how many people died from the disease, she said.
She hopes her jeans, displayed in either Bethesda or Rockville, will do the same for those who died of overdoses.
Firstenberg said her 25 years of volunteering with hospice taught her “we need to create public space for grief.” Her Bethesda studio is also part of her socially aware five-piece Empty Fix project. While the word EMPTY in the project title is spelled out in all capital letters, Firstenberg added a lowercase “a” before the “t” and a lower case “h” after it, to also spell “empathy.”
Another part of the project involves a large shipping container she purchased in Baltimore and then filled every possible space with child safety equipment, including helmets, protective sports pads and car seats. All the safety equipment in the world will not stop someone from becoming drug-addicted, she said.
“We spent over $1 billion on child safety, but are they really safe?” she said.
Another part of her project is a giant flag that lists the names of those killed in mass shootings since 1999 when 12 students and a teacher were shot dead at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“This is a piece of art that will never be finished,” she said sadly.
Yet, another element of the project is a giant video played on six television screens. The images play tricks with your mind to show various forms of addictions, from playing video games, using your cell phone, overeating, smoking and using drugs.
In one scenario, a man with white powder on his nose appears to have just snorted cocaine. But then the viewer sees that the man merely ate a powdered white donut.
Another part of the project includes closeup photos of photographed eyes that she placed in a glass and displayed underwater. When displayed in Bethesda, many people walked passed without even looking at them. The message focused on those in need, she said, and how very hard it is to notice someone underwater who may be drowning.
Firstenberg came to art later in life, when she was 50 years old. She spent much of her career in the pharmaceutical industry and also worked as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
She grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota and took a summer ceramics art class at Landon School in Bethesda. She then continued taking classes at Montgomery County College and even in stone carving at Glen Echo.
“I took a lump of clay and that was it. I became a sculptor,” Firstenberg said. “I just took advantage of all these courses. We have a lot of local resources.”
Firstenberg learned how to sculpt in many materials, including ice. That way, she explained, she can decide what material best fits her themes when creating a new work.
Perhaps because she turned to art in her later years, Firstenberg intends to keep up what she described as her “frenetic pace” of creating socially connected artwork for a long time to come.