Memorial project examines community building 10 years after shooting

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Photo by Anaika Miller
Francine Dulong and her fiancé Kai McGilligan Oliver share a kiss while sitting in a circle of stones collected at events encouraging discussions on violence, healing and community. Attendees of the events wrote answers to questions such as, “What makes you feel safe?” on the stones.

Canadian artist Francine Dulong recently returned to Blacksburg, driven by a need to find answers. But unlike the trip that brought her here after her mother was murdered in the April 16 massacre, Dulong’s questions are now less personally motivated, and more community-based.


“The teacher in me wanted to find out how people are dealing with violence and peace 10 years later,” Dulong explained Wednesday.

Dulong, who graduated from Blacksburg High School and now lives in London, decided two years ago that she wanted to create an art project to commemorate her mother, Virginia Tech French professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, and the 31 others who were killed that day. Along with members of a group called the Space Between Collective, Dulong organized events to spark a conversation between residents about violence, healing and community.

“It’s really easy to talk in these big, overarching terms,” Dulong said. “When you actually talk with people one-on-one, you get past the big, overarching brush strokes. When you talk to locals, you find out what’s happening and that’s how you get change.”

The main event of The Space Between project was a performance of Erik Ehn’s “What a Stranger May Know,” a play made up of 32 monologues—one to honor each person lost in the Virginia Tech massacre—which are read simultaneously. It was performed March 25 at Henderson Lawn in Blacksburg.

Dulong co-directed the play, which she described as a “living memorial garden.” The performance was cut down to 12 monologues because there were not enough readers.

“That was a very difficult process, because they’re all beautiful,” Dulong said.

Dulong’s fiancé, Kai McGilligan Oliver, was one of the performers. He read the monologue written for Jarrett Lee Lane, a civil engineering student who was a senior at Virginia Tech when he was killed.

“You’re not pretending to be them, you’re holding space for a lost person,” Oliver said of the role of the performers in the play.

“You’re not pretending to be them, you’re holding space for a lost person,” Oliver said of the role of the performers in the play.

Oliver said he was able to visit a memorial bridge erected for Lane in Narrows, and that he appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Lane’s life.

The Space Between Collective also hosted active dialogues over the past couple weeks to encourage community members to share thoughts on the 10th anniversary of the April 16 shooting. The conversations were centered around themes of community, language, the media, time and action.

At the events, attendees were given the opportunity to respond to questions like “What makes you feel safe?” and “What makes you feel grounded?” by writing their answers on rocks. Answers ranged from objects, like books, to specific people, to more abstract ideas, like curiosity.

On Wednesday, Dulong and Oliver sat surrounded by a circle of the rocks near Henderson Lawn as part of an artistic conclusion to this phase of the project. Dulong plans on continuing the memorial project, though she does not yet know what form the work will take.

Dulong and Oliver said the community conversations have been a learning experience. Dulong said that at one of the active dialogues, nobody showed up, so the group decided to pack up and attend the Blacksburg Farmer’s Market.

“You start having to ask, ‘where do we go where people can really come together?’” Dulong said.

Despite the challenges presented by getting people in the same place, and of finding spaces where people feel comfortable expressing themselves, Dulong said she does not believe the problems are insurmountable.

She said she thinks one of the most important questions that came up during the active dialogues was, “how do you foster community interdependence?”

“We all depend on each other, whether we know it or not,” Dulong said.

Dulong and Oliver said they are planning on participating in the 3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance today. Family members from Canada are also joining Dulong and Oliver in Blacksburg to remember and celebrate Couture-Nowak.