By Rod Bastanmehr
Arts Reporter

It was on a Thursday that the American invasion of Iraq began.

Thursday, March 20, 2003, to be exact.

While the invasion itself lasted two-and-a-half months, it was a prelude to a war that would cost billions, claim thousands, and continue for six years and counting.

But it didn’t take Kathleen Crocetti nearly that long to get angry about it. In fact, she remembers her reaction very clearly for one reason alone: The war itself hadn’t even started yet.

“From the start, I have been opposed to pre-emptive strikes against sovereign nations,” said Crocetti, the organizer and creator of “Counting Lives Lost: Iraq War Community Art Installation,” a project that creates and displays a single clay sculpture for every single life that has been lost thus far as a result of the war in Iraq.

Crocetti began working on the project three months after the invasion of Iraq.

“I was appalled that we were calling dead Iraqis ‘collateral damage,’” Crocetti said. “I thought collateral damage was infrastructure, like bridges, buildings, pipelines, water systems.”

Crocetti eventually realized that the recounting of lives lost was always told in fractioned increments, often avoiding the ever-growing totality of those claimed.

That kind of media distortion was the catalyst for Crocetti’s project, and what made her decide that quantity needed to be valued over subtlety. As she says, this project was to remind viewers that the thousands of casualties are more than nameless bodies.

Initially, Crocetti worked on the project alone. Soon, though, it had grown large enough that she had to ask for help, which came in the form of over 150 volunteers, turning the project from a solo cause to a community one.

“The volunteer base has grown as the installation has gained visibility,” said Ann Cavanaugh, a volunteer and good friend of Crocetti’s.

Cavanaugh has been Crocetti’s most regular assistant since 2006, when she started coming in every Sunday for four months to help create the clay figures. Now, nearly three years later, Cavanaugh has taken on a greater role. In addition to making sculptures, she also helps set up for events and sometimes stands in for Crocetti to answer questions and explain the project to the public.

Nessa Ayobb, a UC Santa Cruz second-year of Iraqi descent, said the work of dedicated volunteers like Cavanaugh will remind people that the American soldiers on the front lines in Iraq are not the only victims of this war.

“I think that it’s important to remember that ‘supporting our troops’ is one thing, but ignoring the endless civilians found dead is quite another,” she said. “A life is a life, and we often forget that there are two sets of deaths going on right now.”

Kevin Talbrid, an Army soldier who has been stationed in Iraq since he graduated from high school in 2006, echoes the sentiment that the public should acknowledge the deaths of more than just Americans.

“It’s not easy to see any life lost,” Talbrid said. “But the [troops and I] knew what was at stake, and that we were risking our lives … the casualties didn’t.”

Jennifer Danis, a UCSC first-year art major, said that the installation speaks on behalf of everyone.

“It really takes a sizeable image to convey the amount of destruction and chaos we have going on,” Danis said. “Even something as seemingly simple as faceless clay figures are able to drive home the intensity of what’s going on over there.”

That type of intensity is what the installation counts on, Cavanaugh explained. She added that although the war will soon have been going on for six years, the emotional turmoil of it continues to fester beneath the surface.

Crocetti, Cavanaugh and their supporters believe that all that is required to bring this emotion to the surface is a powerful image of the destruction laid out before people, such as the thousands of clay figures representing the war’s casualties.

“Unless something touches us directly, we tend to go someplace inside where we are able to maintain a sense of detachment,” Cavanaugh said. “The impact of this work is the magnitude of the death and devastation, brought home in a visual way. It makes it hard to maintain a complacent attitude.”

Although Cavanaugh enjoys being a part of this project and showing the public the extent of the war’s human destruction, she and other volunteers would gladly trade making clay figures for a declaration of peace in Iraq, she said.

“We all look forward to the day when the work will cease,” Cavanaugh said.

But for now, Cavanaugh gladly accepts her role and will continue working on this project with hope that she will fuel further public understanding about the effects of this war.

“Every moment is the perfect time for the artist to facilitate sociopolitical discussion,” Cavanaugh said. “If the artist does not ask the hard questions, does not hold the mirror to society [and] to each of us — who will?”

“Counting Lives Lost: Iraq War Community Art Installation” is shown at the Resurrection Church Cemetery located at 7600 Soquel Dr., Aptos.

For more details or to volunteer, contact Kathleen Crocetti at