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Spring Lake children’s memorial gets artful addition

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Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Park bristles with activity — swimming, boating, fishing, picknicking, camping — but in the midst of all that, there’s a spot that is meant to be quiet and still.

In a stand of dogwood, valley oak and redwood trees, not far from the footpath just south of the park’s three-acre swimming lagoon, roughly 20 feet from the eastern edge the 72-acre Spring Lake itself, you’ll find the Children Memorial Grove, meant to be a refuge where families can remember lost sons, daughters, sisters and brothers.

The site, which includes a long, curved cement bench shaded by a redwood arbor, has been there for more than a decade, but sometimes it’s not enough to create a memorial. After a while, people may need a reminder that it’s still there.

Santa Rosa artist Mario Uribe and his Artstart training program apprentices have found a way to do that at the memorial, which by is now such a familiar sight that not everyone stops to look anymore. Their answer is a row of colorful new commemorative mosaics.

“I think this memorial gets overlooked every day,” said Angelina Duckett, lead artist for the Artstart team installing the series of mosaics on the concrete bench at the site. “Most people don’t even know it is even a children’s memorial.”

The path nearby gets plenty of foot traffic but, not many people use the place as a refuge for quiet contemplation and remembrance, as originally intended.

“It’s dedicated to children and family members who died due to illness or accident or whatever. We want to make it a joyful place to remember someone,” Uribe said.

“When the memorial was originally conceived, the plan was to have an area where people could sit and contemplate and look out at the lake,” he said. “There’s this semi-circular concrete bench, and nothing it’s been done to it. So I had the idea of putting mosaics on it. Every time I see a blank concrete surface, I say, ‘mosaic!’”

The brightly colored mosaics, sponsored by local donors at $1,000 to $1,500 apiece, are the first major addition to the memorial in a decade.

“Once people see the colors, they’ll come up for a closer look,” Uribe said.

Greg Leggins and his wife Tammi of Santa Rosa were among the first to sponsor one of the mosaics, in memory of their nephew, Dominic Tantarelli, who was born with disabilities that impaired both his speech and movement, and died in late 2015, at age 29.

“Dominic always walked Spring Lake every day,” Leggins said. “I thought this would be a way to represent Dominic out there. It’s such a great spot.”

The artwork is done by students from Artstart, a local art training initiative founded in 1999 and responsible for installing colorful murals, benches and signs all over Sonoma County, but sponsors and family members are encouraged to participate in creating the mosaics.

“My wife and I were at the Artstart studio, cutting out tiles,” Leggins said. “We met with Mario and Angelina and her team, I went over the story with Dominic. What he liked was the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ he liked trucks and he loved Bert and Ernie from ‘Sesame Street.’ Then the team came up with a design based on that, and we approved it.”

The first mosaic installed was sponsored by St. Joseph’s Hospice, and some half a dozen other sponsored panels are in the planning stages.

Dedicated in 2005, the memorial already includes the bench, partially shaded by an arbor, some 80 memorial plaques set into the ground nearby, and two sculptures previously created by Artstart apprentices led by professional artists.

Popular local assemblage artist Monty Monty led the team of Artstart students that created “The Children’s Memorial Sculpture,” featuring sculpted metal figures made of various found objects and imbedded in a concrete base, created in 2006. For “Circle of Life,” a ring of colorful stick-like figures made from metal tubing and installed in 2007, the lead artist was the late Sonoma County sculptor Daniel Oberti.

One of the founders of the Children’s Memorial Grove a dozen years ago was Valerie Waidler, a licensed marriage and family therapist who served for 25 years as co-ordinator of the bereavement counseling program for Sutter Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice, She continues to work as a therapist with the current version of that program, Sutter Care at Home Bereavement Services.

“The Children’s Memorial Grove idea came about because there were people we counseled who had kids who died,” Waidler said. “We decided to talk to the parks department about identifying a spot where children or anybody — it could be adult children or infants or teen-agers or a special loved one — could be remembered.”

The establishment of a permanent memorial and emotional refuge is important because the loss of someone close to us is never forgotten, she said.

“It’s absolutely the worst experience,” Waidler said. “You never get over the death of a child. What helps in long-term support and understanding. It is normal for parents to have profound grief for an extended period of time. The goal is not to get over it. You get through it, and find a way.”

The mosaic project is a collaboration between Artstart and the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the parks.

“We appreciate this partnership with Artstart to make the Children’s Memorial Grove even more beautiful. Art and outdoor spaces both have the ability to help people heal, and bringing these two elements together in the Memorial Grove is particularly moving and powerful,” said Melissa Kelley, executive director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation.

For information on the mosaic project at the Children’s Memorial Grove in Spring Lake Park, call Artstart at 707-546-2345 or email info@artstart.us.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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