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Heartland Community College's Origami Cranes Continue To Inspire

An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who creates 1,000 origami cranes will have a wish granted by the gods. 

That tradition inspired some educators at Heartland Community College to start folding hundreds and hundreds of cranes, resulting in an art installation that offered a wish for peace, as it honored Americans who fell in combat.

library cranes
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
The cranes memorial hangs from the rafters of Heartland's Library.

High over the heads of students studying in Heartland Community College’s library fly a silent flock of origami cranes, ranging from white, to grey, to soft gold in color. The cranes originally took flight 15 years ago, in the early days of the Iraq War. Army veteran and academic advisor Gayle Marckx shared the Japanese legend with faculty member Janet Beach-Davis, who was hoping for a swift end to the conflict, and so took a pile of white paper and began folding, creating 1,000 cranes by herself.

Cranes, said Marckx, are a universal symbol of peace. 

“It was important to her that she was the one to do it. Because she felt that anything less than that then the gods wouldn’t grant our wish that the war would come to a sudden end.” 

But the cranes began to symbolize more than a wish for peace. Each crane flew as a memorial to a fallen U.S. soldier, bearing a name, rank and date on their wings. 

“That’s the date that they died,” Marckx explained. “On the other side is their age. And that was real shocking, from how young they were to how old some of them were.” 

After the creation of the first 1,000 cranes there was a ceremony on Veterans Day to dedicate the installation. The project continued and more cranes were added for the war in Afganistan.

under the cranes
Credit Laura Kennedy
The white cranes were created during the Iraq War, while the golden cranes were folded in honor of those who died in Afghanistan.

While Beach-Davis folded, Marckx wrote the information about each fallen soldier, all the while trying to engage students in the project. 

“We’d set it up in the hallway and as people stopped we would ask them to please put some of the names down. We explained to the students as they were going by what we were doing and why.”    

But for some, the profound meaning behind each crane made the work just too much to bear. 

“When it came to writing the names, it was very difficult to get people to volunteer to do that because it became personal. It was almost as if you knew the person as you were writing their name and their rank on the wing of one of the little cranes.” 

As the solemn flock grew, the cranes became a point of pride for the college, said Heartland President Keith Cornille. 

“It’s always important to recognize individuals that have given of themselves for our country, and I think that speaks a lot about our institution and our commitment to our veterans," he said. 

There’s a subset of students who especially appreciated the cranes and what they represent. Army veteran Bob Kearney is the program facilitator at the Student Veterans Center at Heartland. He said the student veterans look to the crane installation with gratitude. 

“It’s visually showing that they do support veterans. It’s kind of in your face, so every time you walk past you see it. It’s a manifestation of what the school is trying to do in reaching veterans and helping them acclimate back into the civilian world and the college environment. It’s important and it’s nice for the veterans.” 

But after years of folding and hanging the cranes, the origami project fell by the wayside, said Marckx. The cranes remained in the library, hanging over the heads of students who had no idea of their backstory. Then earlier this year, a call from Heartland’s president for more student artwork to be displayed at the college brought attention back to the cranes. 

“We’re currently talking about how we build on it again and continue the growth of that display,” Cornille revealed.  

 A new generation of students began to learn about the crane memorial and used it as inspiration for a new art project. Art professor Mac McAvoy gave his students an assignment to find an object they see regularly and reproduce it on a large scale. The students chose the cranes in the library. 

“Boy, the cranes have been around here a long time -- 15 years, 14 years,” he said. “So, they’re very Heartland. I was all about the image. I thought it was a wonderful idea.” 

Although initially art student Aianna Zachary was unaware of the story behind the cranes, she did admire the installation of the little birds.  

“I liked not just the visual beauty and interest in the geometry of the paper cranes themselves, but how that related to the same patterns in the ceiling above. It kept you looking up and it kept your eyes moving forward.”  

“Once I learned the history and the meaning behind the paper cranes and that project itself, it was nice because the symbolism and the beauty all came together.” 

When the students finished their collective project, Zachary said they collaborated on coming up with a title for the pieces. 

“We came up with 'The Ascension of the Honorable.' We were all pulled towards this idea of uplifting and elevating and moving upwards.” 

The collection of six works inspired by the cranes are now on view in the president’s office.

student works
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Art student Aianna Zachary (I) and professor Mac McAvoy admire the finished student work that currently hangs in the office of the president.

And there may soon be new additions to the crane memorial. Bob Kearney from the Student Veterans Center said a number of student veterans are interested in reviving the cranes folding project, embracing not only what the installation can do for Heartland, but for each other as veterans. 

“There’s always been a medium in art that helps show what conflict is and what it does to people. There’s also the healing aspect of it. Studies have been shown that military members with PTSD, TBI, just the therapeutic aspect that art can bring to their lives can help heal and bring some sense of balance as an outlet to get out some of those feelings that they might not be able to share in any other way.” 

The cranes memorial is currently on view and open to the public in the library of Heartland’s Student Commons Building.


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.