Brooklyn Naval Cemetery Landscape Installation

Adjacent to the historic Brooklyn Naval Hospital within the Brooklyn Navy Yard

presented by

Brooklyn Greenway Initiative

JUNE 2018

After a year long residency at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I created BURIED HISTORIES, a site-specific installation that involved the public in memorial building and reimagining the forgotten history of those buried at the Naval Cemetery Landscape. The installation included paintings and sculptural maps of Wallabout Bay with sculptures created in collaboration with Christopher Yockey. These paintings convey the transformation of the Navy Yard from a marshy swampland inhabited by the Lanape, then Dutch and British into a major ship building site throughout the Civil, Revolutionary and World Wars and into the industrialized present. The fluid, elevated walkway, designed by Marvel Architects and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects is a structure that honors and protects the hallowed ground beneath it, leaving it undisturbed. The lush meadow, full of natural wildflowers and pollinators, is populated by all native plant species and represents a living memorial to the dead.

The focus of BURIED HISTORIES was to involve the public, adults and children, in the act of remembering history physically, through art-making and by creating memorials. The project included activities for children on site, a workshop with first graders from PS770 in Brooklyn; a public lecture, HONORING THE FALLEN, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum with Colonel Matthew Olson (my little brother); discussions onsite with Civil War Historian and former North Carolina State Archivist, David Olson (my Dad); conversations with site expert, Doug Chapman (Turnstile Tours); installation support from Bitsy and Garth Shephard (my Mom and Step-Dad) and material support from ArtFront.


While working as a visiting artist at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I became fascinated by maps, historic images and the long maritime history of Wallabout Bay. The Navy Yard Museum has a phenomenal interactive map of Wallabout Bay which shows an aerial view of the landscape and how it is transformed over time. It highlights key settlements and events. It shows how the once quiet inlet was transformed into a major hub for ship building and repair. This informed my painted and sewn maps of the area. The painted map sculptures created in collaboration with sculptor, Christopher Yockey, compare how the once undulating, curvilinear landscape was consistently modified and urbanized to take on its present day rectilinear shape. The sculpture (pictured left) shows this contrast especially when the light shines through it. I stitched the linen around the unusual shaped sculpture constructed with 1/4 inch steel rod. I then painted the linen with ink, sewn thread and wax. The Naval Cemetery Landscape is a small sliver of peaceful green wedged between the throngs of trucks and cars hurdling and honking down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the no-go zone of Steiner Studios. The space embraces the idealized past, before an industrialized future, subsequent urban decay and revitalization. Once inhabited by the Lanape, it was a quiet, marshy backwater, buzzing with bugs, or natural pollinators, scrubs and tall grasses overlooking the oyster midden of the Mauritius (later renamed East) River.

WALLABOUT, 2018, created in collaboration with artist, Chris Yockey(far right).  BURIED HISTORIES was realized over many meetings and discussions with actor and site expert, Doug Chapman(Turnstile Tours).  Doug was also present throughout the installation to discuss the history of the site with visitors.


Until I started this project, I never really understood the concept of "the unknown soldier".  How do you LOSE a soldier?  Trying to imagine the human cost of war, person by person, within vast statistics is incomprehensible to me.  The Brooklyn Navy Yard represents a cross section of this American history.  Thousands toiled to build and serve on countless ships out of the Navy Yard.  The Navy hospital and cemetery is a part of this varied human history of war, survival and death. Yet, what I didn't realize until researching the site, is that recording the war dead was not standardized by the military until much later.  During the project, my brother, Colonel Matthew Olson, discussed these now standard practices in his lecture, HONORING THE FALLEN.   

Discussing  BURIED HISTORIES and introducing my brother, Colonel Matthew Olson at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum, 2018

Colonel Matthew Olson giving talk, HONORING THE FALLEN.  Doug Chapman (standing right) also supplemented the lecture, Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum, 2018

pictured here (from left) Garth Shephard (my Step-Dad), Colonel Matthew Olson (my little brother), Sarah Olson(me!) and Bitsy Ford Shephard (my Mom)


The Brooklyn Naval Hospital Cemetery was established in the late 1820s set adjacent to the Naval Hospital. It was active from 1830 to 1910. Members of the military service and their dependents who died at the hospital, or on naval vessels, were buried at the cemetery. Reports in 1881 suggest that as many as 2000 burials occurred at the Naval Hospital Cemetery. The cemetery was closed in 1910 when the 1.7 acre burial site had little room left. In 1926 the Navy disinterred burials from the Naval Hospital Cemetery and reinterred them to Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Only 987 individuals buried at the site however were documented as being relocated. In 1991, when archeological research confirmed the presence of an African burial ground in Manhattan, the local African-American community and others inquired if any remains at the Naval Hospital Cemetery might be persons of African-American descent. This prompted questions regarding the racial makeup of the buried population. In 1997, after a field survey was conducted and a possible intact burial was identified, the Naval Station (NAVSTA) began conducting research about those not identified as being removed from the site. This research reveals that those who remain at the site are primarily casualties of the Mexican-American and the the Civil Wars with some remains from the Revolutionary War. They identified those remaining at the site were primarily landsmen and seamen of various ethnic descent who number roughly 517 not documented as removed from the site.

For this installation I decided to create memorials for those remaining at the site, in order to really SEE and imagine what that number looks like.  I culled dried grasses and twigs from the site and surrounding area. My mother helped me cut and number 517 strips of linen(pictured below) that resembled hospital bandages to denote each memorial.  And then, with public participation, we set about creating all 517 the memorials at the site.

Pictured above is my father, David Olson, former North Carolina State Archivist and Civil War historian.  He contributed to the entire installation of this piece throughout the weekend and talked to the public about the site and its historic significance.   

For this installation, I also created a series of paintings on scrap aluminum that were donated to me by Ferra Design Inc, a Navy Yard business.  I used historic drawings and etchings of the Navy Yard as source material to show what the shipyard looked like through the 18th and 19th centuries.  I maintained the original scrap aluminum shape in order to link these historic images to the Navy Yard of the present.  

Here is my daughter pictured early on, helping me plan the memorial

Above, Garth Shephard, my Step-Dad, helping me construct surfaces for the installation

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