Wall of thanks

May’s Art Walk will have a bright addition on Wednesday- a public art installation sending a message of thanks to our troops. The piece, a translucent, 125-foot “wall” located in Main Street Park, will be on view through Memorial Day. The wall sculpture is made up of thousands of plastic bottles, each containing a personal message from a member of our community. Central to the project is the idea of giving Jacksonville citizens a way to express gratitude to our troops. The instructions were simple: Write five words of thanks on a small piece of paper. Place the paper in a plastic bottle and submit it via one of the dozens of drop-off points in the city.

Called “Message in a Bottle: Wall of Light,” the project was started by local artist Doug Eng. Primarily a photographer, Eng can usually be found working in his Off the Grid studio downtown or taking photos of our local landscapes and cityscapes. A few years ago, a family friend being deployed to Iraq asked if Eng could photograph his family before he left. Eng agreed, and the resulting photos were such a hit that the family suggested he do the same for more of Jacksonville’s servicemen and women. That suggestion sparked Eng’s project Photographers for Freedom- a grassroots effort to help troops and their families have meaningful photographs that they could cherish while their loved ones were far away.
The Photographers for Freedom project gave Eng a renewed understanding of the hardships that many of our troops face. It also made Eng question the dearth of coverage in our media concerning these servicemen and women. Armed with the knowledge of this discrepancy and fueled by his continuing desire to recognize and give thanks to our troops, Eng decided to start another project, this time not just for a few families, but for all those deployed in our ongoing war.
In November Doug Eng, together with his wife, Dorian Eng, began the “Message in a Bottle” project. They started a website, www.messageinabottlejax.com, as a means of sharing the collective message with the world. And they began reaching out to citizens of the First Coast for submissions. To date, there have been 15,175 bottles submitted to the project. Dozens of libraries, schools and churches in Jacksonville are involved, gathering bottles from students and friends, members and coworkers. Eng cites prominent local artist Dolf James, as well as the Cultural Council of Jacksonville, for providing invaluable assistance to the project. But most important were the motivated citizens who wanted to share a token of their thanks and appreciation. Says Eng, “A lot of people have the same sentiment and just don’t express it, or [don’t] have a channel to express it. To be able to provide that is gratifying for me and, I think, for the people who participated.”
Since its inception, project coordinators have meticulously recorded each message, identifying oft-repeated words and phrases and displaying them via their website. It’s no surprise that the messages being sent most often were ones of “Hope,” “Peace,” “Faith,” and “Courage.” But the word written most, you may have already guessed: “Love.”