An Artist’s Response to 9/11 Tragedy

August 30, 2011 Updated: January 4, 2014

NEW YORK—“I was angry, I was depressed. I didn’t want to call anybody. I didn’t know who to call or what to do. I just buried myself in my studio for like a week, and I wrote poetry and I did art,” recalled Loren Ellis, as she sat in her Upper West Side gallery nearly 10 years after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Ellis founded a nonprofit organization called Art for Healing NYC. One of the organization’s projects has been to compile art created by New Yorkers from all five boroughs, all walks of life, and all skill levels into an intimate little package—a book called “9.11…NYC…The Days After.”

One piece that struck Ellis as particularly powerful, and which is featured as a photograph in the book, is a bronze sculpture by Meredith Bergmann from Manhattan.

A woman stands nude, her hands held up in front of her face, her eyes closed—an airplane penetrates each of her hands.

The images range from a woodcut print of a rescue dog, to a photograph of tourists wearing masks that protect their lungs from the harmful dust, to a still shot from a film showing a Native American in front of the burning buildings.

Sarah Yuster of Staten Island painted a portrait of a firefighter. It was inspired by the words of her brother, who survived the attack on 2 World Trade Center.

“The firefighters kept everyone calm, guiding and assuring us that we would be fine. I tried to remember the face of each one as he passed us going up; they had to know they might never come down, even if you couldn’t see it in their eyes. … I felt that someone should look at their faces because it might be the last time anyone did,” he told her.

Yuster chose battalion chief Ed Ellison because “he is seasoned, intelligent, and has a face that reflects experience and pathos.”

Staten Island has a proportionately high number of firefighters among its inhabitants, losing 80 first responders in the calamity. Yuster remembers the bagpipe funeral airs that played a constant soundtrack in her neighborhood for nearly a year.

While the buildings were “newly smoldering” says Yuster, she received requests en masse for reproductions of her landscape painting from 1985, “Victory Blvd. At Dawn.” The scene captures a happier time; looking out from the Staten Island vantage point onto a peaceful, quiet dawn and the twin towers standing tall on the horizon.

Her most recent work, “Staten Island, September,” will be on display at The National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island in a multimedia exhibit commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11 Sept. 10 and 11, and Sept. 17 and 18.

It shows the blue towers of light that beam up from the World Trade Center site as a tribute each year on the anniversary 9/11. In the foreground is the Postcards Memorial on the shore of Staten Island, which pays tribute to the hundreds of men and women who never returned to the borough.

The bagpipes that haunted Yuster’s days also reached the home of her fellow islander, poet Marguerite Rivas, who will curate the exhibit at the Light House Museum. She lived near a church at the time and would hear the pipers tuning their instruments to “Amazing Grace” as she wrote in her poem Witness.

“Amazing Grace bagpipes make everyone wince.
Empty firefighters’ helmets are placed
beside the Easter candle,
and borrowed coffins, flag-draped,
are borne upon brave shoulders.”

A poet’s tale

Rivas pointed to the “omnipresent skyline” on Aug. 22 from the esplanade along Staten Island’s shore. New structures now rise from the gaping holes left by the fall of the twin towers.

She cited the poet Ezra Pound, saying her role as a poet is to “tell the tale” of her “tribe.”

Rivas describes in her work the sorrow of the islanders who returned on the ferry from the wreckage, who watched the destruction from the shoreline, and who “carried upon their shoulders the yoke of a pulverized city: ash made of concrete, paper, and life.”

“I don’t remember writing much of anything right after 9/11 except for an e-mail to my best friend,” said Rivas. “She kept my e-mail for me, and sent it back to me when I recovered a bit, because that was basically all I wrote then.”

Her poem “Witness” was born of this exchange.

Rivas wrote another poem, “Aquehonga Night Chant,” on the ferry, surrounded by mourners returning from a firefighter’s funeral.

She attended a reading of “Aquehonga Night Chant” and saw the reader choke on the words, heard sobs from the audience, and shed tears herself. Rivas felt the power of her words that night.

John Coburn of Toronto, Canada, did not tell the story of his “tribe” when he came to the city amid its hardship, but he had always had a love for New York City and depicted in his drawings a sorrow that crossed all geographical boundaries.

Preserving memories

John Coburn began drawing New York City when he was a child. He had already published a book of Central Park drawings, and one of New York City hotels by the time the towers fell. Coburn says he “needed to do my own little journey there and feel the sadness in my own way.”

He slipped into the WTC site through a door left open on the periphery and began to draw.

Over the course of his time in the city, he drew rescue workers, chaplains, St. Paul’s Chapel at Trinity Church—symbols of hope and unity in suffering as well as vestiges of a past that lay in ruins.

“Usually sitting down to draw is a beautiful and inspiring thing to do. This was just full of sadness and confusion,” said Coburn in a phone interview.

Coburn’s studio burned down in 2006, and miraculously, the only surviving work was a portfolio of his 9/11 drawings.

Coburn printed 2,900 copies of his book, “Healing Hearts” to give to the families of those who perished on 9/11. He was able to do so for free with the help of many volunteers and donations. The mother of a 35-year-old firefighter who died at the WTC site told Coburn, “If your little book can help four people remember my son, George, I think it would be worthwhile sending the book out.”