NEW YORK, N.Y. - John Coburn went to ground zero days after the Sept. 11 attacks and began sketching, moved by the acts of "love and care" of New Yorkers and recovery workers. Coburn was compelled to illustrate the compassion — rather than the destruction — and compiled his work into a book he gave to victims' families.
EJay Weiss was in his Tribeca art studio when the first plane crashed. He grabbed a pair of binoculars and ran outside. His hands shaking, he could see inside the burning towers as thick acrid smoke filled the sky. A few days later, he began 9-11 Elegies: 2001-2011, mixing the ash from the site into the paint he used.
Todd Stone, another downtown artist, ran to the rooftop of his studio as the towers collapsed to photograph, draw and paint "the day the world changed." Over the next two years, he created a tribute to those who died with "Witness," a series of 15 watercolours into which he rubbed the dust that settled over his studio.
All three artists are showing their works in exhibitions commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. At least two dozen other Sept. 11-related museum and gallery exhibitions also are being presented throughout the city.
Stone also has been chronicling the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site since about 2003 with "Downtown Rising," which includes dozens of large-scale oils and watercolours. During the past 18 months, he's worked from a perch overlooking the 16-acre trade centre site on the 48th floor of the new 7 World Trade Center at the invitation of developer Silverstein Properties.
"I never thought I would be able to approach the ground zero site as anything but the saddest place on earth," he said recently from the site, looking out at the rising 1 World Trade Center tower outside his window. "But it's not like that anymore. The strength of our city and country are manifest in the work force of thousands of men who are here every day making this incredible construction before my very eyes."
The city is in discussions with Stone about donating his paintings to the memorial museum slated to open next year. Several of his "Witness" 9-11 paintings are in a multimedia show at LaGuardia Community College opening Sept. 10 that includes 13 other New York City artists who witnessed the attacks.
Coburn's "Healing Hearts" pen-and-ink sketches even survived a fire at his Toronto studio in 2006. Singed, but largely intact, they include one of St. Paul's Chapel, which for months served as a shelter and refuge for recovery workers, volunteers and victims' families. Another portrays George Cain, a firefighter who perished in the attacks, alongside images of his mother, Rosemary, the pastor of the nearby Trinity Church and other first responders.
"The drawings put you right in the heart of the place," said Rosemary Cain, who met Coburn while working at ground zero as a volunteer for the Salvation Army.
The original drawings are being shown publicly for the first time Sept. 1-15 in the Wall Street boardroom of Sciame Construction. The exhibition is free but reservation must be made at rsvp(at)thehealingheartsproject.com.
Weiss began work on 9-11 Elegies three days after the attacks. He said he scooped up ash from what was the trade centre garage and mixed it with black acrylic for the first seven of the work's nine panels.
"I left it out of the last two because I felt it was time to move on. It was symbolic for me," he said.
The focus of each panel is a central space that serves both as a metaphor for the towers' windows and their footprints. Shades of blue and lavender — signifying the clear blue sky that day — fill the "windows" and thick runnels of liquid paint suggest the grid patterns of the molten steel of the fallen towers.
This summer, Weiss completed three final panels, "Resolution Triptych," signifying "peace and harmony" and "a glorious new day."
9-11 Elegies is on exhibit through Sept. 25 at the Narthex Gallery at Saint Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan's Citicorp Plaza.
Here are highlights of some of the other Sept. 11 exhibitions:
— "Where Does the Dust Itself Collect," an installation by Chinese artist Xu Bing of a 25- by 20-foot field of dust across the gallery floor punctuated by the outline of a Chan Buddhist poem. It's part of Insite Art + Commemoration presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's and Museum of Chinese in America. Sept. 8-Oct. 9 at the Spinning Wheel Building in Chelsea.
— "Remembering 9-11," an exhibition of several hundred images taken by professional and amateur photographers in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It also includes letters written to police officers and firefighters, objects that were placed at makeshift shrines around the city and drawings of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Sept. 8-April 1 at the New-York Historical Society.
— "The 9-11 Peace Story Quilt." A work designed by artist Faith Ringgold and created by New York City students based on a book of their writings and drawings. Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 22, 2012.
— "Ten Years Later: Ground Zero Remembered." The focal point of this exhibition is the 1997 "Tuskegee Airmen Series" by Michael Richards, who died in the attacks while working in his studio at the World Trade Center. Also featured is Christoph Draeger's photographic jigsaw puzzle "WTC, September 17 (2003)" and two 2002 comment books filled with text and images by museum visitors. The Brooklyn Museum, Sept. 7-Oct. 30.
— "September 11," featuring 70 works by 41 artists from the past 50 years that evoke images of 9-11. Artists include Diane Arbus, Alex Katz, John Chamberlain, Christo, Yoko Ono and George Segal. MoMA PS1, Long Island City, Queens, Sept. 11-Jan. 9, 2012.
— "Embodied Light: 9-11 in 2011." Artist Tobi Kahn transforms a gallery into a meditative room with sculptural shrines, memorial lights and a 3D installation signifying an aerial view of Lower Manhattan. It also features "220 blocks," representing the 220 floors of the twin towers with drawings and inscriptions by notable New Yorkers. The Ernest Rubenstein Gallery at Education Alliance, Lower East Side, Sept. 9-Nov. 23.
— "Remembering 9-11," a five-part exhibition of photography and video that explores how people responded to the tragedy. It includes a major digital installation by artist Frances Torres titled "Memory Remains: 9-11 Artifacts at Hangar 17." International Center of Photography, Sept. 9-Jan. 8, 2012.
— "The Twin Towers and the City," a four-decades-long study of the World Trade Center by MacArthur award-winning photographer Camilo Jose Vergara. The pictures, shot from vantage points throughout the city and New Jersey, underscore how ubiquitous the towers were in the landscape of city life and beyond. The Museum of the City of New York, Sept. 3-Dec. 4.
—"Witness to Tragedy and Recovery," a photo and multimedia presentation of the trade centre attacks and recovery by more than 30 visual journalists, many members of the National Press Photographers Association and the New York Press Photographers Association. Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, downtown Manhattan, Sept. 8-24.