Honoring September 11 Through Art

Today marks the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. This post spotlights a variety of art works spanning different art disciplines, describing the unique ways the arts helped communities across the country unite, connect, and rejuvenate in the face of unprecedented events. Channeling the pain, grief, and shock from that day onto canvas and into body art, envelopes, tree preservation, film, and movement reflects the urgency of art-making in response to crisis. These works provide tangible evidence of how communities across the nation turned their collective energy to the healing effects of artistic expression. May you find hope, unity, and renewal through art as you remember September 11, 2001, today.

Body Art
The Healing Ink Project works to cover the scars of trauma survivors. Gary Smiley is a former hazardous materials FDNY paramedic who was critically injured in the collapse of the North Tower. His tattoo honors the memory of the 343 firefighters who died that day. Tom Canavan, who dug himself out of 75 feet of rubble at Ground Zero, covered his scars with a tattoo that speaks volumes without saying a word, an unmistakable symbol of hope, strength, and survival: “I’m the voice of people who can’t tell you what happened there.” @healinginkorg

Above: Tom Canavan, a securities trader who survived the collapse of the North Tower.
Above: Gary Smiley, an FDNY paramedic who survived the collapse of the North Tower.

Art on Canvas
South Carolina
In the weeks following September 11, Sara Orvin invited her struggling fourth-grade art students to create a patriotic banner of compassion and hope. Drawing pictures and writing messages as a group helped communicate solidarity and support to New York’s first responders and citizens. The banner hangs permanently in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s Tribute Walk. @911memorial

Above: Sara Orvin’s fourth-grade class banner that hangs in the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.

After emigrating from Germany in 1994 and becoming a naturalized US citizen in 2010, artist David Stern was unable to paint in the weeks following the 2001 attacks. He found solace in evening walks around his Manhattan neighborhood, observing groups of strangers and neighbors quietly gathering, speaking softly; processing their grief in the company of others. He marked how public spaces became ensconced in constant vigil: city parks and the sidewalks outside firehouses filled with flowers and notes as mementos to lost victims. Moved by this feeling of collective mourning and the circles of people he witnessed sharing sacred sorrows, an idea took hold as Stern remembered a recently-experienced ritual ceremony performed by the indigenous Maine Passamaquoddy people.

His next series of works, titled The Gatherings, are painted in a vigorous, expressionist style that attempt to capture the shared spirituality of his fellow New Yorkers and the Passamaquoddy; each Gatherings piece intensely reflects the deep, therapeutic yearning for human connectivity. Stern reflects on the paintings: “They have to do with us, confronted with the enormity, not only of the attack and the loss of lives, but the irrevocable change which just had had our entire society thrown back into a medieval culture of war of tremendous dimensions.”

Above: The Gaherings by David Stern

New York University’s Child Study Center compiled artwork created by children who participated in a program designed to address the immediate traumatic impact of the attacks. Titled The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11 is a compilation of work that demonstrates universal human connectedness through art, and expresses deep resilience, faith, compassion, and love.

Tonowanda, New York:
In 2001, FDNY Academy student Matthew Tyree was in training when the first plane hit the tower at 8:46am on September 11. When the second tower was hit, he went to the site of the attacks to help. Six years later, Matthew earned his degree in sculpture, and then turned his attention to drawing. He began to create works that reflected the searing images of his experiences at Ground Zero. “I saw [my art] as a symbol of perseverance…[T]here’s contrast between the light and the dark and it (represents) the ability to carry on.” @tyboogyartworks

Above: Called to Duty by Ground Zero first responder Matthew Tyree

For more artwork created in response to 9/11, visit the 9/11 Memorial’s online database and digital gallery of work. @911memorial

Jacqulyn Buglisi’s “Table of Silence” blends dance, prayer, and ritual in honoring the lives lost on September 11. Wearing all white, a group of 150 dancers move rhythmically to the sound of a flute, tympani, and conch shell in a site-specific dance on Lincoln Center Plaza. Together with an art installation of 100 ceramic plates, the dance and visual art “symbolize and promote tolerance, equality, acceptance, and peace.” @buglisidanc

Art in Nature: The Survival Tree
A Callery pear tree, discovered in a burned and broken state under the rubble at Ground Zero, was transplanted to Bronx Botanical Garden under the care of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. After nine years of care and rehabilitation, the tree’s strong, smooth branches highlight the visual demarcation of new growth against its scarred and knobby trunk. Moved to the 9/11 Memorial site in downtown Manhattan in 2010, the tree stands as a symbol of resilience and survival. @911memorial

Above: The Survival Tree greets each morning as a symbol of resilience on the plaza of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan.

Art as Film
Describing the largest sea evacuation in history, Tom Hanks narrates Boatlift, a little-known, inspiring, and true story of average people demonstrating extreme courage and resilience to serve the New York and New Jersey communities. @tomhanks

Envelope Art
As a way to personally honor and remember “the events of the day, those who lost their lives, and those who fearlessly stepped forward to help those in need,” Gail Ellspermann started the Remember September mail art project. Click here to view years of archived envelopes created by families, communities, and students from around the country. Participate by decorating an envelope with paint, collage, fabric, crayon, colored pencil, calligraphy, stamping, or stickers as a way to remember September, never forget, and give voice to your 9/11 story. 

Above: Marie Anakee’s 2005 Remember September envelope.

Teachers! Click here to check out simple submission guidelines and create a class-wide art project by inviting students to mail a decorated envelope with 9/11-themed art to:

Remember September
c/o Voices of September 11th
Post Office Box 911
New Canaan, Connecticut 06840

May the power of art continue to inspire remembrance and transformation in your daily walk.

This blog post was written by Nora Ballantyne, a BYU ARTS Partnership editor. Nora is a New York native with a passion for pastries, kitchen dance parties, art, and books.

Comments (2)
    • Heather! So pleased you were moved. New York will always be close to my heart. Thank you for your comment and sharing your experience.

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