The Art of Shared Grief


In New York, impromptu memorials to those lost Sept. 11 are going up, created not only by artists but also by mourners and passers-by and children.

September 23, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

NEW YORK -- At a makeshift memorial for those lost Sept. 11, you see paper dolls, a bonsai tree, shoes, rosaries and a poster with the invitation, "Please help create, crayons here."

And everywhere you look are faces.

One homemade poster tells of Joseph Eacobacci, who worked on the 105th floor of Tower One. Another of Melissa Vincent; 5 feet 5 inches tall and 28 years old. Still others describe firefighters. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers.

"Has anyone seen this person?" the signs ask. "Have you seen this person?"

As the immensity of the terrorist attack sank in, makeshift memorials like this one at Union Square appeared on street corners, at fire stations and at subway stops. Pedestrians who once rushed on their way stop to mourn and leave mementos. Grief, once personal, now is a common thread.

Within hours of the attack, a mural appeared on a Lower East Side street corner. Painted by a graffiti artist known as Chico, it replaced a tribute to Princess Diana. In it, the World Trade Center smolders against a fiery city sky. A broken heart hovers above. Soon candles, poems, teddy bears and notes lined the sidewalk below.

The memorial at Union Square, the largest so far, begins at the base of an equestrian statue of George Washington, then spills across the grass. To step into the park is to become part of an ever-changing public ceremony. The memorial, once a formal affair, now has elements of a street festival and a sit-in. There is great sadness here, but there also is energy.

Someone has placed a flag decorated with a blue peace symbol in Washington's outstretched hand and covered his horse with the words, written in pink chalk, "Love. Love. Love." Hundreds of people meander through the city park, grieving, singing, hugging, gawking. A few hawk World Trade Center memorabilia.

An American flag made of Styrofoam and chrysanthemums sits in front of the statue, and a sculpture of sorts sits atop a pole. Made of wire, it resembles flames. Hands, perhaps made of paper and suspended from more wire, sprout from the top. Flags have been added to its base, along with poems, scarves and notes. In one childishly rendered drawing, the World Trade Center buildings are on fire. A large arrow points to a door marked by a sign that says "EXIT."

Part of something larger

At the far end of the square, while a band from Alabama sings hymns, high school students make origami cranes, Japanese symbols of peace, to add to a sculpture begun by someone else. "We came to support the families of the ones who died," says Teri Onoda, who traveled here from Irvington, N.Y. Nearby, a man rubs tears from his eyes.

All around, candles burn. As they melt, puddles of wax form and overlap, the liquid, multicolored pools becoming part of the performance.

That is how this memorial seems to work. Memories and offerings may be made individually, but they become part of something larger. And as the mementos, the poems, the music, the pictures pile up, they transform the park. What began as a makeshift memorial has turned into a vast outpouring of expression, a giant multimedia installation about grief to which all may contribute.

And many do.

Seven-year-old Giovanni Valentin draws a picture on a long strip of paper. In it, he depicts a bomb, a turtle and George Washington wearing a peace symbol.

The bomb, a fierce swirl of color, is "angry that the towers burned," he says.

Giovanni traveled here from Fairfield, Conn., with his mother, Deborah Valentin. His father works on Wall Street, and the family has relatives in Manhattan, she says, her voice cracking.

"I thought it was important for my son to come and see. And I am where I need to be."

Others, too, felt compelled to be here. Near 14th Street, a lone guitarist, who says his name is Peter Joseph Paul, performs a song inspired by the attack. He couldn't stay away, he says. "I'm a songwriter. I have a duty to uplift and a duty to report what happened."

It is the second visit for Gavin Spielman, a painter who teaches at Parsons School of Design at the New School. Yesterday, he took photographs to be used as fodder for studio work. Now he stands in front of an easel and paints.

As an artist, he feels an obligation to record the week's events. "I feel like I'm a historian of expression," he says. "I'm trying to paint the silent thoughts that other people can't express."

Giving shape and color to loss

Acts of war can inspire great artistic works. In the early 19th century, Goya responded to Napoleon's invasion of Spain with a series of prints called Disasters of War. And Picasso painted his masterpiece Guernica after the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. John Singer Sargent's monumental work Gassed depicts a long line of World War I soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, being led toward hospital tents.

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