Preserving memories of those lost but not forgotten

July 04, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BARBARA Marcus shares the American angst in the aftermath of Sept. 11 but also knows that weeping is not enough. She is an artist, and a teacher, and now she has become a gatherer of talent, honoring some of the fallen police and firefighters with memorial portraits.

Collectively, they are called The Face of Courage and will come together as a commemorative traveling exhibit, to be shown first at Harford Community College's Chesapeake Gallery beginning next month.

"In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks," Marcus said this week, "I know that many of us searched our hearts to find a way to make a meaningful contribution to the victims' families and offer them a measure of consolation. This was our way."

She is a painter whose work graces private collections and corporate institutions, and a professor of fine arts at Harford Community College. She's also affiliated with Maryland Institute College of Art. And she knows the instincts of talented people.

"Out of all the pain we were feeling, and the shock and disbelief, there was an underlying need to do something to make it better," she said. "I couldn't imagine being a family member and waking up to that image in your head for the rest of your life.

"Most Americans just want to offer what we can. This would be my gift. It would show people that somebody cares a great deal and would help preserve the memory of those people who gave their lives."

Not wanting to impose on grieving families and not certain how to proceed, Marcus put an open letter on a Web site to artists: Do you want to help?

She began to get "heartfelt, appreciative responses." Then she contacted police and firefighter unions.

"It was pretty chaotic at first," she said. "I'm a painter, a professor. I'm not someone who typically gets involved in political issues. I didn't know how to do it. But I was pretty obsessive. And then things began to happen."

Police and fire departments put her message in newsletters. There were artists - who now stretch across parts of the country - who were willing to use photographs to paint portraits of those who had lost their lives trying to save others.

There would be no cost to the families. The notion was to honor the fallen and cheer the families - and set up a traveling exhibit to remind the rest of us of the human loss.

Now, Marcus said, there are 30 contributing artists from nine states - "all professionals, all with wonderful resumes, award winners, professors, people whose work hangs in galleries. And they've all worked for nothing. Everyone says how honored they are to be involved in this project.

"And that's such a wonderful feeling. The artists say how grateful they are to use their skills in the healing process in the face of such sorrow."

In fact, Marcus has 16 finished portraits in her studio. Her husband, Michael Economos, who teaches at the Maryland Institute, has painted nine portraits. And the exhibit, she said, will feature more than 50 paintings, each 24 inches by 30 inches. When the show closes, the portraits will be donated to the families of the fallen.

"I've received dozens of letters and photos from wives, parents and siblings," Marcus said. "I've been deeply moved by the expressions of devastation and loss - as well as a profound appreciation and gratitude for the tribute we're offering. As I learn more about the rescue workers, I become more and more overwhelmed by the quality of their character: selfless, courageous, dedicated and extraordinary human beings."

She mentioned a rescue worker named Patty Brown, a fire captain who ordered his men to evacuate one of the World Trade Center buildings but stayed behind with those burned so badly that they couldn't move.

And the policeman John Perry, "who was in the process of retiring when the first plane hit. He grabbed the same badge that he had just turned in and ran to the World Trade Center against the pleas of friends and colleagues. When others evacuated, he stayed behind and died helping a woman who was unable to breathe."

The descriptions come from letters of grieving families, the stories passed down to them from co-workers who witnessed the final moments of the fallen.

The Face of Courage exhibit will run Aug. 29 to Oct. 17 at Harford Community College. Though the Harford Community College Foundation Inc. has offered some financial help and the artists have waived all fees, there are still costs to staging a traveling exhibit.

Donations can be made to The Face of Courage, Harford Community College Foundation Inc., 401 Thomas Run Road, Bel Air 21015-1698.

Fifteen of the portraits can be seen on www.thefaceofcourage.com. To see them is to have your heart broken all over again.

"Those families," Marcus said, "tell me they're honored to have their loved ones included in the project. But the truth is, we're the ones who are honored. We've learned about sacrifice. And we've been introduced to some of America's best."

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