On August 24, 2011 the air was clear and balmy, just like the morning of September 11, 2001. A small group of acquaintances and friends gathered that August evening to memorialize the victims of 9-11 and celebrate the resurgence of America in the wake of this cataclysmic event. Organized by the artist Todd Stone and the poet Bob Holman, we milled around a lovely reception and then sat down in white wooden chairs to listen to poetry on the 48th floor of 7 World Trade Center, the site of the destroyed 7 World Trade Center, also known as the Salomon Brothers Building.
Todd Stone's series of paintings entitled Witness || Downtown Rising described the attack on and collapse of the two World Trade Center towers, as well as the long rehabilitation of this Lower Manhattan precinct. Over the last several months Stone's works have hung on display in the vast cavernous space of this new elegant high-rise.
The invited poets (Patricia Smith, Tahani Salah, Stephen Motika, Bob Holman and many others) performed works that had been composed for this particular occasion. The mood was subdued, but not depressing. All around us the large glass windows framed the vast golden glow of New York after dark. It was all too splendid. New York twinkling in the distance, like a cheesy picture postcard wrapped around the perimeter of the 48th Floor. The city's indomitable magnificence seemed to bless the occasion.
On September 11, 2001, the original 7 World Trade Center (all 47 floors) collapsed at 5:20:33. It was less than seven hours after the collapse of One (North) and Two (South) World Trade Center at 10:28:25 and 9:59:04, respectively. On August 24, we gathered to honor those who perished and those who survived their loved ones.
How can art capture unspeakable horror? How can art describe interminable pain? It cannot.
Art can only try to heal. Art can only try to touch the human heart and bring it comfort as it grieves.
For many, Stone's paintings have done just that. "They are evocations of the past and future," he told me. Todd Stone invited the families who lost their loved ones in the attacks on the World Trade Center to his temporary studio on the 48th Floor of 7 World Trade Center earlier in August. He explained that he witnessed the entire event from his studio window in Tribeca. When he felt he must leave to help the rescue workers, his wife insisted that he stay in the studio and paint. She persuaded him to bear witness to this tragedy by recording what he saw. He had already painted the view of the World Trade Towers before September 11, 2001. Now he would paint the first assault on the North Tower at 8:46:26 and then the second at 9:02.59.
The subsequent paintings record the view of the collapse from almost street-level: the enormous clouds of black smoke and debris, the surreal obscuring of buildings and bodies as the city became enveloped in soot. The next few paintings show the vacant landscape where the towers once stood.
Stone contacted the Silverstein Properties which opened the new 7 World Trade Center building in 2006. They invited Stone to work on the 48th floor several months ago. He continues to paint what he sees: the complicated construction sites, the Memorial Park with its two reflecting pools, and the replanting of trees in this wounded neighborhood. All evidence of life resurrected from the ashes.
When I arrived at Brooklyn Bridge subway station (my usual stop to go to the WTC) on August 24, I immediately took in the expected moment of disorientation. I have experienced this sensation a few times before, and I purposely choose to feel disoriented, to remain estranged from the neighborhood as it steadfastly shoulders on. It is my way of sustaining my connection to the old neighborhood, the pre-September 11, 2001 neighborhood, that I frequented often so many years ago.
It is by self-consciously performing this ritual each time I go to the WTC area that I memorialize those lost on September 11th. And I also memorialize my personal losses (a friend and a connection to the Salomon Brother Building which is no longer there).
But the memories unfortunately are fading. Our family cannot agree on when we did this or that at the WTC in the good old days. It's all a collective blur. Still, thankfully, Jean Louis David Salon stayed on the corner of Vesey and Church, a former destination. With that as my guide, I can easily find my way back to 7 WTC and a time before this street bordered on Ground Zero.
View an image gallery of the first paintings in the Witness || Downtown Rising series.