From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

First Response

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watercolor crayon (9/11/2001)

I was in art school in Boston when the World Trade Center was hit.

My first response to the images of 911 was bewilderment, and the second was to do a pile of sketches in front of the news.  It was my only way to process the images. A couple jumping hand-in-hand hit me the hardest. A childlike response was the only thing comprehensible to me- a babble… and so I used crayons.

This large-scale drawing came out of those sketches when I got to my studio at school.  Any over-worked, over-thought response seemed too pretentious to me in that first moment.  Children put things into drawing by impact, without regard to scale or timeline or even what they can actually see.  There were people on that plane and I was thinking of them looking out as they crashed, so I drew them.  The way the whole city seemed to lean away- the smoke, the I-beams, the hovering news helicopter, the person leaning out of a window above the blaze waving a flag.  Did he think someone would be able to reach him?  Could that news helicopter have saved anyone?  What were those two people thinking about as they jumped?  How overwhelmed was that lone fire truck?

I babbled it all out in crayon.

I recall a Colombian student in a very different state of bafflement that day.  For Colombians, he said, this sort of horror was what they lived every day. Buildings bombed, family members disappeared.  Yes, each attack was smaller, but they happened all the time.  He shared our grief, but at the same time found us terribly sheltered from the horrors of war that so many people in the world live with day to day.  I got the feeling we were all the more rocked because we thought we were invulnerable.  I remember Dan Rather- the uncrackable man- crying to that thought.

Today as a mother I mostly think about the children of the workers there losing their parents, and wonder how many children might have been in the building. It breaks my heart.  The other thought that haunts me today is for the fact that the people who were brave enough to go in and help and come out alive are now dying of cancer and are largely unaided by our government.

My reaction to the kind of hate that fuels this kind of attack is still utter bewilderment.  I can comprehend in my mind how these things happen.  Cycles of violence and deprivation.  The passion for a cause that young men in particular get swept up in, the creation and dehumanization of the Other, the surrender of the self to the cause (and with that surrender, letting go of personal empathy).  It happens again and again- to soldiers, revolutionaries, police, prison guards… for as far back in history as we can see.  I’ve had my share of history, psychology, and social psychology.  It doesn’t stop me from babbling in incomprehension when hate strikes.

In the spirit of looking forward, everything I have ever seen or read speaks to reaching for empathy for the Other.  To stop anything that makes you separate them into other (or worse, into “not important people, or not really people, or into “vermin” or things).  It’s a slippery slope.  Try to understand someone completely not your kind of person today.  Try to find your common thread of humanity with someone you see on some level as the “enemy” or at the very least with someone you just don’t understand.

Written by Mary Corey March

September 11, 2011 at 8:50 am

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