after september 11: transforming, connecting, enduring art

by Jane Robinette

Transformation, connection, endurance of the natural world—all of these themes run through the artwork, poetry, essays, and music that emerged from the project, Beyond 9-11: The Art of Renewal in Iowa.


The very impetus for the project was to transform the despair I felt at the popular reaction to 9/11/01 to a sense of renewal through collecting deeper creative responses to the events. Of course, to some extent, all of the works symbolize the transformation of the feelings or thoughts relating to September 11 and its aftermath into a tangible piece of creative work. Beyond that, however, writer Betsy Snow Hickok seeks to change the focus on the violent deaths of the victims to remembering the fullness of their lives, and their continued spiritual existence. Her poem, In the Telling, reminds us of Greek myths in which "things leave and are returned to us." And "If cement and glass can become as light as air, / why not spirit? / Didn't we see them upright, whole in the full / September sun? / Didn't we see them riding the smoke like angels?"


Painter Crit Streed also sought to release the victims from their violent end in her diptych, Requiescat in Pace. It is her offering for those who perished, and its subtle abstraction leaves space for the viewer to reflect and meditate.

Visual artist Jennifer S. Otis evokes the transience of life in her stoneware sculpture, Plum. The adjacent forms, some glazed the color of plum and some black, recall the presence and absence of fruit on a plum tree. The connected bulbous shapes indicate the slim veil between life and death, and the cycle that repeats and repeats.


Sculptor Elise Kendrot makes transformation not only a thematic element, but part of the very creative process of her sculpture, Salt Columns. These six-foot-high, eleven-inch-square towers are built of salt, water, and red dye. The water was used to dissolve the salt, but instead of disappearing, the salt rebuilt itself into something new and stronger and harder than before. At the base of the columns after the sculpture was installed, some of the water plumed out and created huge sparkling crystals. These common elements of life, salt and water, were transformed into stark beauty and strength. The work reminds us that in the midst of destruction, life continues on in different forms, and that we can become stronger even though in our weakest moments we can't conceive of it.


Other works include:

  • painted glass and tin sconces by Wendy S. Rolfe, used as vehicles of prayer and comfort and symbolizing the power of remembrance and renewal through faith;
  • Julie Russell-Steuart's multimedia piece, Flying After, combining video and poetry to document her journey through fear to trust as well as belief in the power of love;
  • the poem by Ann Struthers, Those Who Are With You, turns a somber escape of school students across the Brooklyn Bridge into a parade led by poets of days past;
  • Faye Tambrino's watercolor painting that shows a darkened floral image emerging into a brightly-colored form—a brighter future;
  • the oddly vertical collages of horizontal American iconography by Daniel Weiss seem to say our construction of events and symbols depends a great deal on our perspective;
  • the transformation of the last piece in Nancy Purington's series of gold-leaf paintings from paying homage to the natural delights of summer to a plain rectangular blotch of indigo ground that she could not complete after September 11; and,
  • Margaret Whiting's two visual works that through selected circled words turn the pages of old books on the Law of Nations into statements against war and violence.



For many of us, one of the initial responses to September 11 was a drawing within to the safe and familiar. But several works show the power and importance of the connections we weave outside ourselves and our own circles. Renae Angeroth's song, Another Day, reminds us that while September 11 jolted us and brought us together in many ways, we are not the only ones who face such tragedies, and we need to be more compassionate when others around the world endure hardships and shocks like we did. Janet Hart Heinicke's drawing, The Hospitality of Bread, shows the commonality among peoples of the world. Poet Marianne Taylor juxtaposes the estrangement of the suicidal/homicidal pilots with the suicides of teenage boys in her own town—what makes individuals commit these acts, and what is our role as community in their disavowal of humanity? Neil Nakadate's poems tell the stories of family members' responses to the events—and his own, in the telling of theirs.



The vastness and endurance of—and the comfort found in—the natural world are revealed in other pieces. Both Laurie Elizabeth Talbot Hall, in her mixed media boxes (That Which Sustains Me and Solstice), and Jennifer S. Otis, in her ceramic forms perched on a stone (Cacela Velha), evoke the solace and beauty found in the natural world, and the persistence of rock, sea, land, phases of the moon and sun. And in his essay, That Morning, on the Prairie, James Calvin Schaap tells the story of how his students were perhaps most prepared having first sat in silence on the vast and beautiful prairie early in the morning on September 11, before they learned of the attacks upon their return to school.


Other works remind us of the importance of family, friends, and the simple things in life, such as Barbara Lau’s poem, Post September, recalling the innocence of summer and children and the garden's produce, and the yearning for those days; and Mary Swander's essay, 9/11, the story of her prophetic encounter with a stranger in New York the weekend before the attacks. Also, Rustin Larson's poem, Something Visceral, celebrates the tenaciousness with which we hang onto life, and our resolve to make a better place of this world.

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Art transforms, connects, and endures. The work of the Beyond 9-11 artists and others change or affect the creator and the viewer in ways that may surprise us at times. In times such as these—in all times—artists, writers, and musicians can provide a unique perspective that helps us see our world and our own circumstances in new ways if we pay attention. In that moment of paying attention, art may be just what we need.