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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 9, 2002

Artists use their media to deal with 9/11 grief

 •  Attacks inspired outpouring of musical dreck
 •  Celebrities remember the day that changed so many lives

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

David Behike's acrylic and wood piece reflects on the disposition of the souls of victims when the planes hit the Twin Towers.
The World Trade Center first appeared to Brendt Berger as a negative space, a hole in the ground he watched getting bigger and bigger each week as he went to collect his unemployment check from an office nearby.

"For four months I saw them digging that huge hole in the ground," Berger says. "A year or so later, the center was complete. It happened very quickly."

And even quicker, it was destroyed, leaving Berger and artists like him to troll their creative depths for ways to express their sense of loss.

"Sept. 11 was a profound influence that affected my life and work in ways I can't yet comprehend," he says. "I felt intimately involved with that building."

Berger was selected to paint a 850-foot-long, 80-foot-wide mural at the base of the center. He completed the Hawaiian-themed mural in 1979 with the help of his wife, local poet Tia Ballentine-Berger.

"The mural was designed to be seen from the upper floors," Berger says. "Walking on it, you had no idea."

Berger held an art show for 50 artists in World Trade Center Building No. 6. He toured the site in a helicopter with one of the principal architects. And when the twin towers collapsed a year ago, the fine dust it produced covered the yard of a Brooklyn property he still owns.

"I was in New York last fall, on a bus from Newark," Berger says. "I looked across and saw this landscape that I didn't recognize. Then I realized I was looking at lower Manhattan. It was such a shock."

Back home in his adopted Hawai'i, Berger tapped his creativity for a way to convey the disorientation he experienced that day.

"I wondered what I could do to produce a similar effect," he says.

Lucille Cooper linked historic images of hatred with Sept. 11.
The answer was simple but powerful. Working with a postcard design, Berger rendered a Honolulu landscape minus Diamond Head.

The piece was featured at "Response and Remembrance," an exhibition of Sept. 11-themed art at Kapi'olani Community College's Koa Gallery in January.

Across the country, galleries and other exhibition spaces are hosting a range of artistic responses to Sept. 11. A calendar of Sept. 11-related exhibitions and events compiled by the National Coalition Against Censorship includes more than 70 entries; a cursory Internet search produces hundreds of other exhibitions.

One of the most prominent and warmly received artistic responses to the tragedy was New York's own "Tribute in Light," a commemorative display in which two columns of light were projected upward from a site adjacent to Ground Zero. The display was co-sponsored by the New York-based nonprofit Creative Time and the Municipal Art Society.

Several Hawai'i artists also played off the image of the twin towers in their initial creative responses.

Kaua'i artist Patricia Yu sewed a tower-shaped burlap swath adorned with white linen pockets, marrying the dominant visual image of the tragedy with funereal items from her Chinese heritage. The burlap is similar to material mourners wear on their heads, and the white linen pockets are similar to those used for gifts of condolence.

"The image came to me of this building with windows and I related the windows to the pockets," Yu says.

"Sept. 11 made me rethink a lot of things." I asked, 'Why are we here? Why did this happen?' Through this piece, I started to understand a little bit more and I started to think in terms of forgiveness.

"I didn't lose any friends or family in the attacks, so I can't comprehend how much pain the families of the victims are going through. But by sewing and spending all that time working on the piece, I felt like I was at least with them in spirit."

John Koga, chief preparator at the Contemporary Museum, found creative inspiration not in Sept. 11 itself, but in his 5-year-old son's response to it. His photography piece shows his son, Mark, holding a toy plane and standing next to a tower made of building blocks.

"It came from my son's obsession with the building-block tower," Koga said. "It came from watching my son going through his own feelings, my own observation of this."

John Koga shot pictures of his son building a tower out of blocks and crashing a toy plane into it.
Like many other artists, Koga says the impulse to address the tragedy artistically didn't happen right away.

"I wasn't even thinking of art," he says. "At the time, it became almost a feeling of exploitation."

Koa Gallery director David Behlke says many artists struggled in the days after the attacks.

"The way it happens with a lot of artists is that when some terrible event happens, they internalize it for a long time," he says. "They internalize this intense external experience and out of that comes the artistic response."

Behlke says much of the work produced soon after Sept. 11 dealt with feelings of grief, shock and anger.

"A lot of the stuff coming out now is about recovery and returning back to normal," he says.

Sculptor Andrea Fellows says she was obsessed with the figures of the twin towers for months after the attacks. She chose not to display any of the sculptures she did during that period because "they were really for me. I wasn't trying to express anything to anyone, I was just trying to work out my own feelings in a way that I was most comfortable."

Fellows says none of her recent works directly references Sept. 11 images, but all are colored by the event.

"I think Sept. 11 will always be there," she says. "If it's in my head and my heart, then it's in my hands. If it's in my hands, it's in my work, even if you can't see it."