In response to Sept. 11, Madisonians create
Art against Terrorism
by Tenaya Darlington
We artists are indestructable even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty In my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.
In the first weeks after the terrorist attacks, magazines and newspapers began calling up prominent authors to find out how they viewed their art in light Of Sept. 11. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates told The New York Times that the attacks "probably confirm my sense that what I am writing is of some value," She told the Associated Press that, in her new work, she would focus on themes of heroism. But of course.
Steven King, on the other hand, only pronounced his worthlessness: "What I do," he told the Times, "has absolutely no significance." Cynthia Ozick pleaded writer's block: "I could not do my daily nibbling on my novel. It seemed so irrelevant."
Closer to the scene, people tried to make sense of what was basically a burning mortuary. The composer Phil Kline, who lives near the World Trade Center, was inspired to rally an orchestra of 4O boombox-toting pedes trians for a performance called "Sept. 22 Vigil." Lou Reed joined the poet Sharon Olds and others for a reading of poems that had been posted at New York fire stations and various memorial sites around the city.
Other institutions offered space to ruminate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsored free poetry readings every afternoon in their America wing as a way to provide solace, and a temporary gallery rose on Greenwich Street to present the works of "ground zero" artists.
Locally we played the waiting and watching game. We lapsed into shock. People gave blood, gave money, gave blankets, but at first no one was sure what to say. Could words convey the graphic horror of what every newscast portrayed?
Soon, however, came a small-scale creative explosion. A graffiti Lady Liberty appeared on the side of Mother Fool's Coffee House. Poetry fundraisers and rock benefits sprang up. And a number of local artists began trying to make sense of the destruction that will no doubt color the decade. Below they, weigh in on their struggles to make sense of the world post-Sept. 11. For some, making art was an immediate response. For others, responding has been a challenge, requiring deliberation. Either way, expressing oneself seems more necessary than ever.
"It's hokey almost," marveled Wendy Cooper in November "It's like artists are coming out of their shells. Something has happened to the edge - people have gone soft." Cooper, who had just toured a series of New York galleries when we spoke, gushed about something she hadn't seen before in the New York art world. "Vulnerability" she said. "There's a new vulnerability out there. It's going to change everything. "
In Madison, she surmised, the response would be slower. But, she confirmed that a number of local artists had begun to make sense of what was happening. "Bird Ross," she exclaimed. "You have to call Bird Ross."
As Ross tells. it, she was sitting at her kitchen table, listening to nonstop news on the day of the attacks, when she fixed on a number that would ignite the idea for a memorial project. "I kept hearing the number 6,O0O," she says during a phone interview, as she recalls her reaction to the estimated death toll in the World Trade Center collapse. "I sat glued to the radio, and I just started counting out 6,000 lentils.
"Lentils, " Ross says.
Presumably they were within reach, the only thing she had on hand that numbered in the thousands. Ross wanted to get a sense of what 6,000 looked like as a way to illustrate the magnitude of the event for her children and herself. The lentils which went on to compose a basket called "What 6,000 Looks Like" for a show at Arizona's Mesa Art Center, spawned a larger project.
"Let's see... next I began tying 6,000 knots... I collected 6,000 leaves... I used a world map to punch 6,000 holes..." Ross calls these works "The 6,000 Project". She plans to spend the next year working on a series of numerically oriented pieces as a way to illustrate her own struggle with the issues at hand.
"Even though the number [of casualties] has changed," she says, "I think 6,000 is still relevant in terms of the uncounted."
For Ross, integrating the Sept. 11 tragedy into her work wasn't a choice. "I had to somehow manipulate what had happened - physically, tactilely - for me. There wasn't any way around it."
Peggy Flora Zalucha is primarily a watercolorist; she shows at Grace Chosy Gallery, and many people know her work from the 20-some posters she has designed for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Most of them depict bright, sensuous flowers. On Sept. 11, says Zalucha, '41: blasted out." Zalucha's mixed-media painting "439 Faces," which she started a couple days after the twin-tower explosions, depicts the two buildings in flames. In each of the 439 windows that are still intact, Zalucha has drawn faces, caught up in the blast.
"Each time I make a face, I'm trying to imagine what it must have been like," Zalucha says. "My intention from the beginning was to make 6,000 faces. Each one of those people was a victim with a response."
Zalucha, who also owns her own web design and commercial mural business in Mount Horeb, says her response has surprised her. "Generally, I'm subtle," she laughs, almost embarrassed. "I'm known for large-scale representational watercolors that are still lifes and florals. I've never done anything like what I'm doing now, in terms of content."
Zalucha's "439 Faces" is part of a solo show that will be on display at Grace Chosy beginning Feb. 1.
As Bird Ross counted lentils in her kitchen, UW prof Ron Wallace pondered how to teach his poetry class on Sept. 11. What is the responsibility of poets at a time like this, he wondered. "I went in and said what Billy Collins - the poet laureate - has said when asked how a poet should respond to this tragedy," Wallace recalls. "He said he wasn't going to write any poems about it anytime soon, but he felt that writing any poem, no matter what it was about or how small, was the opposite of the terrorist attack."
Wallace says just being creative is a way to oppose what happened. Then he laughs. "Everybody agreed they weren't going to write any poems about It anytime soon, and then for the next couple of weeks that's all we did." Wallace calls this "therapeutic."
Soon, other local wordsmiths would weigh in. Spoken-word demigod Rusty Russell, of Cheap at Any Price Poets, began scratching his chin for a way to get involved and came up with an event he dubbed "Poets Without Borders." The open-mike event that he hosted and emceed with Madison poet laureate Andrea Musher on Nov. 17 at Electric Earth Cafe benefited the four million Afghanistan refugees. Poets were asked to bring a typed copy of their poem, and at the end of the night, the grand prize was a bound collection of all the poems read.
"It was born of my own insomnia," says Russell. "I was feeling so helpless and I couldn't think of anything I could do, and then I thought well, I write poetry, and I know how to run poetry readings.
Fifty wordhounds read to a packed house, and proceeds went to Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit group that offers emergency care to victims of armed conflicts. Russell chose the charity because he wanted to "do something for the victims on the other side."
As for his own writing, Russell feels he's got something brewing- "It'll probably be a three-pager - I I feel like an eggbound chicken." His next project involves trying to contact writers in some of the refugee damps to create a dialogue between American poets and Afghanis.
At madpoetry.org, a Madison-based web site for the literary community, Jeannie Bergmann has added a link to a number of poems written by local wordsmiths, including Richard Roe and Art Paul Schlosser. She prefaces them with the famous W.H. Auden poem "Sept. 1, 1939," which begins, "I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street uncertain and afraid...." These lines, which could just as easily have been written on Sept. 11, are echoed in "Chanter Est Interdit, 11 & 12 Septembre 2001," a poem posted by Elise Rose:
I walk along the river
watching the gold light
slip down the old houses.
I return home; no radio, no tele
so I drink a glass of wine
and read my book, Feel the Fear
while waiting for my date,
the army supply specialist.
When he doesn't show,
I finish the bottle
"This is like no other war I've been associated with. No one is making any sacrifices," muses Warrington Colescott, a World War 11 veteran and emeritus professor of art it UW-Madison. Colescott, whose voice was heavy and full of pauses during our November interview, has found it difficult to respond to the events following Sept. 11.
"It's too early to get specific, " he says. "There's so much to think about."
Colescott seems almost spooked by the prophetic nature of several works he displayed at Grace Chosy Gallery in September five eerie watercolors that dealt with airplanes crashing, suitcases raining down over the world, jet engines breaking. He created them out of irritation with the airline industry but was stunned by the connection to Sept. 11. He's now incorporating the pieces in an upcoming Chicago show, along with several other works that capture what he calls "the temper of the times," a time that, he notes "couldn't be less warlike. Life here is still all about movies and economics and entertainment."
Where Colescott Is somber, UW art professor Leslee Nelson takes a lighter tone. "Some of the art magazines are publishi ng famous artists' responses now. They are saying things like; 'The time for frivolous, silly art is Over' I'm not so sure of that," she writes in an email. "I was very grateful for The Onion's issue about Sept. 11. 1 needed to laugh. I think a lot of people do."
Nelson, a textile artist, makes "rescue" quilts, taking unfinished quilt blocks and turning them into collaborative pieces that combine the work of multiple generations. After Sept. 11, she was inspired to go back to an old flag she got in 1978. "1 don't think I'd ever considered using a flag image," she says. "I'm still figuring out what to do with it."
Local indie filmmaker Erik Gunneson, writer and director of Milk Punch, is also taking the slow road in responding to the events. "I've really been thinking about this idea of victim versus hero," says Gunneson, a member of the UWs communication arts department. "What is a hero? Is a hero someone who innocently died? It seems like a lot of terminology is getting twisted." During and after-the attacks, Gunneson was responsible for taping the news coverage of all the major television networks to create an archive for students. "We had three TV sets going here. We taped for 12 hours - it was really weird to watch."
Gunneson wants to embark on a project that would explore the hyperbolic representation of Sept. 11 in the media. "When I was going home over Thanksgiving, I heard that 550 people were predicted to die in automobile accidents due to Thanksgiving traffic." He pauses. "But does anyone think of those people as heroes?"
"I grew up In Staten Island and I saw the towers being built from my bedroom window," recalls local filmmaker Brian Standing of Prolefeed Studios; "I can't even conceive of them not being there."
As tragic as Sept. 11 was, Standing says he is most concerned now about the political implications of the event, in particular how it affects civil liberties. He's working on a series of mock public-service announcements that he attributes to a phony organization called "The Minitrue Corporation,". a takeoff on Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" from 1964. Each PSA satirizes a constitutional amendment. He plans to make them available on his Web site (www.prolefeedstudios.com) and air them on cable access and at Electric Eye Cinema, a monthly experimental-film screening he organizes at Electric Earth Cafe.
"The Bill of Rights is the-only institution that separates us from the dictatorships we're allegedly trying to fight," says Standing. "'I think large corporations are the real powers behind government, and they find the Bill of Rights enormously inconvenient. Once it goes, what'll be the difference between government and the Taliban?"
Dawn Shagonee, coordinator for for Peace Drum and Dance, which (in together professional dancers for a specific performances, wants to offer vision of hope for the local community. On Jan. 21, the troupe will offer a free 6:30 pm. performance at the Civic Center's Oscar Mayer Theatre as a way honor the dead and initiate healing. Shagonee hopes they can repeat the I formance in New York. "We want to I form before the United Nations and front of the Statue of Liberty," she says.
While there is no way of knowing long-term repercussions of Sept. 11, thing is certain; We need artistic expression during times of crisis. Despite living a thousand miles away from ground zero, we all continue to internalize tragedy. Through creative endeavors, make a step toward understanding world beyond the constant media blitz. In the words of Auden, "All I have: voice/To undo the folded lie."
Links to local and national projects that are engaging in the post-Sept. 11 dialogue:
www.poetrydiaIogue.org A list of national benefit readings following Sept. 11.
www.madpoetry.org A site devoted to local poets responding to Sept. 11, with a link to Poetry Without Borders.
rhizome.org/911/ One of the most lively and extensive sites in terms of art and activism post-Sept. 11.
www.writinghelp.umn.edu/joglars/t-TOWER/Index.php A collaborative "Tower of Text" that circulated soon after Sept. 11 - the brainchild of Miekal And from Wiscons Dreamtime Village.
www.studionotes.org An online journal for artists with an extensive ongoing dialogue about the responsibility of artists post-Sept. 11.
- from the Isthumus, January 11, 2002, pp.13-14.
Copyright 2002 by Isthmus Publishing Co. Inc.