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Artists Respond to September 11 - 2002-09-09

Watercolor painter Jean Holabird has lived in her loft a few blocks north of the World Trade Center since 1975. In 2001, she began painting a different view framed by a window every day, as a kind of journal.

The towers were often in her paintings, a backdrop to daily life. They loom up - yet remain almost ethereal - behind the 19th-century brick buildings of lower Manhattan. In August last year, she found them reflected and made small in a puddle on the street.

On the morning of September 11, Jean heard the first plane hit – and then the second. Later, from her kitchen window, she saw the north tower falling. With her neighborhood covered in ash, Jean Holabird fled to her mother’s house in the country outside New York – though even there, the images of that day were everywhere. Jean’s Tribeca neighborhood, meanwhile, was a war zone. Even residents weren’t allowed to enter the area for a week. That was when she first saw the still-smoking ruins.

“I wasn’t thinking about drawing or anything," Jean recalled, "but I suddenly remembered, I have to do a window a day, and I had a piece of paper in my purse and I had to, I just had to somehow put down what I was seeing. I was sitting on the pavement with all these firemen and we were all crying.”

From then until the middle of December, Jean continued to paint her 'window' a day. But now the windows were the views framed by the shifting barriers, the fences and blockades, in the blocks around the ruins. She stood outside at a distance, peering in and sketching, as the mountain of debris was gradually carted away.

“I wanted other people to know what it felt like to be here," Jean says, "Every time I went out a little and drew, I’d say, ‘Okay, that’s it. You’ve done all you can do.’ And I’d work on them a little that day and get them all the way I wanted them. And then two days later, I’d have to go back. Because I knew everything was changing all the time.”

Many of Jean Holabird’s paintings of Ground Zero have been collected by Gingko Press in a new book, Out of the Ruins. “And these are all the buildings that you see’s so amazing,” Jean says.

The final painting is of the floodlit site on the night of December 15, when the last piece of the North Tower had been removed. “And my work on that particular (day) was finished," says Jean, "And I hardly ever...I don’t go down there anymore.”

Colombian video and installation artist Monika Bravo was one of the artists who’d been granted workspace on the 92nd floor of the North Tower.

“One of the things I really liked when I was at the World Trade Center was the closeness of the sky," Ms. Bravo recalls. "It used to be there. The higher you are to the sky, you see the clouds really becoming very much alive, they stop being part of the landscape, and they become something that is really around you. September 10 was just like any other day, with one difference: When I started taping at 3:00 p.m., I didn’t notice the storm started.”

An unusually violent thunderstorm moved over New York that night and Ms. Bravo shot for many hours from the 92nd floor – going from window to window. “I kept going back and forth and trying to make up my mind, like ‘Oh my god, I wish I had two cameras or three because this is so unbelievable.' So I did visit a lot of the other studios, taking the camera, back and forth, and not even stopping at times, and sometimes I’m even trying to focus or unfocused, and you can see that on the film, sometimes its out of focus and then when I realized (it) I had to put it back in focus because I just let it be that day, it was too much, and I had another feeling that day, that it was like the last day that I could ever tape. It was really weird," she said.

And then another part of me was like, ‘Oh, but I still have six more weeks’ - but it was like I had all these different messages coming from inside telling me things like this is the last day, or you should really take advantage of taping because there’s no other day like this.”

She left her studio around midnight, taking only her tapes with her – and saying goodnight to a fellow artist, sculptor Michael Richards, whose recent work was about flight, and the black airmen who served in World War II. Mr. Richards stayed in his studio and was killed in the attack.

Ms. Bravo dedicated her video to him, using a Spanish expression for the subtitle: “Uno Nunca Muere La Vispera.”

“Which means something like, ‘You don’t die on the eve (of your death). You die on the day you’re supposed to die. You don’t die the day before.'” she explains.