Can art help a nation heal? D.C. artists collaborate in the 9/11 Arts Project.


Micheline Klagsbrun. "Ascent of the Hybrid Leaf Bug," mixed media on canvas. (Micheline Klagsbrun/Micheline Klagsbrun)
August 26, 2011

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Washington artist Micheline Klagsbrun first noticed the particular brilliance of the blue in the Sept. 11 sky that morning. Then she noticed bodies falling like fragments. Falling, she thought, like Icarus, the mythical figure who flew too close to the sun.

The artist knew she had to create art to help make sense of the tragedy. Inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and an earlier painting she had done of Icarus, she became obsessed with the idea of things falling from a clear blue sky.

In her studio in Northwest Washington, Klagsbrun picked up a luna moth she had found earlier. It was pale green and fragile. It, too, had fallen from the sky, she thought. She began painting a pale jade moth on a fragment of burned paper, burned like the ashes falling in the Sept. 11 sky. What emerged was a moth both beautiful and damaged — like the country, she said.

Ten years later, to commemorate Sept. 11, Klagsbrun has created another painting. The moth has evolved — just like the country — but with strange adaptations.

“The wings have a protective camouflage,” the artist says, pointing to the painting in her studio. “The eyes are on stalks. It is a paranoid adaptation. It has to do with surveillance, suspicion and terror. I want people to think about what have been the trade-offs: How we are surviving? What things we are ignoring? What is going on in the world?”

The painting of the hybrid insect will be displayed Sept. 11, during a reception and poetry reading in collaboration with Split This Rock at the Studio Gallery on R Street NW. To make sense of Sept. 11 ten years later, Klagsbrun and dozens of artists, performers and poets in the Washington area have collaborated in the 9/11 Arts Project, which explores healing through art. It asks: “What happens when you stop holding your breath?”

The 9/11 Arts Project, the brainchild of the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts, acts as an umbrella organization uniting artists, galleries, nonprofit groups and social activists. A year of arts events is planned in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, Phillips Collection, Goethe-Institut, Carroll Square Gallery, Washington Printmakers Gallery and Pepco Edison Place Gallery. It will include literary events, concerts, poetry readings, art exhibits, facilitated dialogues, dance performances and film screenings. Each exhibit or performance will focus on themes of tolerance, war, trauma, security and the culture of fear.

“Artists are the observers of our culture,” says Brooke Seidelmann, project co-director. “We can neither simply forget nor find a cure; rather, we need to ignite new dialogues and explore greater avenues for connection and understanding.”

On Sept. 8, “Ten Years After 9/11” opens at Pepco Edison Place Gallery, near the National Portrait Gallery. It presents art that examines the human condition and the state of the world. “The project is powerful and palpable,” says co-curator Helen Frederick, an artist and professor in the School of Art at George Mason University.

The power of the show comes from the way each piece articulates moments of 911 that struck each artist. “To artists this stuff works intuitively and it comes out when it has to. This is not serendipity,” said co-curator William Dunlap, whose installation in the show entitled “They Hate Our Freedoms” includes objects that relate to each other, in the same way words in a sentence convey meaning when placed together.

The installation includes “found and fashioned” objects — an old brochure of the World Trade Center, a crutch turned into a spear and a “vintage copy” of The Washington Post from Sept. 12, 2001. Dunlap said the title of the installation, “They Hate Our Freedoms,” came from “a mindless mantra” he heard in the aftermath of the attacks. “What . . .does that mean?” Dunlap asked. “They hate a lot of things about us, but it’s not our freedoms that they hate.”

The exhibit includes a print by Michael B. Platt called “The Journey,” which he says is about how some people survive attacks on countries, while others do not. “People kill each other and they don’t even know each other,” Platt told a crowd gathered at the gallery.

A painting in the show by Iraqi artist Saadi Al Kaabi was inspired by the kidnapping of Al Kaabi’s friend by insurgents. “I deeply felt the provocation of all my humane senses together with the feeling of strangeness, fear and pain inflicted by this ordeal,” Al Kaabi said.

At George Mason University’s Art and Design Building, an exhibit called “ . . . a mile in my shoes” opens Sept. 10. The show, curated by artists Patrick Sargent and Erwin Thamm, displays small portraits: paintings, prints, photos. To each, they have connected shoes that signify “how we carry the memories of the people that have touched our lives with us as we move through our own.”

The show, he said, was inspired in part by a civilian named Jim Lynch who worked at the Pentagon. Each day, Lynch would walk the halls of the Pentagon during his lunch break and pass out Werther’s Original candy to make people there happy. Lynch was killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

“It’s a wondering of how things like that happen,” said Thamm, “how someone would lose a shoe in an attack. What it would be like to walk in that person’s shoes and how to carry on what they felt was important.”

At Woolly Mammoth Theatre on Friday, Robert Bettmann, artistic director of Bettmann Dances, presents a powerful performance he choreographed and calls “Quis Custodiet,” which refers to the Latin phrase “Quis Custodiet Ipsus Custodet,” meaning “Who Shall Watch the Watchers Themselves?” Bettmann hopes to create a conversation about “what security means to us and how we pursue it.”

The dance, in three sections, starts with a retelling of the Adam and Eve story, comparing Eve to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and examining the question of too much information made public can be dangerous.

At a rehearsal in Takoma Park, Bettmann watched as dancers practiced — soaring, twirling and trying to translate into dance the fragile concept of security.

“I want the audience to leave feeling empowered,” Bettman says. “I am not trying to moralize one way or the other. I don’t understand how terrible things happen. As an artist, it’s easy to describe a problem. It is harder to suggest a solution.”

In Potomac, Sarah Barzmehri, director of Exhibit9 Gallery, has created “Dialogue Through Art” to prompt a greater discussion between the Eastern and Western worlds. Artists shrouded in canvas will act as easels. “People can write on our backs any message that pertains to peace, unity and hope,” says Barzmehri, who has encouraged Middle Eastern artists to participate.

On Sept. 10, and again on Oct. 11 and Nov. 11, Barzmehri, who is from Iran, will take the living artwork to Dupont Circle, where the public can write messages.

One recent night, she invited artists to the Potomac studio for a trial run. On a canvas, one wrote in Farsi, “Love, love, love, peace, peace, peace, live, live, live.” On another, someone wrote: “There is no such thing as a pure or impure land. The purity or impurity of the land is determined by the hearts and minds of the people.”

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