Men and women stopped and saluted each time a body part was discovered, and it was at that moment that Katie Roberts realized - truly realized - that part of America had died.
She was a captain in the Ontario, Calif., police department, but she naturally felt a connection to her fellow officers living in New York.
What if someone attacked her hometown? Then again, the attacks had hit home.
Roberts didn’t live in New York, but an attack on the city, as well as one on the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and a field near Shanksville, Pa., was an attack on America.
Her fellow citizens.
Though she joined Americans in watching the aftermath of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Roberts knew she had to do more.
Roberts contacted area police departments and asked them to host fundraisers, and $536,000 was raised within three days.
Roberts immediately hopped an airplane to New York. The New York Police Department didn’t know she was coming, and she didn’t know exactly who she’d be talking to when she arrived.
“We were wearing our uniforms,” she said. “We walked into the NYPD headquarters and gave half the money to them. We were going to give the other half to the fire department.”
She speaks from her home in Upland, Calif.
“I retired five years ago,” she said.
The young New York police officer who drove her around the city on that day attended her retirement party. That was a surprise. It also was a surprise when he drove her to Ground Zero to meet the New York Fire Department’s admiral.
It was there she saw firemen and police officers stop and salute each time a body part was pulled from the rubble, where the chemical smell of skyscraper ruins infiltrated her nostrils through the breathing mask she was required to wear.
Roberts could still see and smell it when she returned home, and though she doesn’t profess to be an artist, life as a police officer is stressful.
“I relieve my stress through artwork,” she said. “I’ve never sold my work, and my work has never been in a show.”
Until now. Roberts’ piece “A Part of America Died” is one of 30 in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s Cathartic Art: Remembering September 11th. The juried show features work representing artists from nine states.
All commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in their own way.
“It’s interesting to look at the artwork and hear their stories,” Lauren Davis, the museum’s curator, said.
The museum issued an open call to artists in the spring, but things were slow at first.
“We thought it was going to be a regional show,” Museum Director Julie Rose said.
“But we weren’t getting many entries at first. Then, the entries started coming in near the deadline, and we found that we were getting work from throughout the nation,” Rose said.
But then something happened that changed the show - the U.S. Navy Seal Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“We extended the deadline after that,” Davis said. “And some of the artists who had already entered wanted to change their work.”
“It’s really been interesting to watch the process,” Rose said.
Closure is a word many people like to use, and America finally found justice in bin Laden’s death. But did his death really close the book on this story?
Not really. Americans can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of the plane attacks on the Twin Towers.
Roberts can see the surreal mountain of rubble and smell the devastation even now.
“It’s something that stays with me,” she said. “It will always stay with me.”
She was required to wear goggles along with the breathing mask. She was escorted to meet the fire department’s admiral, who led her into a pit five stories below the surface.
It was the respect given to the excavation process that made the biggest impact on Roberts, men and women standing at attention and saluting Americans’ remains.
“Seeing what I saw, I lost my feeling of security and safety in my own country,” Roberts said. “That part of America died. When I could not get the sight and smell out of my heart, I painted this picture.”
“A Part of America Died” takes its title from the anonymous poem of the same title, which Roberts has incorporated into the American flag in the background of the piece. The Statue of Liberty is the dominant figure, watching the incident unfold.
Watching a part of her country die.
But hope is not lost. Walk through this show, and you’ll see America depicted in different forms, most notably a phoenix rising from the Twin Towers’ ashes.
The phoenix is a mythological firebird that can be found in the lore of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese and Persians. As the story goes, the phoenix’s lifespan lasted between 100 and 500 years.
The bird would build a nest at the end of its life and ignite it, burning with the fire, then rising from the ashes a young, strong firebird.
At the West Baton Rouge Museum, the bird represents America’s recovery from what simply has become known as 9/11.
The phoenix is the dominant figure in West Baton Rouge Parish artist Evva Wilson’s textile piece. The bird’s bold colors glow against the dark background of the cityscape.
Florida artist Felicia Liban also used the phoenix in her small, 2002 enamel on copper tritych titled “Ground Zero.”
“When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed in 2001, I still resided in New York,” she wrote in her artist’s statement. “Though I lived in Queens, about 30 miles from Manhattan, the smoke with its odor could be seen and smelled through the open windows. The impact of the planes, which we witnessed on TV as it happened, was overbearing.”
But the most poignant piece examining the phoenix theme belongs to Audrey Arrasmith.
She was born only six months before the attacks. She’s never known a pre-9/11 America.
Her collage piece, “From the Ashes No. 1” incorporates an origami phoenix shaped from collage paper set against an oil pastel New York skyline.
“I was born six months before 9/11, and I heard about 9/11 each year,” she wrote in her artist’s statement. “The scene is as dark and gray as people felt about what happened on 9/11. The phoenix mythical bird has been a story I have been interested in since I began to read. I feel America will rise up out of the ashes just as my phoenix. This painting is a result of a contest between my grandmother and me.”
Arrasmith’s grandmother is the aforementioned textile artist Wilson. Arrasmith also is the winner of the West Baton Rouge Museum’s annual student art show, which qualified her to enter work in this show.
“We allowed one student into the show,” Rose said. “She’s part of a generation who doesn’t remember this. It’s always been a part of their history.”
Though the attacks don’t have the same impact on Arrasmith as they do on Liban, the incident still has meaning for the 11-year-old. America is her country, too, and she has a story to tell.
“It tells how Sept. 11 affected her,” Davis said. “All of the artists were required to write their stories, how Sept. 11 affected them. I’m going to put all of the artist’s statements on labels beside their work. Their stories speak to you as much as the work.”
Take, for instance, Robbii Wessen’s 2011 mixed media assemblage titled “Orb.”
The New York artist’s work focuses on loss.
“It starts with an idea,” Wessen wrote. “In and of itself, an idea, like a knife, can cut to hurt or cut to heal. In this work, the orb is the idea. It is framed as an ideal and yet, it is imprisoned as an idea that has lost all its connection to the real world. To this day, the 9/11 attacks are still largely incomprehensible to me. As such, this work is less about the literal representation of the loss on that day and more about the struggle to understand what happened. I personally did not lose any friends or family on that day but suffered a loss, as we all did, nonetheless.”
Rina Thaler’s 2011 mixed media work “91101” depicts the devastation of that day. She lives in Maryland.
“You see more each time you look at it,” Rose said.
Turn your eyes to the upper left-hand corner of the piece, and you’ll see an airplane’s silhouette heading for the Twin Towers, which already are in disarray, bursting in an explosion of color.
“This painting tells the story of the tiny plane taking down the big tower, of the people jumping from the windows, and the devastation that occurred,” Thaler wrote. “It also shows the hope rising from the ashes with the American flag being raised from the ruins, and is a tribute to the firefighters and rescue workers who risked their lives to save the lives of other Americans.”
So again, in a symbolic sense, there’s the theme of the phoenix, this time in the form of the American flag.
Then there’s New York artist Lisa Fazio Cotroneo’s digital print “Gone but Not Forgotten.” What’s interesting is that she originally created the image in 1982 while spending the day with her husband sketching the New York City skyline from the Brooklyn pier.
“For composition reasons, I placed a helicopter in the sky and a plane heading toward the Twin Towers,” she wrote. “Who could have guessed that a plane would affect the world so profoundly, and how innocently I rendered it nearly twenty years ago?”
Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, Cotroneo received voice mails from her husband. He worked on the 30th floor of the World Trade Center, and he was calling to tell her he was OK.
“I was not aware if he was at the center or assigned to another location for the day, so I anxiously waited for him to return home,” Cotroneo wrote. “Later that day, he called and my daughters and I met him at the train station. He was emotionally shaken with dust and debris on his body. I was filled with such gratitude and remorse. I was one of the lucky wives whose husband had returned home that day.”
Cotroneo decided to revise her illustration out of respect for those who didn’t return, along with their families. She removed the helicopter and framed the skyline with the names of all who died.
“This new illustration titled 'Gone but Not Forgotten’ represents the collective spirit of the souls of everyone who lost their life on that fateful day,” she wrote. “Each was born separately yet died as one. The 2,752 names form the frame of the artwork. From a distance they are indistinct. When viewed up close, there is the sheer emotional impact of each individual who died.”
Then there’s Karin Batten, who actually had a studio on the 31st floor in the South Tower. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council had awarded her a residency in the Studioscape in the World Trade Center, where she was asked to paint views of the city as they appeared from the tower.
She was not in her studio on the day of the attack, but all of her work was destroyed. She received another grant afterward and repainted the views, along with post-attack views.
Her series has since traveled the country and will hang alongside this exhibit. Batten also will be the guest speaker at the opening reception.
“This is an exhibit with so many different interpretations,” Davis said. “People see it differently. Some focus on the attacks, others focus on America after 9/11. One artist even painted a biker she met after the attack. She said she was thinking about America, and he looked so American.”
The biker was traveling, moving forward with his life, just as daily life has resumed in America.
Rising up from that five-story pit Katie Roberts visited 10 years ago.
And flying upward on the wings of a phoenix.