The Memories That Won’t Wash Away …
For Americans in other parts of the country, it’s just an annual remembrance of a distant tragedy, not really affecting them very personally at all. But in NYC, the anniversary of September 11th marks a solemn day of unease. The shadows of yesterday are alive downtown where the towers once stood proudly in their home where they were born. Even if it’s unstated, the absence of those towers cuts us to the core. We miss their strong beauty that could be seen scraping the sky so grandly for blocks and blocks, seeming like miles and miles. We inwardly mourn the loss of that world we thought was real, when it all seemed a little closer to perfect, however illusive that might have been. More deeply than anyone else, New Yorkers remember just how scary it was to see the end of a long reign of America’s power in the towers come crashing down. All in an instant, when I saw that second tower fall live on television, I knew the time had come. The period in my life where in moving forward, I could take nothing for granted. Least of all, my freedom.
Exercising Our Freedom of Expression
Back in 2011, inspired by the decade anniversary of the tragedy, my cousin Tommy wrote a poem entitled, “It’s Been Ten Years (Remembering 9/11),” which opens with: “It’s been ten years and I still feel the same. It’s been ten years and I still feel the pain. It’s been ten years and I can still see the planes.” Tommy had a deep-seated connection to the lingering pulse of 9/11. Following the attacks, he volunteered at Ground Zero as a First Responder working alongside firemen, police and dozens of other response units on “the pile” for days and weeks during the Search & Rescue Phase. His honesty and passion inspired me. I felt there would be no better way to give compassion to all New Yorkers affected by the tragedy, than to open up a discussion about our pain through art. I talked him into modeling for me, and in honor and memory of September 11th, we headed down to Battery Park to set up a live bodypainting session beside the Sphere sculpture at Memorial Field.
I was a little wary going into the project because we were dealing with a tender topic at a sensitive time, in the exact location where the Twin Towers fell. Around the corner there were memorial services, and the area was crawling with security. When the cops came by, I had to explain to them what I was doing; and to my surprise, not only did they let us create provocative art in the way we wished to express ourselves, but they thanked us for coming together to make such a public art experience happen. I was so moved by the reaction from the onlookers. The overall public was so gracious and respectful. People wanted to be a part of it, people exchanged intimate stories. And I was so happy and proud to see live art initiate that.
Human Connection Arts’ Chalk Art Day 2018, Washington Square Park
When this year offered me another opportunity to open up the dialogue about September 11th through art, I wanted the theme of my subject to be in the spirit of something lighter and more hopeful. Now more than ever before, the world needed hope. Nothing had changed since the Twin Towers fell, and we never forgot it. Rather than focus on the heartbreak, something that never seems to wash away, maybe focusing on love was the way to go. And as artists, we needed to not be afraid to let our artwork wash away, for if only we expressed our insight through chalk on the ground on but one day, we would have exercised our freedom of expression as Americans, and maybe somehow make a difference. Human Connection Arts hosted its first Chalk Art Day on September 11th in Washington Square Park this year, and enabled us to do just that.
Nine of us artists gathered that day, and Washington Square Park was the perfect location.The magnificent Twin Towers were once visible there. We didn’t know what it was going to be. We just knew we were going to show up and take over the park in some manner. Not aggressively, but emphatically. We gathered our white teacher sticks and chalks of various grades and colors, and scattered around the perimeter of the fountain. Unlike seven years earlier when I last gave honor on this day through public art, I noticed that this time people were scared to connect. Since the ten year anniversary, they became further disconnected from their feelings, assisted by invisible digital networks telling them what to do or think about the situation of the day. The quietude held a surrender-to-ignore energy, and for those of us who remember the tragedies real-time, its silence was deafening. I wanted to create something for them. The ones who continue to lose hope, and for those like me who need to remember that the spirit of humanity has the potential to rise above the sorrow.
Yet the grey skies and sticky damp air fit the mood of the day, as crappy weather was on the verge of attack. Early on the light drizzle went out and in. Mid-day the drops became more steady and some work was disappearing, but the moisture helped in other ways with blending and shading. We stopped here and there, but stayed committed and finally acquiesced to Mother Nature. We needed to work through the rain. And then, just as we had finally accepted the wet mess washout, the sun peeked through the clouds and dried what was left on the concrete ground in minutes.
People weren’t sure what to make of us. They curiously watched. Some were engaged. Some casually walked by saying things like, “I just love Washington Square Park,” as if we were just part of the artsy-fartsy landscape.Those wandering strange artists who spend time in their heads and draw on the ground in the rain. What kind of person would do such a thing? But they all enjoyed the portrait we collectively painted of the artist with a message and a voice that wishes to be heard.
A Fragmented Recollection
The night before Chalk Art Day I wracked my brain trying to figure out what to draw on the concrete ground of the square. We needed to work big. We needed to cover territory. And then the inspiration came to me. So simple. So perfect. The Taj Mahal. Inside the pages of my book, Not As Crazy As You Think, the first leg of my journey takes place in India, when I visited the Taj Mahal at the young age of 22. My life thereafter would never be the same.
The first hour I tried to size up the symmetry as best as I could with a matrix grid of 2′ x 2′ squares. Then I began to fill in. The white teacher chalk was dustless, so it was difficult to cover big areas. But the Taj Mahal contained so much white as a symbol of its purity, so I needed to try my best at coverage.
I remember how through tear-filled eyes, I furiously snapped as many photographs as I could to capture if only a glimpse of the Taj Mahal’s true godliness in a frozen moment in Kodak time. Because mere words did not suffice in describing the majesty of the Taj, those pictures meant everything to me. But these were the days before Facebook and smart phone photos and digital picture files. There was only film. And poor technology at the airports that was known to erase film. Those beautiful images were permanently gone, and I never could retrieve them again. Nor hold onto any real evidence of what my eyes witnessed. I could no longer see it except through pictures in travel books, the ones that inspired me to travel to India in the first place. No recorded memories do I have of my trip to the Taj adding its color to the story of my life inside the pages of a photo album.
Similar to my reminiscence of the Twin Towers, the memories of the Taj are still alive in the foreground of my imagination, in the whispers of my mind, and in the valleys of my heart. I needed to somehow share its grandeur with New York on this day, and maybe it would help us feel a little less disheartened.
The Taj Mahal sits way-off the beaten path, hidden away from the crowds on a dust-laden road in the Indian city of Agra. Its name means “crown of the palace,” and its ivory-white marble magnificence revealed to me the kind of beauty I had only dreamed about but could never until then know.
I just couldn’t figure out how to move forward in my vision. How to communicate the magic.
In 1632, the Taj Mahal mausoleum was commissioned by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth. Shah Jahan loved his Persian princess so much that when she requested her only dying wish—that the most beautiful monument of love yet to stand on the face of this earth be created in her memory—he made a binding covenant to her to create the legacy, and it took only 22 years to build it.
It is said that Shah was so devastated after Mumtaz died that he locked himself in his quarters and fasted from food and water for eight days. The legend goes that after the ninth day when he reentered the light of the morning sun, his raven-black hair turned completely white.
Ahh…It needed color.
Chalking the Heart
It’s all in the shape. “So what is the meaning behind drawing a mosque on September 11th?”
It’s the stuff that makes me nuts. The symbols that trigger people to skip over seeing the beauty of a thing, and then make it mean something it doesn’t. Marie didn’t pose the question as such. She was open-minded and held earnest curiosity as to what my intent was as an artist behind such a strong message. But if this sweet photography student was that thrown off by my intention, I was not successful in communicating my subject. At least not on September 11th.
I had no interest in inciting accidentally some kind of emotional provocation against America in positioning a mosque right in the middle of Washington Square Park on such a solemn day. The power of this shape held more weight on this date than any other. Symbols are potent, and artists should respectfully work with them to convey what’s closest to our message. What would be the point of spending all this time creating such a thing if no one could see past the shape of a mosque? People would never see the Taj that I saw. They would only see an artist “making some kind of statement.” They would only see the holy wars and the fiery planes. They would never see the love.
The Taj Mahal is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture, and the 42-acre complex does include a mosque. But the entire layout was designed around its centerpiece, the Taj Mahal tomb, which was created only for Mumtaz with her coffin resting dead center. Before his death, Shah decided to lie beside his most beloved wife for all eternity. Enclosed by a magnificent marble screen with decorative relief inlays, both the emperor and empress today rest in joyful peace inside that holy tomb, their ancient spirits forever sealed in time. Shah’s coffin, just off center, is the only asymmetric structure on the entire grounds. Fitting, for such a profound love could never be so perfect.
So what was it that I was trying to say through my art? I needed to find the right colors and shapes, just like I pine away at finding the right words in my storytelling through writing. The story of the Taj is not about politics or religion. It is a story of true love.
I had to rethink this. I had to make some changes.
I needed to visit it again. I needed to set my eyes upon it in my imagination and enter the drawing. To put myself inside it, and remember it all through my own visual perspective.
When my eyes first fell upon the Taj Mahal, they welled up with hot tears, and my heart swelled with awe and adoration. I walked upon those magical grounds in a surreal daze inside a glorious painting of a temple in heaven, and I was one of those little scribbled dots in the foreground representing a human form in front of this gorgeous landscape painted upon a blue-sky canvas that was created by God himself. It was so breathtaking. So beautiful. So triumphantly majestic.
Beyond its stunning facade, the energy inside the tomb is pulsing and alive. A whirlwind of damp, misty air circulates, as a droning sound moans in the distance. A mystical magic dances in the ether, the lovers’ spirits hovering in the atmosphere, unable to move on into the next heavenly dimension.
To think that this divine masterpiece and massive undertaking was conceived by a human mind and then bestowed to another on the bedrock of true love was simultaneously humbling and mind-blowing. Indeed, the human mind was capable of envisioning anything, and its capacity had no limits if the driving force was love.
It was the feelings I had in looking upon the Taj Mahal that I remember most. Like the feelings we all once had in looking upon our beloved Twin Towers from Washington Square Park. And I know I won’t ever forget the splendor of those two tall buildings shining their light in the sky both day and night. Because I never forgot the magic of the Taj.
Looking back, I think artistically I would have stuck with my first instinct. Which was to capture the Taj Mahal’s size and purity of its ivory-pearl beauty. But if any statement needed to be made with the most clarity, it was the love behind the monument that was the message of the art, which forever will be sealed inside my heart.
After my visit to the Taj Mahal, my story continues back in America in stark contrast to the beauty I had once set my eyes upon. Within four days after returning from the Taj, I lost my freedom forever in this land of the free and the brave. And I’m still fighting over twenty years later to get it back. Please click to read Chapter One of my book, Not As Crazy As You Think. Learn how my freedom has been permanently revoked from me, and those expressive artists like me, in our America the Beautiful.
Please watch this amazing video created by the talented Dina Raketa capturing HCA’s Chalk Art Day on September 11th, which managed to capture perfectly the true spirit of that day for all those who couldn’t be there.