Exploring the September 11th, 2001 Terrorist Attact through an Expressive Mural Project

By Orr, Penelope P. | Art Education, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Exploring the September 11th, 2001 Terrorist Attact through an Expressive Mural Project


Orr, Penelope P., Art Education


"The events of Sept. 11 were an overwhelmingly visual experience that demanded, for many, a visual response," wrote Paul Lieberman (2001) of the Los Angeles Times. During times of great stress, people often turn to creativity as a way to buffer themselves from that reality and as a way to process their internal psychology about that reality. According to Winnicott (1975), creativity provides a means for dealing with external reality by generating an intermediate space that belongs neither to internal psychology reality, nor to external reality.

Artists' Responses to World Events

Art has often been used to document, process, and express artists' ideas, concepts, and feelings about war, violence, and trauma. In Lieberman's (2001) interview of New York artists, Gwen Duncan talks about how the attack changed a piece of art she was working on. The image titled Empress showed a saintly woman in repose "dreaming of a better world." Before the attack, her eyes were open. "After, I felt the need to close them." Her work appears, along with that of other New York artists, in an exhibition in East Village called "From the Ashes." Flyers promise "Artist reflections on the recent tragedies... In the midst of destruction and chaos, art stands as witness to the creative soul."

Past artistic expressions about tragedy have shown that the current artistic response is not unusual. When the Basque town of Guernica was completely and methodically destroyed by insurgent air raiders, the world was electrified (Steer, 1937). Picasso expressed his horror of the bombing in his immense canvas, Guernica. On a wider scale, this piece expressed a horror of war in general, as well as his compassion and hope for its victims. Andy Warhol did a series of images on Death in America in which he focused on the everyday tragedies of suicide, car accidents, and violence. He completed a series about the national tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, Flash, and the aftereffects,Jackie. These artists and many others have used art as an intermediary space in which to process and reflect upon tragedy, express political and social conclusions, and to grieve.

Children's Artmaking: Expressions of Feeling

Children also use artmaking as a natural means for expression of their experiences during times of crisis. Immigrant and refugee children from varied ethnic backgrounds in a third-grade classroom used artmaking to create bridges between their war-torn past, their present survival, and future hopes with the support of their teacher, Nicole Heusch, and a psychiatrist, Cecile Rousseau (Rousseau & Heusch, 2000). In the Middle East, children and adults from the West Bank and Gaza used art as a therapeutic tool to express feeling and issues about the constant trauma of the fighting in this area of the world (Byers, 1996). The book I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (Volavkova, 1993), is a documentation of the compelling and heartwrenching art and poetry that was created by the children of this Nazi concentration camp. Children are affected by violence and tragedy and naturally turn to art to express and understand these scary events.

When a national or large-scale tragedy occurs like the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th, the Guernica bombings, or the Kennedy assassination, the affected populaces' feelings are immediate and often infiltrate every aspect of life. As educators, art teachers must decide their approach to teaching during times of crisis. Should the art teacher allow students to find and explore their own intermediary spaces through their artmaking in the tradition of Warhol and Picasso? Do the children need the art media as an expressive tool like children of the West Bank and Terezin did? Should the art teacher continue during these times to follow the curriculum and maintain, for the children, the safety of routine and standard art topics? …

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