By J. Taylor Basker
To commemorate 9/11, there will be an event on 9/12 at Westbeth Artists Housing. A poem written by Griselda Steiner will open the event. After that there will be a digital presentation of photos from 9/11 by Westbeth photographers (David Plakke, David Seccombe, Judy Lawne, and others) who spent months documenting the WTC disaster site. This will be followed by a screening of the film “Aftermath: 9/11 and New York Artists” in which artists, photographers, writers, and musicians from Westbeth are interviewed about their experience of 9/11 and its impact on their art, lives, and careers. The brainchild of Salvador Peter Tomas, who just passed away at 101 years of age, and myself, the film was videoed, edited and co-produced by filmmaker Ernie Mortuzans, a friend of many at Westbeth. It includes a collage created on August 23, 2001 by Alyta Adams, student of Joan Hall, under Hall’s guidance, a few weeks before 9/11. Its imagery shows a plane flying by the WTC towers, above a mosque, and a man in a white robe with outstretched arms in prayer!
Fascinating interviews reveal deep connections between Westbeth and the WTC on 9/11. Artist Karen Santry was on the phone talking to a former student who was working at the Pentagon as an illustrator for a navy magazine. While they were speaking, the phone went dead. She found out later that her student had died during the attack. Sculptor Tom Duncan revealed that he had worked as an architectural model maker for the Port Authority and produced the original study models for the WTC, paying his way through art school. Kate Walters, a writer, was teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College, which later became part of the crime scene as one of its buildings was destroyed. I exhibited art at the WTC also, along with other Westbeth artists, and saw circles of multicolored clouds surrounding the towers on 9/10 and thought they looked like angels dancing around them. Salvador Peter noted that Westbeth had just opened when they were building the World Trade Center; the residents watched it grow and later watched it collapse from their roof. Some Westbeth residents had a close call with death on 9/11 and relate their stories. I was working as a temp for the summer at Fiduciary Trust on the 95th floor. Although I had been offered a full-time job there, I’d promised my special education students in Bedford-Stuyvesant that I would return to them. Leaving this comfortable job to return to teaching saved my life; most of my co-workers perished. I had noticed strange men coming in over the summer, carrying heavy bags, who never spoke with anyone and went into locked hallways. My co-workers and I were suspicious of these individuals, and after 9/11 I thought they may have been involved in planting explosives that brought the building down.
Westbeth residents were active in bringing food and support to the rescue workers, police, fireman, and other volunteers, cheering them from West Street. Singer Valerie Ghent volunteered and collected specific supplies with WTC Ground Zero Relief, asking the needs of people working on the pile. She wrote the song “We’ll Carry On” that became the theme song for firefighters, police, and volunteers at Ground Zero, and later formed a support group using music therapy for firemen, survivors, families, and volunteers. Musician Isaac Basker worked with his hip-hop group, the Impossebulls, and produced a song with Chuck D based on an Annie de Franco poem about 9/11. But artists’ careers suffered a great deal in the post-9/11 economy; Salvador Peter Tomas noted that artists are always the first to be disposed of after a crisis.
The stories are riveting. Several artists in the film will participate in a panel discussion following the film. The event will be held at the Westbeth Community Room, 155 Bank Street, at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, 9/12/21. Seating is limited to 35, but it is free and open to the public.