'Art is a voice' to recall a long-ago tragedy

Artist Karen E. Gersch and survivors share sharp memories of 9/11 at the Orange County Firefighters Museum

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  • Artist Karen E. Gersch with “Skeletal City,” a mixed media work depicting the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Other artwork on the table in front of her includes a print of “We Have Lost,” her first 911 painting. (Photo by Geri Corey)

By Geri Corey

— Artist Karen E. Gersch has a personal connection with the September 11, 2001, tragedy that struck the Twin Towers.

At the time she was working in the office of an osteopathetic physician, fewer than two blocks away from what would become Ground Zero. Because she had stayed late at work the night before, the doctor told her to come to the office later the next morning.

She had urged the doctor to stay later than usual to help a young husband and the father of an infant daughter to regain use of his arm. To the patient’s joy, the doctor’s treatment worked wonderfully. He was on his office phone, thanking his friend for referring him to this amazing doctor, when the plane struck his building. He was killed.

“At that moment, it became personal,” said Gersch. “We had given this handsome young man a new lease on life, and now he was gone. His infant daughter is now 16 years old.”

Gersch watching the tragedy unfold from a friend’s rooftop. When she was able, Gersch went to the barricades, where she handed out water and paper towels to survivors who were staggering, in shock, and covered in ashes.

From her loft in the East Village, Gersch frequently walked her dog past the Company 33, Ladder 9 Firehouse on Great Jones Street.

“All the firemen knew us, always acknowledging my dog with a ‘Hi, Columbus’ as we walked by,” she said. "I was crushed when I heard. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Of the 14 firemen who went to the scene, only four came back.”

In her emotional trauma, Gersch turned to painting for consolation. Her first painting, simply called “We Have Lost,” depicts a young boy sitting on the curb, head bowed, toy fire truck at his side, and plane silhouette on the sidewalk.

“We Have Lost.. not just our heroes, but our friends," say words on the painting.

She presented the original painting to the Great Jones Street Firehouse.

Paintings, collages, creations in mixed media followed. “Skeletal City” is a stark recreation of the towers leaning close to skyline buildings. She used mixed media to create the work, including scraps of the New York Times.

“Art is a voice," she said. "We have to speak it. We, as artists, say what we have to say.”

With insight and poignancy, Gersch is speaking the language of war, getting the message out clearly.

Survivor’s guiltThis year, as she has for the last few years, Gersch exhibited her artwork on Sept. 11 at the Orange County Firefighters Museum, at 141 Clinton St. in Montgomery, her hometown. Each year, survivors and interested visitors stop in to view her work. Gersch is there to talk with them. An ironworker on a job in the City worked tirelessly as a first responder to clear beams. Of the 12 ironworkers on the scene, he’s the sole survivor today.

“It’s a difficult burden for many survivors who live with guilt feelings of ‘Why am I the only survivor?’” Gersch said.

One woman who visited the museum was “visibly shaking,” said Gersch. In the lobby of one of the towers at the time of the attack, she was knocked to the ground by the panicked people running and screaming all around her. She escaped the building while debris, some of it burning, rained down on her. For reasons she still doesn’t understand, she took her time in the lobby that morning. She didn't got on the elevator to her office as soon as she usually did. She survived while all of her co-workers did not.

“We talked while we walked and looked at the paintings,” said Gersch. "She was calmer at the end of our tour. This made creating the artwork and having the exhibit worthwhile. I don’t get paid to do this exhibit, and I don’t sell many paintings. I do it as a means of not wanting people to forget. There’s a whole generation coming up who don’t know about this or don’t remember it."

Gersch’s artwork is currently in a broader exhibit titled “Ruins of War,” in the Cunneen-Hackett Art Center in Poughkeepsie. The Center, styled in Victorian Italianate, is located at Vasser College. The exhibit will run until Oct. 19.

In November, Gersch is curating an exhibit at SUNY Orange, Middletown, called “War in the Arts: Redeeming Spirits.”

“We’re looking to present artists’ responses to war, but with a positive side,” she said.

She’s bringing in artists from Texas, California, Arizona, Virginia, New York City, and locally.

“I’m tremendously pleased," she said. "This is a powerful show.”

She said 9/11 has given people greater appreciation of one another.

“One of the good things that came out of this tragedy, if there is any good to tragedy, is that people came together, worked together, and respected each other," she said.

She revealed “one beautiful moment” on a city subway.

“When the door opened and a crew of exhausted, ash-covered, workers lumbered onto the subway, riders in the car applauded — rose to honor them," she said. "It was a stirring, inspiring moment.”

Gersch thanks Jim Ferguson, past Montgomery Fire Chief and inspiration behind the firefighters museum, for inviting her to exhibit her art.

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