What can children's art tell us about how they absorbed the events of September 11? Ted Dewan finds out
I remember the first time I saw art drawn by children living in African and Middle Eastern war zones. At the time, I was a young American teenager, preoccupied with learning to draw and paint skilfully, and I had too recently been a little kid for kid art to seem anything but laughable and pathetic. But when I saw the crayon drawings of the horrors these war children had seen, I couldn't help but be affected by the pathos and power of children's art.
Here was an art style I had previously associated only with innocuous drawings of sun in the sky over mummy and daddy and house, instead depicting attack helicopters in the sky and soldiers pumping bullets into mummy and daddy and the house on fire. These children's drawings made something that was happening a world away seem very close, palpable, and universal.
The Day Our World Changed is a fine-art-style volume depicting the work of New York City schoolchildren from five to 18 years old. The pictures broadcast yet another emotional camera angle of the dreadfully familiar events of that day. A characteristically no-nonsense introduction by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and essays by politicians, museum curators, religious leaders, firefighters and community workers are sincere, but they struggle to add something that hasn't been said about 911 already, apart from their personal experiences. Having heard little from the kids up to now, I was eager to see what they had to say.
It's the art by the very young children that makes the biggest impact. These artists are not trying to impress or mimic some style of dramatic presentation. Like all folk artists, the very young have that natural ability to depict their experiences without resorting to second-hand imagery. They just show it as they saw it. Or imagined it. One six-year-old describes his picture: "This is me in bed dreaming my mother is in smoke and fire." One thing that surprised me was the affection many kids had for the towers. I was 10 when these two boxes went up, unseating the Empire State Building as the tallest building in the world. The children whose art appears in this book grew up with the mythology well established. Their art gave me a new outlook on the towers; one girl described the way they gave her "a sense of security by the way they stood, standing taller than all the other buildings", almost like parental figures for the city.
I've seen recent examples of the packaging of 911, and watched curiously as American sentimental tendencies extended to the spine-freezing shock of that day. One tribute book featured full-body studio pictures of firefighters and others who put their lives at risk that day, which could easily have been a Dorling Kindersley "Eye-Witness Guide to Real American Heroes". This same packaging instinct shows up in the artwork of some of the teenage contributors, much of which echoes the manner in which the American media has packaged 911.
Perhaps packaging their own experience in such a manner allows these older children to reflect upon their experiences in the kind of reassuring format that grown-ups might have devised, pushing it away to a safer distance.
Many New York teenagers grow up in a commercially saturated culture, so it's no surprise that some of the contributors expressed the horror of 911 in terms influenced by television, advertising, and inspirational posters. I point this out not to wag a finger at American commercialism, but to wonder at the way a commercial culture's shallow emotional shorthand, however sentimental, is put to use by children in an earnest and heartfelt fashion.
One criticism I have with the selection of the artwork is that I suspect most of the art was done during class, mediated by teachers and art therapists. A great deal more would have been revealed if this survey of 911 children's art included graffiti (especially from the school desktops) and the images kids produced themselves at home - the stuff they just couldn't help doing.
Perhaps some selections did come from children without encouragement from an adult; I'd like to know which ones. Otherwise, I'd be willing to bet this book doesn't depict the truest voice of the teenagers and kids old enough to know how to score points with the grown-ups.
Even after seeing this collection of artworks, the image that remains for me the most poignant childish creation of 911 was something described to me by my brother, who lives in Brooklyn, just across the East River. In the late afternoon of that day, he saw two boys playing in the street. The game involved one kid sticking his arms out like an airplane and running straight into the other kid who held two arms up high over his head. Of course, they laughed while they played this game, and they played it over and over again.
Ted Dewan is a picture book artist and former teacher from the US, now living in the UK