Monday, January 3, 2011

Aftermath in Watercolor

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, painter and thirty-year resident of the area, Jean Holabird chronicled in watercolor sketches the cleanup of downtown Manhattan. During the days and weeks after that fateful day she walked around those areas not barricaded, describing what she saw through a series of sixty-five watercolors. It was the artist’s way of coming to terms with the devastation she saw around her. Later, as she arranged her work chronologically, she began to make note of certain poems and pieces of poems, as well as other prose excerpts that reminded her of the apocalypse around her. Holabird compiled a book to honor those who died in the attacks, and those whose lives have been unalterably changed as a consequence of the attacks. The result of her work is a book called Out of the Ruins: A New York Record.

The images and excerpts below are a few examples of Jean Holabird’s vision and insights.

‘On September 26, 2001, we were allowed to go home. We had fled reluctantly, with only the cats, late on the afternoon of the 11th. The towers were down; a third building was lighting up with fire two blocks to the south. The intervening two weeks had been an ongoing ordeal; first trying to ascertain whether we still had a home at all, then begging for access to retrieve the prescriptions, checkbooks, and watercolors abandoned in our flight. We wondered at how fortunate we were to have survived so relatively unscathed.’ — from the opening pages.

FROM E.B. WHITE’S ESSAY, HERE IS NEW YORK‘All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.’SUMMER 1948


…but after I had seen

that spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Or sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly throughout the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.


…And here let those

Who boast in mortal things, and wondering tell

Of Babel, and the works of Memphian kings,

Learn how their greatest monuments of fame

And strength, and art, are easily outdone

By spirits reprobate, and in an hour

What in an age they, with incessant toil

and hands innumerable, scarce perform


  1. Quite a record of that September time. And the juxtaposition of watercolors and subject matter is an interesting one--what with watercolors usually associated (for me) with more idyllic subjects. And the E.B. White quote (from 1948) was startling in its timeliness.

  2. The human spirit is amazing. Out of such tragedy, art brings light and hope.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America