Volume 20, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 8 - 14, 2010

“Fresh Kills,” by Aggie Kenny

Unique exhibit sheds new light on 9/11 first responders

BY Aline Reynolds

Starting this week, the N.Y.C. Police Museum is showcasing 30 watercolors and sketches of a courtroom artist never seen before by the public.

The artwork is not of criminals or defendants, Aggie Kenny’s usual subjects. It is of first responders and workers in the World Trade Center Recovery Operation following 9/11.

Kenny had no objective to find a home for her work at the time of its creation. She was merely intrigued by the recovery work in the months following the attacks, and wanted to see it through an artist’s lens.

“I had visited the site two weeks after the [9/11] attacks,” she said. “At that point, I decided I wanted to record what I saw. It’s sort of in my nature – I’ve always sketched.”

So in spring 2002, Kenny made about 15 trips from her former home in Suffolk County, Long Island to the W.T.C., gaining special access to the site as a “historical volunteer.”

She spent about 10 hours a day recording by pen scenes of men and women doggedly sifting through the remains on the site, conversing with each other about their findings and sleeping in a nearby tent. She scanned most of the sketches, printed them out and painted over them.

Kenny took no photographs, as some artists do to later use as a reference for making the final product.

“I found it very important to draw right there, to retain that line which describes more than anything the view of what I was observing,” she said, just like she does in the courtrooms.

Witnessing first-hand the everyday recovery operations was “very humbling and awe-inspiring,” she recalled. “I was really struck by the incredible outpouring of love among all there.”

In late 2009, Kenny mentioned her work in passing to fellow courtroom sketch artist Liz Williams, whose curiosity was piqued.

“‘That’s pretty interesting,’ I thought,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you bring it in and show it to me, I’d like to see it. She told me, I’m having trouble finding them.’ I said, ‘look harder.’”

Kenny said, “I just basically took my sketchbooks, put them in boxes, left them in garage for 8 years.

When she finally uncovered them, she showed them to Williams, who encouraged Kenny to show her work to curators.

“We never really understood what these workers went through,” said Williams, a Downtown resident for 20 years who lived five blocks south of Ground Zero at the time of the attacks.

“This is a fly-on-the-wall view of how they were existing there – living, sleeping, working, and raking up the last bits of the bones,” said Williams.

N.Y.C. Police Museum’s executive director Julie Bose was blown away when she saw a sampling of Kenny’s work.

“I knew… they had to be shared with the public,” Bose said.

The museum has a permanent 9/11 exhibit, with artifacts recovered from Ground Zero and photographs taken months after 9/11, she added, but nothing comparable to Kenny’s reportage sketches.

“They were just very powerful images of these very heroic figures and their daily routines,” Bose said.

She was particularly moved by the sleep scene sketch.

“To see the utter exhaustion of these men sleeping on the site was just truly remarkable. I had never seen any images like this before,” she said.

So she and her colleagues organized a special exhibit to open in time for the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

The museum hosted an event yesterday to celebrate the exhibit’s opening. Around 150 people showed up, including Councilmember Margaret Chin, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and State Senator Daniel Squadron.

“[The N.Y.C. police museum] to me was the perfect venue,” Kenny said. “It’s right there, near the hallowed grounds. It’s part of that whole community which was so affected.”

The exhibit will run through January 30 on the museum’s second floor. For more information, nycpm.org/exhibitions/responders/index.html or call Julie Bose at 212-480-3100, ext. 105.

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