Reflecting Back On – 9/11/2001

I have privately struggled with 9/11  in a way that might be different from most. My birthday is on September 10th and in 2001 I turned 18 (the day before 9/11). I remember late that night (of my birthday) telling my closest confidant that I was uncomfortable turning 18 because I had to register for the draft and I was afraid that war was upon us because of tensions in the Mideast. There will be war, I thought – but my close friend said I was silly to think in such a way.

"The Rationalist"

"The Rationalist - (Ground Zero #1)" 2008, Engraved Wood

My concerns were realized within less than 24 hours. My home state of NY was brutally attacked at the world trade center. Everyone I knew was in shock that such a thing could happen. In contrast I did not feel shocked or bereaved, but instead I felt responsible for what had happened – I had a deep sense of guilt. I felt guilty because I could not grieve, because it was not a shock to me, because I expected it to happen. I felt guilty because I could not help people; I felt guilty because I watched the events unfold like a show, entertainment.  But in a deep way I felt like the entire thing had been conceived in my own mind and secretly carried out. Many of these guilts come back when I see the story told again and again.

"Seven Years of Thought"

"Seven Years of Thought -(Ground Zero #2)" 2009, CNC Engraved Aluminum and Etched Zinc

If I am honest with myself, many of the decisions I have made since then have been a response to the events of 9/11.  There was no draft, I was not drafted, but there was war, however, and I nearly decided to join the marines in 2005. I felt that perhaps an honorable response was to become a soldier. All this was a deep tension for me because I also have deep convictions about non-violence. I am a Christian, and Jesus taught to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, and with his death clearly demonstrated these things to me. Likewise, I deeply respect the non-violence taught by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Humble Task

"A Humble Task (Ground Zero #3)" 2009, Pen and Ink by Matthew Kiehl

These personal tensions did not overwhelm my ideals–I felt uncomfortable abandoning my religious convictions. I decided to become a soldier of a very different sort – an artist. In War and Peace Leo Tolstoy says, “The task of art is enormous. Through the influence of real art, aided by science, guided by religion, that peaceful co-operation  of man which is now maintained by external means – by our law-courts, police, charitable institutions, factory inspection, and so forth – should be obtained by man’s free and joyous activity. Art should cause violence to be set aside.” And so in picking up my pen and the brush and approaching the paper, the responsibility of accomplishing peace is heavy, but I have felt that I might accomplish much more toward peace as an artist than any other course of action.

"Second Thoughts (Ground Zero #3)" 2009, Pen and Ink by Matthew Kiehl

I have on occasion used subtle references to ground zero in my work. These pieces include “The Rationalist – (Ground Zero 1)”, “Seven Years of thought – (Ground Zero 2)”, “Second Thoughts – (Ground Zero 3)”, and “A Humble Task – (Ground Zero 4)” [All seen above or below]. In each of these works I’ve used very simple rectangular geometry  and so most people do not first think of the twin towers or the “twin pits” of ground zero when they look at these. I made these works subtle in part because I feel like a war profiteer if I sell a work that is inspired by such a somber subject. I have also felt like I cannot truly lament in a work that captures 9/11 in too obvious a way – because to truly face the flames I feel that the tensions of that moment need to be transformed into something new, full of contrast and conflict, deep and complex. I do not think people will relive their grief through my work, nor is this my intent.

"A Humble Task (Ground Zero #4)" 2009 Pen and Ink, by Matthew Kiehl

The twin towers are not the only “Ground Zero” that I reflect on in my work. My contemplations take me to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lilliput and Blefuscu, London and Berlin,  Republican and Democrat, Theist and Atheist, even the battle between the left and right sides of the brain. In his book Refractions, Makoto Fujimora (an artist from Manhattan who lives three blocks from the world trade center) says, “I later realized that in a sense all of earth is ‘ground zero’ in that our failures and conflicts invade every aspect of our experience, leaving scars.” And like Makoto Fujimora I want my work to be a place of dialog and contemplation, a place set apart from the conflict and war. But even in my work there is the black and the white, the tension and conflict shattered like glass into thousands of marks, thousands of black wounds upon an innocent and pure sheet of paper. Our own self-interests seem to dig out an abyss between each of us like rivers of ink and blood. But in my work, there is also a sense of unity and wholeness despite the conflict, scars, guilt, shame, schisms, and cavities that pervade our lives.

You can find these works on display at my studio in the Workhouse Arts Center – Building 5, in Lorton, VA.

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