When entering the immense courtyard enclosed in the middle of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture on September 11 2011, one could think the place had been conceived to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Covered by a wavering glass canopy, the visitor is immediately permeated with the 28 000–square–foot space’s calm. The luminous rectangle is strewn with six flower beds heightened into white veined marble vessels. Four shallow pools divide the length into one harmonious trajectory.
It’s in there that on Sunday the sculptor Kurt Steger and the musicians Micheal Pestel and Gray Jeffery were invited to lead a so-called water-cleansing ceremony. On one of those basin stood the roughly one foot high Burden Boat Project. A structure made out of wood shaped by Kurt Steger which he uses as a tool to help bereaved people going beyond their grief.
“In 2005, I used it after the shooting in Virginia Tech” said Mr. Steger, 51, living close to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the South West of Virginia. “One mother called me 2 months later to explain her son wouldn’t nightmare anymore as he used to before attending the ceremony”.
Last Sunday the cause was different but the goal alike: avoid nightmares. If the 2996 people killed by the high jacked planes on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shakesville, Pa., in the early business hours of September 11th 2001 are now well known, the enigma related to such violence still remains both for the families of the victims and to a lesser extent for the rest of the population.
“Loss is loss” summarizes Helen Frederick, professor at the School of Art of the George Mason University, Va., and curator of the 09/11 Arts Project initiated by the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a Washington-based nonprofit arts, health, and education organization. The performance led by Kurt Steger launched one year of healing, as the Project puts it, of events which will take place throughout the next 12 months in various locations in the district.
Katherine, 52, is one of the hundred attendants which filled the hull of the sculptured boat with notes – written burdens most would like to get rid of. “I put six of them in the boat, many were for myself and very personal and others for friends battling alcohol for example” said Katherine who survived cancer about 4 years ago. “I wish our country was less hysterical and more self-conscious. This sort of events is the few gifts given by tragedies”, she explained after tiptoeing around the structure for the several times and taking the hip of little folded pieces of papers into pictures. For Fergus Hughes, 12, and 2 years old when the crashes occurred, the feeling is obviously different: “It’s a good idea, we’re respecting the people who died during 09/11”, says in a very shy way the boy gathered with a few friends his age and his mother.
“Arts tap our emotions in our hearts and allows us to share the love” interpret Gray Jeffery, 44, Nevada City, who practice and teach sounds healing since he studied It with shamans in South America. He met Steger when he moved from California to Virginia, and now works with him and Micheal Pestel on the musical accompaniment of the cleansing ceremony.
At 3:30 pm on Sunday, that’s exactly what he did: setting the tone before the artist started the original rite. Playing gongs, drums, condor feathers and chapka among other indigenous instruments, he set the tone before the artist started the original rite. “I remember when I first saw the images of the attacks, my fist question was ‘why?’. No one can do something so dramatic without some sort of reason”, said the stressed Steger to the audience as an introduction.
A series of very slow-paced movements followed which everyone in the audience paid silently and carefully attention to. Steger first draw a circle of water around the boat with a watering can, then cut the 10 ropes hanging up on each side of the structure 20 small bundles — embodiments of painful remembrances. He eventually poured water on the written messages as a way to release the burdens. “My inspiration comes from nature, mountains, fallen trees, curves in branches, tree trunks” commented Steger about the process.
“I look around, and I see different people, different religions, different sexes, different genders and cultures” said John, 53, to the rest of the audience gathered in circle around the crowd. “Even if we let go our burdens today, we know we can fill the void of the past by relying on the new friendships we knotted today through this common experience”.
“At a later time the softened messages will be pulped into a book for the present and future”, announces Frederick while pointing at a small basket where people could leave notes of hopes during the whole afternoon.
Shortly after the end of the ceremony, the sculpture was to be brought back to the Pepco Edison Art Gallery, a few blocks away from the National Portrait Gallery. There Steger’s work is also on display since August 23rd at an exhibition entitled “Ten Years After 09/11”, among 35 other international artists. The beginning of a “very deep process”, as Frederick puts it.