The Delicate Task of Reshaping Remnants of 9/11

MEMORY ART David Boyajian, an artist, working on a piece commissioned by the state to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.

THE three long, narrow pieces of aluminum being hosed down outside David Boyajian’s studio in New Fairfield were instantly recognizable — they were about eight feet long, with the distinct corrugations of the exterior cladding that once formed the multistory gothic arches of the World Trade Center towers.

Ten years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a special report on the decade’s costs and consequences, measured in thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and countless challenges to the human spirit.

Mr. Boyajian, left, and Matt Rink installing the piece, which uses metal recovered from the twin towers.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times




Scuffed, torn and with rivet holes, rubber gaskets and sealing putty still intact, though no burn marks, they were about to become part of a sculptural addition to the state’s 9/11 Living Memorial at Sherwood Island in Westport.

The task of transforming these industrial-looking remnants into art had fallen to Mr. Boyajian, 53, and another Connecticut artist, Matt Rink, 27. Both sculptors had been chosen by the state from the four finalists who had emerged, after portfolio reviews, from a pool of about 100 artists in the database maintained by the Connecticut Office of the Arts, formerly the Commission on Culture and Tourism.

Public art projects can be tricky under the best of conditions, with community concerns and artistic visions sometimes clashing, but this one presented the sculptors not only with physical limitations, but also with an emotional challenge: anxiety about marring the significance of their material.

“We haven’t touched it,” Mr. Boyajian said in late July, two weeks into a tight, monthlong production schedule. “We haven’t marked them. We haven’t done anything to them. We’ve washed them, but that’s about it. But even that — ‘Oooh, we’re taking the dust off of it’ — it’s intense.”

Although Mr. Rink was only a high school student in Fairfield on Sept. 11, he too found the aluminum daunting. “It’s a whole lot of responsibility in terms of: What are you going to do?” he said.

The idea of a sculpture evolved from a couple of parallel goals. One was to complement the existing footstone memorials to the state’s 153 victims — two long strips installed on Sherwood Island in September 2003 — by creating a key to the location of individual names as well as plaques with more biographical material about each victim. Another goal stemmed from a request by Paul Kirwin, whose son Glenn had been among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died, to do what many other memorials had done: obtain a steel I-beam that had been in a tower to exhibit intact.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which runs the Sherwood site as part of its park there, merged the two ideas, deciding in the process to obtain some of the aluminum the Port Authority has among its remnants from the buildings because it would withstand the elements — particularly salt spray from Long Island Sound — better than steel.

Those competing for the $10,000 commission had to be able to work with aluminum and had to come up with a design to fit in a space that was about 9 feet high and 24 feet wide and would incorporate plaques for each victim, to be produced by Rumney Associates in Madison along with other signage.

While not a requisite, the artists also had to be mindful that emotions have run high around Sept. 11 memorials, with survivors often clashing with government and others over what ought to be done.

“It did have the potential for being messy,” said Deanna Lia, who was on the committee that chose the artists and was also one of two state officials lent from other departments — in her case Children and Families — to form the Office of Family Support, established by the state not long after the attack to assist families of victims. “What we tried to do was be as respectful as possible.”

“It is a dance of sorts,” she said. “You have to remember these people have been touched in a way that few of us can really understand. I think it’s been handled well. I do.”

Mr. Boyajian admitted that people are likely to have different opinions about the memorial, but, he said, “you have to be on the outside of this thing — I think artists have always done that.” Mr. Boyajian and Mr. Rink’s design, named Sanctuary, grew from Mr. Boyajian’s perception of the Trade Center arches as trees, and his notion that trees were the first room, the first form of shelter. The theme is rebirth — new life growing from the remains.

New aluminum with a brushed finish was used for tree trunks on each side of what in essence is a frame around the name plaques. The artists fashioned 79 leaves for a canopy across the top. Scattered across the tree tops are large, poppylike flowers — one for each year since the attack — transformed from the old aluminum, but retaining its history in the visible holes, tears, scars, corrugations and dulled exteriors. The folds and angles catch light and shadows unevenly, casting faint, almost ghostly images as if a body had been there.

Reshaping remains from the site instead of leaving them whole is unusual among Sept. 11 memorials. And making that first cut back in July had the two artists decidedly anxious.

“How do I feel about cutting those pieces up?” asked Mr. Boyajian at the time. “I don’t feel like really great about that, to tell you the truth. But in terms of where we’re going and what we’re doing it becomes an important part.”

Mr. Rink added: “I think we come at it from a humble perspective and with good intentions, trying to respect and honor the materials as much as we possibly can through the way that we actually work with them, which I think comes from trying to preserve as much of the surface detail as possible.”

That concept has resonated with those who saw the sculpture before its Sept. 8 unveiling at the site’s annual memorial service.

“The way in which he shaped the aluminum from the World Trade Center left me with a really deep feeling,” said Susan Frechette, a deputy commissioner at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection who was also part of the selection committee. “You look at the floral images he made out of the aluminum and see the scars; it was painful, yet I think it had the desired effect, which was to make you remember — and at the same time it provides a sense of beauty.”

Ms. Frechette and many others said they appreciated the reverence the artists had for the World Trade Center metal.

“What impressed me is you could see the numbers on the material,” Mr. Kirwin said. “I think it’s beautiful. It has a nice feeling to it. They did a beautiful job. No complaints.”

The 9/11 Living Memorial is in Sherwood Island State Park, Sherwood Island Connector (Exit 18 off Interstate 95), Westport. 8 a.m. until sunset, year round. Parking fees apply from spring through Labor Day. (203) 226-6983; or