The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11

The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11

by Robin F. Goodman

ISBN: 9780810935440

Publisher Harry N. Abrams

Published in Arts & Photography/Museum Exhibition Catalogs, Arts & Photography/Schools, Periods & Styles, Arts & Photography/History & Criticism, Health, Mind & Body/Psychology & Counseling, Children & Teens (Young Adult)

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11



Special x-ray cameras for examining what children saw and felt on September 11, 2001, don't exist. The art in this collection, created in the first four months after 9/11, does, however, provide a snapshot of children's raw and immediate reactions. A private corner of the children's world of uncensored memories, thoughts, and feelings is exposed here in their drawings and paintings. The media was relentless in displaying the realistic drama, but the children's art yields a different kind of immediacy and strength to the reality. There are narrative pieces, illustrating detailed occurrences of the day. Other art is dramatic, transcending the literal experience and imparting the personal that communicates the universal. Viewers will most likely be compelled to linger over the pictures to fully grasp all that the artists share. The touching details-a wrinkled brow, a weary rescue dog, a sea of lighted candles-that these children absorbed and use to signify the meaning of the day are reminders of the tragedy.

The event was so public, and particular news images so common, we all think that we know what happened. We were bombarded with the "objective truth." But I am struck by just how private the art in this collection is. Art activities "invite the creation of a world that is egocentrically organized. Each element in the child's work contains part of himself" (Kramer). The pictures from these children show the event as an individual experience, a characteristic that was easily lost in all the repeated, graphic photographs and videotapes.


Children and artists have ready access to the imagination, enabling them to express the fantastic, inconceivable, or unspoken. Adults easily recount stories about events, but children, in their art, capture feeling. Often bound by social convention, adults hide who they are or become self-conscious about how they draw. As children look to adults for acceptance, strength, reassurance, and guidance, they quickly learn what is expected. In time, children and adults may come to say, "I'm fine," although it may be insincere. But in their art, children can be more fearless; they are often their most direct, curious, and honest. Looking at this art, adults can secretly feel things they may be afraid to show or tell.

Art provides an unparalleled vehicle for children to express themselves and an effective tool for parents, teachers, and therapists. Creative activity is incredibly powerful, especially for responding, or as an antidote, to a destructive act. As a psychologist and art therapist, I have seen children transformed by the process of creating as well as by what is accomplished in the finished product.

Children's age, intellect, skill, background, and personality all influence the form of an image. There is an expected progression of children's basic artistic development. But we must discover and tease out those elements that go beyond the typical and are enduring as individual traits. To illustrate September 11, many of the youngest children easily drew the obvious tall buildings, jet planes, and fireballs. Having mastered the ability to draw the classic four-sided shape of a tower or the straight lines of a flag, they made what television and newspapers had imprinted on their minds. But they were also capable of discharging their own strong emotions, or what was felt from those around them, with dense color, swirling chaotic lines, and tiny stick figures dwarfed by the towers, shouting, "Help!" Older children produced more studied statements, using stylized metaphors or expected stereotypes to symbolize feelings. The monochromatic, pencil drawings were extremely effective at capturing a vivid array of colorful thoughts and feelings. These pieces underscore the complexity of the issues and solutions, concepts not easily reduced to black and white, not definite or absolute. The range of affect evoked is quite remarkable-sadness, pride, anger, and hope among them-and art allows these powerful feelings to be externalized. Some art is arresting in its outward calm, like a deafening silence. Other art quickly recalls the chaos and shock of the day.

The art also shows children's empathy, a capacity to feel for those who were in harm's way as well as for one's self. And the resiliency of children appears loud and clear. One child sprinkled magic gold dust on the skyscrapers, while another revealed a wish for love and unity with clasped hands. We would like to keep children innocent from the ugliness of the world, but their art says this is not possible. The question is how to tell, not if to tell. Children are usually most afraid of what they don't know or what is kept secret. Yet they need to learn, be aware, be prepared, and develop their own internal resources. Remarkably, they can know what happened, confront it in their art, and continue on the normal trajectory of childhood tasks and joys, while maintaining hope for the future.


Often children's art stems from their imaginations; here the impetus was reality. Ground Zero instantly became a designated area of international attention, but the art suggests that New York is more than just two tall buildings. Panoramic views from across the river show the vastness of the city and the widespread nature of the impact. Close physical or emotional proximity alone did not predict what children saw or how they were affected.

From the hundreds of artworks submitted for this project, some common themes emerged.


Not all the children were eyewitnesses to the plane crashes. But incorporated into their consciousnesses were impressions from images splashed across the news. The relative proportion of floors above and below the planes' points of entry, and people dropping into the air, seem, unfortunately, remarkably accurate in the art. A cutout phrase pasted next to a photo seems to summarize the spontaneous, unpredictable, and disorganized thoughts and emotions that must have been running through children's minds. Other more straightforward, spare, cut-paper pictures reflect clear statements about unsettled feelings.


With sorrow, some children reveal the quiet mourning felt by many. With distinct personalities, passions, hair color, and dress, we see the kaleidoscope of differences that separate individuals. But equally apparent is how the horror of the event unites even the most dissimilar.


The magnificent sacrifice of the fire, police, medical, and rescue workers made us all feel grateful and perhaps guilty for ever taking them for granted. The everyday and official heroes were ever present in the art. The smaller, independent acts of kindness and goodheartedness, epitomized by a child's visit to a firehouse, set the example for a generation of children who must learn, if they have not already, to be compassionate and tolerant.


With conviction, some children immortalized the day and those who died with fields of flowers and candles. Others depicted strong replacement buildings. And still others portrayed the World Trade Center towers as mighty lone structures, in hindsight perhaps a forewarning of their vulnerability. For some, memories of 9/11 reawaken thoughts of a once strong and familiar anchor. Commenting on his drawing, one child said, "Whenever we came back from a trip, I saw the towers and knew I was home."


Within hours of the attack, star-spangled flags blanketed streets, homes, and cars. These symbols are familiar, but the children found ways to make them their own. The banners and Statues of Liberty images identify the nation to which we belong and can provide shorthand for accumulated feelings. They say, "I am an American," "I am proud," "I cannot be hurt," "l have hope."

Whether the twin towers, the national flag, or a self-styled emblem, "symbols restore a sense of unity by integrating and connecting emotions, perceptions, and thoughts not previously brought into juxtaposition and, in so doing, create a complex subjective experience that is deeply moving and cathartic" (Lewis and Langer).


Memory is kept alive in the making and viewing of art. The creator acts as both participant and audience when retrieving what was merely unformed thought and making it real. Remembering a burst of flames, then picking a red oil pastel to draw it, requires access to an inner image and choice in its expression. The process can enable one to express and accept confusing and perhaps terrifying feelings. Once completed, the piece officers distance between the artist and the subject matter. Ultimately, the result can reveal the liveliness of the original thoughts and remnant sensations. The art then has the power to provoke a re-experiencing and confronting of the original event.

In expressing what has passed, especially when it was troubling, children can be helped to confront and ultimately cope with the past and develop inner resolve to guide them through life. Children and adults viewing these familiar scenes will have a similar experience. "Art does not communicate meanings, it generates them in receptive minds" (Rose).

Sharp details are called to mind upon hearing the phrase "9/11." Where we were, what we did, whom we were with, and how we felt when we saw or heard the news can be recalled with excruciating clarity. The mind and body respond in both astonishing and predictable ways to trauma. The brain registers stunning idiosyncratic scraps of the event. When someone dies, memory becomes precious, an often-welcome companion. We cling to prized, personal memories and long to recall someone's particular laugh, a singular outing, a favorite perfume, and a sage piece of advice. Memories survive, so we can extract the past in the present. Some memories are painful, and we ache for the power to delete them forever. Some are cherished. They comfort us; we yearn to relive them at will.

We may not realize what lies in memory storage. Our heart pounds as we stand on a familiar street corner or smell an eerily identical scent. It causes us to recall with fresh vigor a long-past experience. It will be like that with much of the 9/11 reminders. We will be fooled and relieved that we have forgotten, until something unexpected makes us feel a faint or quick rush of recognition. Avoiding the fresh episode is not the goal. Rather, learning how to cope and control its effect, possible through art, is how mastery and strength evolve.


The children's art makes clear there is no right or wrong way to feel. There are no strict timetables or stages to conquer while moving on. The majority of children rebounded quickly, while others needed more time to restore their sense of safety, security, and trust. We can be encouraged by the strength and optimism demonstrated in this art. Children can-and do-jump over, go through, and get around life's obstacles.

We want children to know that their voices are important and that art is an extraordinary way to give voice to concern. We want adults to see what children may not put into words. We want parents to recognize the effect of trauma and death on children. And we want parents to find ways to talk to children about tough topics, perhaps starting with, "Tell me about your picture."

We know the past, we saw what happened. The future will be shaped by children like the ones represented here, often now referred to as the 9/11 Generation. For these children, the question, "What would your life have been like without 9/11?" has no possible answer. They can tell us how it was before the attacks, but they cannot subtract its effect from their lives going forward. It is their history, and their art provides a document of its impact. The children themselves will leave the official mark of the disaster's influence. Their art reveals memories of dramatic sights and feelings as well as an equally strong sense of pride, loyalty, and hope. Together, their images and emotions can propel them to change the world for the better.

As the days and years pass, the art in this book will assume new meaning. Like many generations of adults before us, I hope the generation who experienced 9/11 will use what they learned to change a potentially troubling course of history. This collection of art can serve as a lighthouse, illuminating a dark event in time. Ideally, the children will go forth down a brighter path.

Children as Witnesses to History


Children are among history's most elusive witness. Museums and libraries are full of objects and documents that appear to tell the stories of childhood but are actually the creations of adults. The books, toys, clothes, and child-rearing manuals that inform what we think we know about childhood tell us much more about what society wanted children to be than what children actually saw, heard, believed, or felt. Thus children are more often than not the observed, rather than the observers, of history.

This gap in the historical record troubles historians of childhood and leaves the rest of us with a seriously impoverished understanding of our own history. For when we do have the opportunity to listen to children, their testimony is powerful. And art is one of the most compelling ways children have of expressing what they have experienced. Children's artistic responses to such a cataclysmic event as the attack on the World Trade Center are therefore important not only as emotional testimony, but also as significant historic documents in their own right. They are inherently historical because they preserve and present a perspective that deserves to be honored and remembered.

In modern times we have become more attuned to hearing children's voices. After all, Anne Frank, one of the twentieth century's most celebrated witnesses to history and its horrors, was a child. However, through most of the history of earlier centuries, children's observations were-like childhood itself-less valued. Indeed, some historians argue that for hundreds of years, childhood was not understood in the Western world as a distinct period of life. Rather, children were seen at best as adults in training and at worst as the untamed incarnations of mankind's sinful nature. In addition, low literacy rates made the experiences of all but the upper levels of society, adult or child, difficult to trace through conventional historical sources.


Excerpted from "The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11" by Robin F. Goodman. Copyright © 2002 by Robin F. Goodman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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