Artist salutes FDNY 9/11 he­roes

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By HONG XIAO in New York xi­ao­hong@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

It took Chi­nese-Amer­i­can artist Yang Yi five years to com­plete a mis­sion he set for him­self.

On the eve of the 15th an­niver­sary of 9/11, he un­veiled it in a solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Chi­na­town Soup Gallery in New York.

On dis­play are five colos­sal paint­ings fea­tur­ing por­traits of all 343 fire­fight­ers and paramedics of the New York City Fire Depart­ment (FDNY) who lost their lives at Ground Zero af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of 9/11.

Im ages of de­bris, sur­vivors, the Amer­i­can flag fly­ing above the wreck­age, and res­cuers in var­i­ous stages of re­sponse, cre­ate a col­lage of the events of the city’s most dif­fi­cult day.

Each of the five paint­ings has its own theme: The dark mo­ment — build­ings col­laps­ing; Rac­ing against the clock—res­cu­ing; United we stand—ris­ing from ashes; Sor­row in hearts—salute to the he­roes; and Heal­ing and stride for­ward—God bless Amer­ica. To­gether they com­prise the work ti­tled First Re­spon­ders.

“This body of work is both a commemoration and cel­e­bra­tion of the Amer­i­can spirit em­bod­ied by all New York­ers whose re­sponse to the events of that day will for­ever mark our na­tional mem­ory,” the ex­hibit’s brochure reads.

Artist Yang Yi, 59, came to the US from China in 1995 af­ter win­ning nu­mer­ous na­tional awards in China.

Yang, who knew lit­tle English, at first made a liv­ing by draw­ing car­i­ca­tures and por­traits for tourists in New York City.

At the time of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks, Yang was draw­ing por­traits at a shop­ping mall in up­state New York.

He said he will never for­get how many peo­ple came to him with pho­tos of loved ones who had lost their lives, ask­ing him to cre­ate por­traits.

In 2010, Yang was driv­ing past a fire sta­tion near his house in Flush­ing when he no­ticed a mural with pic­tures of New York and names of vic­tims.

“I had been won­der­ing, as an im­mi­grant artist, what could I do for the US, what could I do to ben­e­fit the world rather than my art it­self,” Yang said.

He de­cided to paint a trib­ute of his own — por­traits of all the FDNY he­roes who sac­ri­ficed their lives on 9/11.

He soon learned that it wasn’t go­ing to be as easy as he thought. There were so many names and faces, the com­po­si­tion was hard to think through; and as an im­mi­grant know­ing very lit­tle English, re­search was dif­fi­cult.

“Col­lect­ing ma­te­ri­als was such a painful process for me. The 9/11 Na­tional Mu­seum wasn’t open yet, so I could only col­lect ma­te­rial from ar­chives and the in­ter­net bit by bit,” Yang said.

He took three months to sketch the work be­fore putting brush to can­vas.

With no stu­dio, Yang worked in his small apart­ment. Since each of the five can­vasses was 2 me­ters tall and 1.5 me­ters wide, he had to keep them stacked on top of each other while work­ing on one at a time.

Yang had to still make money to sup­port his fam­ily and work on the project in his spare time.

He can’t re­mem­ber how many times he thought of giv­ing up. “But ev­ery time I chose to con­tinue be­cause I al­ways felt like it was the right thing to do,” Yang said.

He fi­nally fin­ished the work in 2015.

“Five years was a long time as I look back now,” he said. “So much ef­fort went in it from the orig­i­nal idea to its com­ple­tion.”

“The fallen he­roes rep­re­sented the essence of the Amer­i­can spirit. I know they are watch­ing us in heaven. I want to let them know even though it has been 15 years, we still re­mem­ber the con­tri­bu­tion they made to this coun­try,” said Yang.

“As an im­mi­grant artist, this is my way to show my pa­tri­o­tism,” Yang added.

“It’s my feel­ing that the best place for these paint­ings is the 9/11 Me­mo­rial Mu­seum. If not there, the NYC Fire Mu­seum or other mu­se­ums could also be a good place for them. I want them pre­sented in a pub­lic venue so more peo­ple can see them,” he said.

“As soon as I saw the paint­ings, I rec­og­nized that this is fi­nally the artist I’ve been look­ing for,” said Robert Lee. “Yang has the skill that he learned in China to paint por­traits that are so in­cred­i­ble, and he ap­plied his skill to this be­cause he was here for 9/11, he un­der­stands these peo­ple are his he­roes and he re­spects them,” Lee said.

“Look­ing at each fire­man it’s as if I have been given the op­por­tu­nity to meet each one, to see them and know them as they were — a rare if not un­canny mon­u­ment to a mo­ment in our na­tion’s his­tory,” Lee added.

Lee said Yang’s de­vo­tion shows that new Chi­nese im­mi­grants have be­come a part of the new story of Amer­ica.

“They are Amer­i­cans and they re­new our faith and be­liefs in the dream of this coun­try,” Lee said.

ZHOU PAI / CHINA DAILY

Vis­i­tors take pho­tos at a Twin Tower re­flect­ing pool on Sun­day at the Na­tional Septem­ber 11 Me­mo­rial and Mu­seum in New York on the 15th an­niver­sary of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in 2001 that killed 2,800 in New York, Vir­ginia and Penn­syl­va­nia.

Yang Yi

HONG XIAO / CHINA DAILY

Chi­nese-Amer­i­can im­mi­grant artist Yang Yi stands in front of one of the can­vasses of his five-panel work

FirstRe­spon­ders, his per­sonal homage to the he­roes of the FDNY who sac­ri­ficed their lives on 9/11, de­pict­ing all 343 in­di­vid­u­als.

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