Artist salutes FDNY 9/11 heroes
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.
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.
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.