From the Tower
an artist reflects on his time in the world trade center
In the mixed-media work he called “Premonition,” Litchfield-based artist Donald Bracken painted a thumbnail-sized World Trade Center beneath a column of pale sky nearly five feet tall and a mere four inches wide. A plumb bob affixed to the painting dangles directly over the minuscule towers like the sword of Damocles.
Bracken, a soft-spoken artist with curly, chin-length hair and a wiry build, created the piece in a studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center—in 1997. That year, as part of the Plein Air Project, an artists’ residency program organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, he used a vacant office floor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center as studio space for three months. “The project’s mission was to document the ever-changing skyline of Manhattan,” Bracken explains. He shakes his head—what is there to say about the irony of that?
“Premonition” was not the only prescient piece Bracken made during his stint in the clouds. Another, “World on Fire,” shows a corner of an empty room where two walls of narrow windows meet. The tall, skinny windows—now horrifically familiar—are portals of yellow flame. “I was not the only artist who made paintings like this,” Bracken says. Several such prophetic images, including these two by Bracken, appear in Site Matters, a book featuring work from the project. It is dedicated to the late Michael Richards, an artist who was working on the 92nd floor the morning of September 11, 2001.
By that time, Bracken was living in upstate New York, but he had visited Battery Park in lower Manhattan on September 10—the day before that fateful Tuesday. “When a friend called to tell me about the attacks, my first response was to hurl handfuls of red oxide paint onto the Mylar [polyester sheet] that I had hung on my windows on the 91st floor.” He found the vast panorama from the windows overwhelming, so he had covered some of them up.
Bracken subsequently moved to Connecticut and started working in dirt—specifically, the ancient floodplain soil of the Connecticut River Valley. “The dirt paintings depict farmland and are made of the land, created on the site,” he explains. In 2007 the bucolic subject—and the dirt—changed dramatically, when Bracken acquired debris from Ground Zero. Bracken mixed paint with the acrid-smelling dirt, which contained electrifying fragments—shards of porcelain sinks, a hair barrette, a strand of beaded jewelry. One of the most affecting works in this series is “Torn Earth,” a pair of diagonally aligned squares gouged into the surface with an axe, a crowbar, and other tools Bracken imagined recovery workers would have wielded. “I threw paint on the panel and shoveled ash on top of that and beat on the whole thing with an axe,” he says. That disturbing energy still charges the ruined surface.
Bracken’s post-9/11 work culminates in a series of large pieces, using hollow-core doors the same size as the windows in the towers. The largest of these so far, “Heaven and Earth” (80 by 162 inches), recently shown at the New Arts Gallery, comprises nine moveable panels, each a door. The surface is composed of thick dabs of bisque-colored clay riven with hundreds of cracks, like a raku pot. It takes a moment for the image to crystallize out of the monochromatic texture. Then, it materializes—a ghostly relief of the New York cityscape from the North Tower’s 91st floor, dwarfed by an enormity of sky.