This is a hectic and exciting time as we near the finish line for the new version of the film! An eighty-eight minute feature of Rebuilding the World Trade Center will be broadcast this September on the History Channel. The animated paintings have been a very popular feature in the film, and I find myself on a tight deadline completing a fresh series of these works. Each one takes several days and is painstakingly filmed frame by frame. I have been experimenting with some new animations in oil paint on cement-spattered plywood from the site. My editor Leo, has been carefully putting them into the film and masterfully mixing them with atmospheric sound effects. My friend Greg, who lead the illustrious team of men who built the concrete core of Tower 4, came by yesterday and took these lovely photos as he watched me working. Greg’s story features in the film.
Each piece of scrap lumber from the site tells its own story. They all have particular marks… nail holes, splashes of fluorescent paint, imprinted patterns from rusty rebar and flecks of concrete…. that speak of their role on site and have retained something authentic of the construction process. For me, it is these marks and stories that call different paintings into being.
This most recent work, called Empire State of Mind, is painted on one of the original pieces of special plywood that Roger and Sons used for the concrete formwork in the building of Tower 4. Just touching this piece of wood and looking at its rough surface inspires me! The painting it called into life is the face of a concrete worker with the New York skyline in the background. The roughness of the wood and its ‘apparently worthless’ nature give me the greatest imaginable sense of freedom to paint from my heart.
I have been filming at the Transport Hub all week as the spectacular and sculptural structure takes shape! Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful architecture will be at the very heart of the new World Trade Center.
As a child, one of my happiest memories was when Dad would come home from work bringing us a big sack of random off cuts of wood! He and his brother Joe ran a building company from an old builder’s yard in East Belfast. Right in the heart of this magical place, was a big joiner’s workshop, that continually provided an abundance of off cuts, these were perfect for painting on! There was always something totally liberating in painting on a piece of wood that had already been discarded and was classified as ‘worthless’! This was the magical gateway to being free from precious, or bijou apprehensions about ‘making art’!!
I am rediscovering this freedom and joy now, painting on discarded wood that I find on the World Trade Center site. Each piece has its own personality, and tells a story. The marks and textures on the surface of these soulful off cuts, inform and call forth my inspiration as a painter.
This face came into being today on a rough piece of plywood that had served as one of the forms for concrete in Tower 4. The paint flowed in a spirit of total freedom and I was moved to see this noble face appearing.
I met Bill Skeahan last spring on the 48th floor of Tower 4, as I was filming the skyline. He was inspired by my work and asked me to do a series of drawings of him for his daughters. He wanted to give them a gift that would be a memory for them of his work on this historic site. Today in the studio was his last day on the World Trade Center site, after 3 years working at Tower 4 as part of the team of plumbers installing the heating systems. He proudly walked away with his oil painting, showing him with his wrench on his shoulder and the nearly completed Tower One in the background.
When I first started filming and painting the rebuilding of the World Trade Center seven years ago, standing right in the massive footings that were being carved into the bedrock, I always dreamed of the day that work would start on the massive spire on top of Tower 1 … In what seems like the blink of an eye, years have gone by and that historic day has come!
By a strange quirk of timing the massive sections of the spire that had sailed from Montreal on a seagoing barge, arrived in New York on my birthday. After their long voyage we filmed them sailing under Brooklyn Bridge as they headed for the site around the tip of Lower Manhattan.
During several long nights in mid December the sections of the spire were unloaded from the barge at Pier 54 and amidst flashing lights and an escort of police outriders slowly headed for the site. There was something sacred and ceremonial about the unusual procession of trucks and construction workers moving down Greenwich Street, one of the smartest streets in TriBeCa. People stepped out of restaurants and bars to gaze at the spectacle and to be photographed in front of the giant sections, each of which looked like a radiant intergalactic spacecraft.
The past week has been very exciting and I have been filming the south raising gang on Tower 1 setting the sections into position. Each time it is called a ‘critical pick’ as the sections are extremely heavy and can only be lifted from the street level when there is no wind. Some of the sections require what is called a ‘tandem pick’. This means two cranes had to simultaneously lift the piece. Last week there were a couple of days of thick fog and seeing the huge sections appearing out of nothingness was awe-inspiring!
The ironworkers of DCM work in all conditions with military like precision and discipline to accomplish the delicate and dangerous task of setting each of the 18 sections that will complete the 408 foot spire. Some of them have worked all the way from the ground up to the top and setting the spire is the final crowning of their accomplishment.
For me it is an amazing once in a lifetime experience to be able to work closely with them and to film such a historic time in the transformation of the skyline of New York City.
For all this I have immense and heartfelt gratitude.
In memory of the events of that day, every year on September 11th, two powerful beams known as the Tribute in Light soar upwards radiantly from Lower Manhattan. For New Yorkers, visitors and people around the world it is a very powerful and uplifting presence that illuminates the night sky above the World Trade Center site, where this year Tower 1 and Tower 4 have just ‘topped out’.
After the 10 year anniversary of September 11 last year and in the general climate of budgetary cutbacks, there were some fears that the time had come to now end this yearly tradition. So it is great to see that tonight they will again reach resolutely and inexorably upwards from earth into the highest levels of the dark sky.
The two beams of light are a very powerful and timeless way of honoring the many people who died that day. And yet they are free from any form of dogma and are safe from ever being shackled by ‘meaning’! The beams of light are as pure and as free as a tribute can be, rising upwards to illuminate the darkness as occasional beautiful clouds drift by and become transcendentally radiant as they cross their path.
I realize more and more that for my spirit as a painter, inspiration comes from places that are both unexpected and often so subtle that you could easily miss them.
Often on the site, I find myself standing for hours at a time in one spot, as my time-lapse camera beside me takes one frame every 15 seconds. This gives time to contemplate and really look closely at my immediate surroundings which are often just an apparently random ‘snapshot’ of construction textures and general ‘stuff’.
As I look more intently at the pieces of wood and rusty metal that are lying around and see how the construction process has created beautiful textures and marks, it is as though this is revealing a coherent, visual and tactile language that will inform and inspire my paintings. Some of the wood has pencil marks written by a carpenter, splashes of fluorescent colors from a surveyor, flecks and splatters of concrete from the concrete gang, a few rusty nails, a zig-zag line in a different tone where the wood has been used as a form to make a staircase, a burned in stamp from the original manufacturer of the piece of wood, a ripped off paper tag relating to the function of the wood, a couple of perfect circular holes cut through and some diagonal lines etched into the wood by a circular saw. All very beautiful and inspiring!