From the ruins, damaged beauty Exploring catastrophe, before and after 9/11

“Firefighter/Rockstar” is now in the permanent collection of Lisa de Kooning. Image courtesy of the artist

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  For one week straight in January 1996, then-Downtown artist Charlotte Ghiorse photographed and painted firefighters in action from Chelsea’s Ladder 12 and Engine 3. She became acquainted with Fire Department of New York Lieutenant Mickey Kross — one of a few 9/11 survivors pulled out of the wreckage from Stairwell B of the North Tower.

“I really enjoyed exploring catastrophe in my work. It was the beginning of when out-of-focus photography was fashionable in art,” said Ghiorse of the experience. Her pieces appeared in the first-ever annual “Art of Fire” exhibit of the New York City Fire Museum that year.

Little did Ghiorse know the type of disaster she’d be illustrating five years later.

Currently residing in Brooklyn, Ghiorse (who lived on Ludlow between Hester and Grand Streets in the early 2000s) was instinctively drawn to the chaos that pervaded Downtown on Sept. 11, 2001. That afternoon, she drew out $800 from the bank — fearful of what might happen next — and nomadically walked the streets, videotaping the disorder as she went.

Starting when Kross accompanied her to Ground Zero in March 2002 (her first time visiting the site since 9/11), the artist began to develop a fascination with the heaps of wreckage and burning debris. The morbid scene inspired her later that year to take out her paintbrush and canvas.

Using photographs that appeared in metropolitan area media outlets, Ghiorse recreated the eerie ambience in and around Ground Zero post-9/11, meshing together gray, black and white colors to depict. The images included a view of smoke-filled Downtown as seen from a chopper, a weary firefighter in search of human remains and an upside-down doll lying on a pile of rubble.

Ghiorse often felt guilty revisiting the trauma of 9/11 in her art. It made her feel like a voyeur in her own neighborhood. “I had a lot of hang-up around [the question], ‘why am I doing this?’ I had to go, ‘Sh, sh, sh — don’t ask why, just do it.’”

Ghiorse continued the series until she completed 18 large paintings. She wanted them seen, but was not willing to auction them off to the highest bidder. “I had this whole feeling of like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t just sit around with these paintings, and I can’t profit off of 9/11,’” said Ghiorse. “But the business of wanting them to be on display somewhere, the whole notion of historical paintings, came through to me.”

So in 2003, the artist exhibited her work at the E3 Gallery in the East Village. One of the paintings (“Firefighter/Rockstar”) caught the eye of Lisa de Kooning — abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning’s only child. De Kooning later purchased the work and added it to her permanent collection.

Ghiorse’s work never fully departed from the smoky color patterns that permeate her 9/11 paintings. A series of flower portraits that look like they’re submerged in water that she was simultaneously working on contain wisps of grayish smoke that resemble the ash-ridden sky above Ground Zero in the days after the attacks.

She is now completing a series of paintings of chandeliers, dresses, cars and other material objects that represent elegance and opulence of American culture. Amid the soft pink hues that suffuse this series is the all-too-familiar dark undertone. “I just can’t get away from that billowy, smoky grey,” said Ghiorse.

Ghiorse is thinking about returning to Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The trip isn’t crucial. However, since she has already paid tribute to the fallen in her paintings, “It’s still kind of like a pretty intense level of grief, but I don’t feel that heaviness, on some level, since I got it out through the art.”

Six of Ghiorse’s 9/11 paintings are being featured on the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum’s artist registry (registry.national911memorial.org). Works from her 9/11 series will also be on display at an upcoming exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany.