The Art of Healing

By Gillian J. Furniss, posted on Sep 8, 2021

On September 11, 2001, firefighter Brenda Berkman was called to duty and went to the Twin Towers after the terrorist attack. Ten years later, she began to create lithograph prints about her experience.

K-12 art lesson, remembering 9/11, lithograph prints, Brenda Berkman
Brenda Berkman, Tribute. Images copyright Brenda Berkman.

Brenda Berkman (b. 1951) is a lawyer, firefighter, and artist who lives in Manhattan. She decided to become an artist in 2008 after retiring from the New York City Fire Department. Berkman learned to make lithograph prints at the Art Students League of New York (ASL). As a printmaking student myself at ASL, I would find Berkman in the studio drawing on stone or printing on the press, and talking to fellow artists about her creative process.

Art That Heals
On September 11, 2001, Berkman was called to duty and went to the Twin Towers after the terrorist attack. Her bravery, dedication, and service helped to make a tragic event more bearable for others. For many, that infamous day was a multisensory experience of strong toxic odors, impairment of vision with dangerous dust particles, debilitating emotions such as fear of annihilation, grief for those who perished, and an overwhelming sense of destruction.

Ten years later, Berkman began to create lithograph prints about her experience as a firefighter on that notorious day. She organized a collaborative art project with thirteen other printmakers and showed her artwork at the 9/11 Decade Exhibit at the Westbeth Sculpture Gallery Annex. In 2012, Berkman made a self-portrait of her figure bent over as if under attack. The print shows her standing with her arms covering her head, as if protecting her body from the fallout. On her website she states, “Although I started making stone lithographic prints in 2008, I never made any art that had as its subject either 9/11 or the World Trade Center until ten years after 9/11.”

Symbols of Strength
In 2018, Berkman had a solo exhibition called Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade Center at the Charles P. Sifton Gallery at the U.S. District Court on Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn. I had the opportunity to go to Brooklyn and view her prints. Berkman’s entire series of Thirty-Six Views took three years to complete. The black ink of her lithographs provides an overall mood of intensity and severity. She suggests the monumental scale of the architecture by showing it in different sizes and at various angles. Berkman’s artwork pays homage to a structure that dominated the urban skyline for decades and served as a continual source of pride for New Yorkers. Today, the new One World Trade Center serves as a symbol of the refusal to be intimidated by the threat of terrorism.

Inspiration from Past Artists
Berkman studied master printmakers from Japan and France to find sources of inspiration for her series of prints. She studied artwork depicting cultural and architectural icons including Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and Henri Rivière’s Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower. Similar to the sacred Mt. Fuji that filled each view from every angle of Hokusai’s series, so too the new One World Trade Center appears in every one of Berkman’s prints. She states, “The idea of making a series of stone lithograph prints showing the building and views of the new One World Trade Center took hold of my imagination…I decided my series would be Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade Center.”

Crusader for Women Firefighters
Berkman won the sex discrimination lawsuit that resulted in the hiring of the first women firefighters in New York City. As one of those first women, she was the founder of United Women Firefighters. She explains, “In a small way, I was trying to challenge the stereotypes and fears that keep us from achieving our greatest potential.” Today she leads tours as a volunteer at the 9/11 Memorial to educate the public and to honor those who died, including her friends and colleagues. Berkman’s life experience is featured in the book Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion and the PBS documentary film Taking the Heat. Berkman’s life story encourages youth to fight for what is right, to have courage despite obstacles, and to have many passions in life, including creating art.

Suggestions for Art Teachers

  • Students can learn about the tragic events of 9/11 by viewing Berkman’s lithograph prints.
  • Students can find creative inspiration from Berkman’s prints and, in a safe environment, make their own artwork about acts of terrorism, war, and violence.
  • Students can understand that creating art about a traumatic life experience can be a source of conversation to facilitate a peaceful way to process painful emotions and ultimately heal.

About the author: Gillian J. Furniss is a K–12 art teacher at Columbus Christian Academy in Columbus, Mississippi. She was living in Manhattan on 9/11. She is a member of the Art Students League of New York.

Brenda Berkman Website