Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, people throughout the country started showing their patriotism more overtly than ever. The most common tribute was flying American flags, but some people went beyond that, painting flags on virtually any surface.
It's been 10 years, and such tributes have become less common. Many flag-painted houses were painted over. Flags painted on outdoor surfaces — fences, trees, silos, etc. — are faded by sun, rain and snow. Murals are peeling. Other tributes were perishable to begin with, made with flowers, grass, bottles full of milk or plastic party cups stuck in a chain-link fence.
But they live on in the photographs of Robert Carley.
"I had to strike while I could. These are impermanent canvases," says Carley, of Darien. "I wanted to document these tributes, this unusual little slice of history.
"There are lots of
photos of Ground Zero," he continues. "I wanted to take pictures of what came out of the ashes, the rise of patriotism."
Carley's photos of flag paintings now number in the hundreds. His collection is the focus of three exhibits — in Hartford, Norwalk and Kent — that open this week.
On that morning 10 years ago, Carley and his co-workers stood in their
office watching the smoke rise from Lower
. Within days, Carley, then 42, who graduated from the
with a double major in political science and fine arts, began noticing patriotic tributes pop up all over the place.
"I was amazed at what I was seeing, people with no art training using their their own inventiveness and creativity," he says. "Average people came up with these fantastic creations."
He was especially impressed with a house on Route 7 in Kent.
"The first time I saw the house, I gasped out loud. I was amazed," Carley says. "I met the owner. This man had a dream and then painted his house. That's just like
, who had a dream and then woke up and started his American flag painting.
"This house was my inspiration," Carley says.
So he got started documenting this particular brand of post-9/11 patriotism. At first, he took pictures in Connecticut. His subjects include a pizza place in
, a Corvette in Norwalk, a fence in Hartford, a face-painted young man in
. Then he began to venture farther afield, shooting anything with a flag on it, including one man in Washington state who had a flag tattooed over his entire face.
"I'd be shooting one flag house, and I'd hear someone say, 'I know where there's another one,' or I'd ask them if they'd seen anything," he says. "One thing led to another. There are always new leads."
Carley was laid off in 2002, and his hobby began to consume more of his life. He began traveling the country in earnest, and as of today, he has been to 43 of the 50 states documenting flag paintings. He always drives, never flies, because he wants to see the country from the ground. (He later had a job from 2003 to 2009 but got laid off again and is now seeking work.)
His hobby has its humorous side. When he heard about a flag-painted rock on the New York-Canada border, he made immediate plans to go there. "My friends ridiculed me," he says. "They said, 'You're going to drive for eight hours to take a photo of a boulder?'"
And often he would find people whose flag paintings pre-dated Sept. 11. "Those people thought patriotism post-9/11 was a fad," he says, "and that they were the real thing."
His work also has its sad side, separate from the Sept. 11 connection. "A lot of the businesses I photographed are empty now," he says. "The economy."
Carley, the son of cookbook author Eliane Ame-Leroy Carley ("Classics From a French Kitchen"), will shoot anything with a flag on it, but his favorite items are houses, not just because of the time-consuming dedication involved in painting them but also for their metaphorical value.
"Like a house, America is our home," he says. "We're all living under the same roof."
What surprised Carley the most in his travels was the uniformity of sentiment across the country.
"When I drove all over, I wasn't sure I'd find the same level of patriotism in Iowa and Nebraska as we felt here, in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, where so many residents died," he says. "But they did; 9/11 hit everyone equally. It didn't just happen to New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. It happened to the whole United States. We all felt the same."
"PHOTOGRAPHING FLAGS SINCE 9/11: AMERICAN RESILIENCE"
will be on display at the Legislative Office Building, 300 Capitol Ave. in Hartford, through
September, on the lower concourse level. A panel discussion "How Has 9/11 Changed America?" moderated by historian Robert W. Storm will be held at noon on Friday, Sept. 9, in Conference Room 2C, followed by an artist's reception. Details: 203-559-6140.
"NORWALK RESPONDS TO 9/11"
opens Thursday, Sept. 8, and runs through
"AMERICA, HOME SWEET HOME: PHOTOGRAPHS OF FLAG HOUSES SINCE 9/11"
will be at Kent Memorial Library, 32 N. Main St. in Kent, through Oct. 31. An artist's reception will be held Sunday, Sept. 11, from 2 to 4 p.m. Details: 860-927-3761.