Paintings capture 9/11's chaos

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Denise Bankuti’s phone rang and the caller alerted her to turn on her television. In the days to come, as Bankuti watched the reports, she was moved by the decisions forced upon those in the World Trade Center, and by the responders who charged up the towers uncertain of their return.

An artist since she was a girl growing up in Burbank, Bankuti, 60, took to her canvas in her home studio within days. “Every second you’re watching TV, new scenes were coming up, new information,” she said. She began a nine-foot-by-five-foot piece titled “Chaos,” capturing the speed with which the day moved. The images are of Bankuti’s first reactions minutes before the towers fell. “I don’t always paint in abstract, but I used that because it was so abstract,” she said.

In “Chaos,” the towers are filled with numbers signifying the morning’s questions of how many people were lost, saved and in the buildings. Two office women stand for the grim reality those in the towers faced — “how they went to work like any other day, poured their coffee, went to their desk and now forced into, ‘Do I jump or do I burn?’” Bankuti said.

Within the first year of 9/11, Bankuti completed two more pieces, titled, “We Will Never Forget ” and “The Last Thing I Remember.”

Each piece was selected for a 10th anniversary memorial art exhibit spearheaded by Penn State Berks, a college in the Pennsylvania state system, in Spring Township, Penn. Out of 40 artists whose mixed media, photography, paintings and installation pieces belong to the exhibit, Bankuti was selected to give a speech. She is humbled by that decision, as many of the participating artists lost loved ones that day and in one case, an artist lost her work as her studio was in the World Trade Center.

For the first anniversary of 9/11, Bankuti donated her mixed media piece, “We Will Never Forget,” to the city of Burbank. The piece incorporates the dust masks worn in the aftermath, and on 30 masks, for September’s 30 days, Bankuti created scenes of the day’s subsequent events: people trapped in rubble; anthrax threats; news headlines. One of those scenes has come to pass. It features green toy soldiers surrounding a captured Osama bin Laden.

“I refuse to believe that these people just died in vain or died for nothing, because they woke us up,” Bankuti said. “We’re smarter, we’re wiser. Thanks to those people who lost their lives, we’re safer.”

In “The Last Thing I Remember” a fireman is ejected from the canvas, out of an ash cloud as he witnesses fellow firemen carrying Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain for the New York City Fire Dept. who died on 9/11.

Bankuti considered herself responsible for creating art out of 9/11, especially when she heard President George W. Bush call on Americans to continue with their lives amid the country’s tragic reality. “I thought back on how many artists had recorded wars. My work is not a political statement. I just wanted to show the humanity and keep that alive. It’s totally a statement on humanity.”

There are also lessons that Bankuti reflects on, and today in Pennsylvania, she will close her speech by honoring the citizens on board United Airlines Flight 93 who overtook the hijackers, preventing their presumptive destruction of the U.S. Capitol.

“Not only did they turn into heroes,” she said, “they turned into patriots in seconds.” They just said, ‘We’re not going to sit here and cower.’ What flight 93 taught us, with or without uniforms, our country can call on us at any time.”

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