As fragile as glass

Darren D'Altorio

Artist’s ‘Nine/Eleven’ series reminds of the beauty, fragility of U.S.

Renowned artist Henry Halem says his “Nine/Eleven” series serves as a metaphor to remind people of how beautiful, yet fragile, the American landscape can be. Crickett Bowman | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

A long, tar driveway leads to a

quaint, one-story house. Growing in no specific order, multi-colored flowers surround the property. The colors pop against the faded, white siding, as if a painter flung them from a brush with abstract intent.

At the end of the driveway, a small SUV sits in front of a two-story art studio and workshop that poses as a garage. The license plate on the vehicle reads “DR GLASS.”

Henry Halem — Kent resident, New York City native and renowned artist — shoots hoops in this driveway on a sunny afternoon in early September, three days before the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A product of tragedy

The war in Vietnam, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Kent State shootings and the Sept. 11 attacks are all subjects of Halem’s artistic vision.

“Nine/Eleven” is the title of his series of glass art inspired by the attacks on the Twin Towers. The concept of the pieces stemmed from two of Halem’s personal observations.

First, he said, is the realization that the lives lost in the attacks represent one of the greatest tragedies this country has ever had to endure.

Secondly, and contrary to the first observation, Halem was shocked and disturbed at widows and widowers who sought monetary compensation from the government for their loss of a loved one.

Furthermore, he was appalled by the “political football” being played by politicians who used the attacks for their own ends and political gains.

“Boy, we’ve really lost our way,” Halem said in a contemplative voice. “Tragedy has turned into an exercise in economics, rather than in a real sense of tragedy in mourning. What have we become?”

These observations led Halem on a reflective tangent. He thought to himself, I work with glass. Glass is this fragile material.

He thought about the Twin Towers, which lend themselves to a style of art he’d worked with in the past — constructivism, a Russian evolution of French cubism.

The metaphor of fragility seemed a perfect fit for him to explore artistically.

After six years, he began to craft the “Nine/Eleven” series as a metaphor to remind people of how beautiful, yet fragile, the American landscape can be.

“There is disconnect insofar as when one looks at these steel towers and suddenly, in seconds, they are just rubble,” Halem said. “And it seemed almost — I don’t want to say easy to take down — so vulnerable, so easily vulnerable.”

Cass Mayfield, owner of the Black Squirrel Gallery in Downtown Kent, shares this view of vulnerability with Halem.

“The World Trade Centers were not visually beautiful, but they were icons,” Mayfield said. “They became a symbol of our vulnerability as a country.”

Finding a meaning

Why is this metaphor of vulnerability something that needs to be explored through art?

Because “art can turn an ugly thing to a beautiful thing,” said Jennifer Eddy, manager of the McKay Bricker Gallery and Framing.

Art is very emotional, and good art can hold power, expression and feeling that causes people to reflect, think and interpret a situation differently, Eddy said.

Mary Organ, an employee at the McKay Bricker Gallery and Framing, sees art as a form of communication. That’s why she feels conflict and tragedy should be explored artistically.

“The more we communicate, the more we understand ourselves and others,” Organ said. “Communication can help heal. The worst thing to do is not talk or communicate. Then we will never understand.”

Halem wanted to directly communicate his message to the public with his “Nine/Eleven” pieces, and he feels he succeeded.

People got a profound sense of 9/11 from this work, Halem said. He said he thinks people saw more than he feels he put into it.

All things remembered

Halem has put great amounts of his time and energy into art inspired by political and social events throughout American history.

He has a close relationship with American tragedies from an artistic and personal standpoint.

He lived in New York City when a B-25 bomber accidentally flew into the Empire State Building in 1945. He crafted memorial pieces for the dead children of Vietnam out of clay in 1970. He had works about the assassination of John F. Kennedy censored from The Smithsonian because its government charter precluded the museum from displaying the pieces. He discovered the fire set by protesters to the wooden ROTC building at Kent State University two days before the May 4 shootings. And he heard the gunshots that took the lives of four students in 1970.

“I couldn’t have been closer to a national tragedy,” Halem said, regarding his proximity to the Kent State shootings.

But Halem’s most recent works directly stem from the “Nine/Eleven” series, both physically and emotionally.

The works are memorials for soldiers who have lost their lives in the War on Terror in Iraq. Halem said the pieces grabbed him and pulled him apart because he was dealing with real people.

Cast in discarded window frames, he created sandblasted, half-tone images of deceased soldiers’ faces in glass. When placed 3-feet from a wall with light shining through, the half-tone negative creates a three-dimensional positive image of the faces on the wall. Below the faces are “matter-of-fact” descriptions of how each soldier died. Halem described the effect as gestalt, amounting to more than the sum of its parts.

“The World Trade Center wasn’t easy for me to connect on the human level,” Halem said. “That’s why it isn’t a memorial, just a metaphor. This is a memorial of sorts, for the war and for the people.”

For Halem, the purpose of doing the Iraq memorial is directly related to his experiences and artistic expression in coping with the May 4 shootings at Kent State.

“When you are confronted with a great memorial, you come out of yourself,” Halem said. “It gives you permission to mourn, and mourning is a very important aspect of humans. It brings out all of your emotional feelings.”

Ryan Fishley, tattoo artist at Defiance Tattoo in Kent, said people use art as a reminder of something important and a connection to that something.

The Twin Towers transcended from mere buildings to works of art because of “what remains, not what’s missing,” Eddy said.

What remains at ground zero is the reminder that we are all connected mentally, spiritually and emotionally as Americans.

And that in itself is art.

Contact features reporter Darren D’Altorio at [email protected].