Calif. Artist's 9/11 Painting Tours Fire Stations
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Jan. 08—On Thursday morning, a large painting was installed in the lobby of Vista City Hall. The luminous unframed canvas depicts a grieving New York City firefighter amid the rubble of the Twin Towers on 9/11.
While the painting may be new for City Hall visitors, the 3-by-4-foot canvas has taken a long road to get there. Painted by Carlsbad artist Kelly Lucas just days after the terrorist attacks in 2001, the melancholy artwork has been on a perpetual tour of North County fire stations and city buildings for the past 2 1/2 years.
Known as the "Traveling 911 Memorial Painting," the painting was purchased in spring 2015 by Encinitas real estate agent Wendy Moldow. She said she realized immediately after bringing the canvas back into her art-filled home that it deserved a bigger audience.
"I hung it up and said to myself, 'This doesn't belong here; this needs to be seen,'" Moldow said. "I started thinking about that book 'The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' and thought, 'Why don't I start the journey of the traveling painting?'"
Since Sept. 11, 2015, the painting has been displayed for one to three months at a time at fire stations and other public buildings in Encinitas, San Marcos, Rancho Santa Fe, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Escondido, Solana Beach and, now, Vista.
"It's so dramatic," she said. "You just look at it and it grabs you. It tugs at your heart."
Even before it came into Moldow's possession, the painting had a well-traveled history, though not for the best reasons. Its original purchaser returned it to Lucas in 2002 because he found it too depressing. So for 13 years it was hidden in storage until Lucas brought it with her when she moved from Colorado to Carlsbad three years ago.
Lucas spent 10 years of her career as a professional painter in the San Francisco area and had recently moved back to her native Colorado when New York City's landmark Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001.
One of her clients, an attorney who lost several friends in the tragedy, decided to organize a charity auction to benefit the families of fallen 9/11 firefighters. His goal was to produce the event in just a few weeks to get money to the families as quickly as possible.
One of his calls went to Lucas, whom he asked to come up with a painting for the event's banner and postcard. Three days later, she had two finished canvases, including the painting of the firefighter in front of a tattered American flag and the iconic twisted steel wreckage of the towers. That morning, 343 New York City firefighters and staff died when the buildings collapsed.
"You just don't see our men, our heroes, our rescuers break down like that," Lucas said. "I wanted to show their strength, but also how much they gave. They gave more than most anybody."
The painting was purchased at the Artists for Heroes auction for $26,000 by a Chicago restaurateur. But after he hung the canvas in his dining room he began getting complaints from staff and customers who found it too heartbreaking.
"He put it in the lobby and it had a dramatic impact," Lucas said. "It was too soon. People were crying, people were walking out. He didn't want his money back, but he gave it back to me and I didn't know what to do with it. I had it in my home for years."
Lucas left Colorado in 2015 because the high altitude aggravated her rare heart condition. She moved to Carlsbad to live at sea level near the surgeon who corrected her heart problem. Today she works for a company that sells cardiac screening devices to schools.
Shortly after she arrived here, Lucas decided to clear out her inventory of paintings and found a charity, Next Step Service Dogs, to be the beneficiary. At the time, she was working with Moldow at Pacific Sotheby's real estate office in Encinitas, and the agency offered to host the gala auction of 15 paintings. One of them was the 9/11 memorial painting, which she sold to Moldow for just $300, with the hope that it could have a future life on public display.
Moldow said everywhere the painting has gone, it has been well-received by firefighters, city officials, senior groups and the public. At many of the unveiling ceremonies, she has brought along Dr. Noemi Balinth. The Cardiff resident was the president of the New York Psychological Association when 9/11 occurred. Balinth said she saw first-hand the emotional toll the tragedy took on first responders.
On Dec. 2, the painting began its last North County exhibition in Vista. For the first month, it was displayed in a training room at Fire Station No. 1. It is scheduled to be on display in the City Hall lobby through January.
Vista Fire's Deputy Chief Ned Vander Pol said the painting has had a very positive reception with city firefighters and officials.
"It's striking and it's a good-size painting," he said. "It was very noticeable as the centerpiece of the training room, but the idea was to get it to City Hall, where more people could see it."
Moldow's next goal is to find five or six fire stations in San Diego that would be interested in hosting the painting over the next year or two. Her ultimate goal is to have the canvas displayed in a firefighter museum. Fire stations that would like to host the painting can contact Moldow at (619) 339-3339 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I don't care where they display the painting, whether it's in the firefighters' lunch room or out in public," she said. "I just want them to know that people in the neighborhood know and appreciate who they are and what they do."