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Tiles across America

Tony Cesare brings 9/11 memorial from Manhattan to Missoula



September 11, 2004, marks the third anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center—a day for which Americans worldwide have salient recollections. Missoula resident Tony Cesare remembers feeling like he should have been in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Instead he was here in Missoula, wondering: What can I do?

The short answer is that he decided he could put his artistic talents to use. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Cesare has mounted three photographic exhibits honoring the victims and heroes of 9/11, the most recent of which, Responses to September 11, Memorials Series One, Tiles for America, is up at the Gallery Saintonge through Sept. 25.

But the personal history behind Cesare’s drive to do something in response to 9/11 is—as is true of everyone impacted by the WTC attacks—a longer story.

Cesare lived in New York for 30 years as an actor and New York City tour guide, and he still divides his time between Missoula, where he is co-owner of the Foxglove Cottage bed and breakfast, and his Greenwich Village apartment. In the weeks following 9/11, he received streams of e-mails from friends in New York sending their accounts of the destruction. One Greenwich Village neighbor wrote about the bad smell in the streets downtown. A friend whose office windows looked out to the twin towers wrote about seeing people fall from the gaping holes made by the airplanes. The same friend wrote that her neighbor found papers from the World Trade Center on her roof—six miles from Manhattan.

Getting these eyewitness accounts from friends, says Cesare, prompted him to look through the 30 years’ worth of photographs he had taken of New York City. Twenty-two of those photographs, accompanied by text from his friends’ e-mails, constituted Cesare’s first show, The World Trade Center: A Personal Album, which was displayed at the Missoula Art Museum in November 2001.

Bozeman art director Ellen Ornitz saw that show, brought it to the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture in Bozeman for a couple of months, and then arranged to sponsor the show as a Montana Art Gallery Directors’ Association (MAGDA) tour, taking the exhibit to the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls and the Copper Village Museum & Arts Center in Anaconda.

Before the show traveled to those cities, though, it spent a month in Paris with a friend of Cesare’s who runs an English-speaking theater there, followed by shows in Erfurt and Weimar, Germany—also arranged through friends of Cesare’s. For those shows, Cesare incorporated new photographs that he took on his first post-attack visit to New York in November 2001. Those additional photos chronicled the devastation he saw, as well as some of the spontaneous memorials that had started appearing on plywood walls and church fences near Ground Zero.

One of those memorials—the chain-link fence across from Manhattan’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, where more than 6,000 individually decorated tiles hang in memory of 9/11 casualties—is the subject of Cesare’s current show at the Gallery Saintonge.

St. Vincent’s is near Cesare’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. “The first time I went back,” says the photographer, “I walked up the street, and there were maybe a couple hundred [tiles] on the fence, and I started taking photographs.” On his next trip, in February 2002, there were more than 1,000 tiles. “I was so moved by what other people had done,” says Cesare, “that I had to meet the woman who started it, so I tracked her down.”

That woman is Lorrie Veasey, owner of a ceramic studio called Our Name is Mud across from St. Vincent’s hospital. For three years, Veasey has been selling blank tiles for people to decorate and fire at her studio, then hang on the fence. She has also extended the project to include members of the Contemporary Ceramic Studios Association, so that today studios nationwide send decorated tiles for Veasey to hang.

The tiles have been painted by artists from Wyoming, Canada, Japan; Cesare’s photographs bring them from Manhattan to Montana. One photograph shows a blue tile with a flower and the word “peace.” Another print shows a tile reading, “If two beacons fall and the world hears will it make a difference?” A collage of 42 tiles from the Northeast Animal Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., honors canine search and rescue teams. Two heart-shaped tiles hung side by side bear the names of two sisters—Zoe and Dana Falkenberg, ages 8 and 3—who “flew into God’s arms on 9/11” on Flight 77.

Each of Cesare’s photographs (a mix of 35-millimeter and digital shots) shows at least one of the memorial’s tiles; collectively, the exhibit recreates the feeling of the memorial—an endeavor that felt important, says Cesare, not only because it brings the tiles’ messages to people who might not see them otherwise, but also because the tiles themselves won’t last. Many of the first tiles were unfortunately stolen, he says, and many more will decay from natural wear and tear.

Cesare sees his role less as a photographer than as “a conduit of what other people have done.”

“I have a hard time describing myself as a photographer,” he says, “because I feel a photographer is that person who goes in a dark room and makes that perfect print. And it seems to me that [photography] is more like writing with a camera. It’s like a diary.”

Indeed, the tiles’ messages do seem to override any critique of Cesare’s photography. This is not a criticism of his work in itself; it simply reflects the complexity of addressing an event as emotionally charged as 9/11. What Cesare’s exhibit does succeed in doing is recording people’s responses to 9/11 over the past three years. The photographs recall the horror of that day, but they also show the hope that has endured since.

Cesare acknowledges what he calls “the risk of eventually being labeled the 9/11 man,” but he says that’s OK. Looking at his exhibit, you understand why: The importance of preserving what happened that day outweighs, for Cesare, any concern about how he might be judged as an artist for trying to tackle a subject so huge.

And Cesare is a good-humored man who insists, smiling, that his “ego is healthy.” He’s quick to admit that addressing the subject of 9/11 was daunting and says he’s “gone bonkers trying to put [all the photographs] in some kind of order.” But his ego was likely made even healthier in the past week as he presented two photographs of tiles from Montana to Mayor Mike Kadas on Tuesday, then traveled to Helena to present prints of those same photographs to Gov. Martz on Wednesday.

But nothing in this show, Cesare knows, is about ego. It’s about the individual lives memorialized on that fence. One photograph in particular brings that message home: a photo of a tile with a bow tie painted on it, along with the name “Lars.”

“When I went back [to New York] this time and saw this,” says Cesare, “I thought, it’s got to be Lars [Qualben],” brother of Missoula sculptor Jonathan Qualben. Cesare had dedicated his November 2001 exhibit to Lars, who died in the attacks. “I called Jonathan and said, ‘did your brother wear bow ties?’” recalls Cesare, “and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, all the time.’”

Responses to September 11, Memorials Series One, Tiles for America will be up at the Gallery Saintonge, 210 South Higgins Ave., through Sept. 25. An opening reception will be held Fri., Sept. 10, at the gallery from 5 to 8 PM.

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