‘This isn’t the way I wanted to be an artist. I always wanted to reflect joy. As I got older I started to paint the world around me. All of a sudden, my domestic view became a watershed moment,” says Todd Stone, whose show of photos, drawings, and watercolors that reflect the artist’s view of 9/11 from his Tribeca studio, just north of the World Trade Center, is on view at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.
“My wife and I were in my Tribeca studio on that sunny morning when the first jet roared over the skylight and slammed in the north tower six blocks away,” says Stone in his statement for the exhibit, entited “Tod Stone: Witness.” “My camera was at the window, as the day before I had been photographing the melancholy, rainy rooftops. I took my first photo within seconds of impact as the pigeons were lifting to the sound of the explosion.”
Stone, 55, is a New York City native, whose father worked on Wall Street and whose mother was a community activitist and mayor of Scarsdale, NY. He attended Wesleyan University for two years where his interest in politics and religion opened his eyes to the world of art as he began to find interest in religious paintings. “Once I engaged in trying to draw what was before me, the process didn’t stop.” He transferred to the University of New Mexico where he received his BFA in 1974, concentrating in drawing and lithography.
Upon graduating, Stone was able to make his wish of moving to New York come true, with the help of a professor/friend from the University of New Mexico, some jobs in construction, and some timely real estate investments in New York. He has maintained a studio in New York since then, as well as a home in Kintnersville, PA, for the past 18 years. Before 9/11 he considered his Bucks County studio a retreat from the pressures of Manhattan, but afterward the place became more of a true home. He is currently president of the Gallows Run Watershed Associaten in Nockamixon Township, PA, and publisher of its newsletter, the Upper Bucks Futures.
According to his web site (toddstone.com), Stone says “my artwork has always been about joy. As a landscape painter, I try to open myself up to the unique beauty of a moment in a place...My domestic interior, bath and window view, became a microcosm of the play of light, water, and energy of the larger world. But I was perched on edge for a plunge I could not see.”
The first watercolor of the “Witness” exhibit places the viewer on this perch. Titled “9/10/2001” the painting is a view of the New York skyline from the artist’s studio. It is an ordinary urban scene in muted colors with brick buildings and a fire escape in the foreground, and at right, framing the gray sky and slightly darker blue-gray, we see the twin towers in the distance. There seems to be an underlying theme of pairs in this landscape, as the towers are hinted at in the pair of gray windows in the building in the foreground. There are two chimneys prominent in the center of the painting, and two levels of the fire escape are seem at the right. Technically speaking, this painting is a well-executed, well-composed architectural landscape of what was, and should have remained, an ordinary scene. Less than 24 hours later, things changed.
In the second painting the viewpoint is nearly exact to the first. The sky is bluer and the buildings in the foreground a bit darker. To the left of the towers, dark silhouettes of pigeons in flight are set against clouds. Upon further inspection, the clouds appear to emanate from a large, odd, bird-shaped form in the tower on the right. One realizes that these are clouds of smoke, and the date and time of this painting, titled simply “8:45,” is known all too well. This is the image of the very brink of the edge before the plunge, caught in disbelief between the ordinary moments before the extraordinary events you could not at this time predict.
“You would think that would be the picture — ‘It’s going to get worse than this!?’ You couldn’t believe what was going to come. It was so sad.” Stone says he continued to draw and photograph from the rooftop of his studio “in a dazed state of confusion until Seven World Trade Center fell at 4:30 p.m. We thought the attacks were ongoing as explosions continued through the afternoon. I was on a neighboring rooftop when the south tower collapsed in my camera viewfinder. I ran for my life from the debris cloud but was only dusted as the cloud dissipated as it reached me. My family and I (wife Lori and daughters Anna and Marley) evacuated uptown that night but returned the next day to find our home transformed and unbelievable. We needed masks to breathe in our smoke-filled loft. We lived behind SWAT team barricades for the next four months as the building across the street was identified as a potential terror target.”
Stone says his painting “9:03,” which he refers to as the “fireball image,” was one of the hardest to paint. While he was working from the photograph in his studio, making numerous studies and “stressed out by his living situation,” he “felt like the fireball was in my stomach. “Every time I looked at the studies, I saw the face of evil.” Friends of Stone have commented that they literally do see a face in the image of the explosion. “On that day we realized that there was an enemy who wanted us dead. We still see it today when we watch the news on TV. The dogs of war have been released.”
In each painting Stone proves his talent with watercolors, and the combination of the artist’s hand in the paints with the objective eye of the camera from which most of the images were taken is an effective one. “Those pictures were heartfelt,” says Stone. “If I can just try to get down as beautifully as I can with those paints, that’s all I can do. Who knows what it means.”
The paintings continue to catalogue physically and emotionally the events of that day, and a few days following. The paintings range from the visually light yet ominously titled “Collapse” to the darker and more haunting red skylines of “3:45” and “3:46.” The exhibition comes full circle to end with “Lifting,” a small painting showing only the pigeons in flight from “8:45” and a small portion of a tree. All reference to buildings and the tragedy have been edited.
The paintings have also been exhibited at the New York Historical Society, and art museums in Texas and Louisiana. They were also exhibited at the Florence Biennale in Italy, at the Fortezza Basso in December, 2003. “The fortezza is adjacent to a training center for firmen,” Stone says. “My exhibit there became a touchstone and destination for the firemen in training, who felt an intense connection to the tragedy that struck their brethren across the sea.”
In his artist’s statement, Stone, who has exhibited his work internationally in museums and galleries, says “‘Witness’ brings to bear my 30 year painting practice to what I saw from my home on September 11. It is conceived as an elegy to the lives lost and altered that day...When the second tower fell, my studio was flooded with light. I lived in the shadow of the towers for 22 years. These paintings were made in the shadow of that new light, the paint mixed with the dust that invaded my studio, as the fires still burned, in memory.”
“Todd Stone: Witness,” Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. Photos, drawings, and watercolors that record the events of 9/11 as an eyewitness. A resident of Bucks County, Stone’s studio is in Tribeca, only six blocks from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Through November 5. $6.50 general admission. 215-340-9800.
Gallery hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 pm.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.