Art becomes looking glass into 9/11 tragedy

Teacher whose brother died on Flight 93 helps ill children cope


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STONYCREEK, Pa.

Joy Knepp thought there had been a construction accident when her building shook as she taught third-grade art at the Shanksville-Stonycreek Elementary School on Sept. 11, 2001.

But, in fact, it was the crash of United Flight 93, which killed the brother of art teacher Lori Guadagno and 39 other passengers and crew members who battled hijackers intending to use the plane to kill in the nation's capital.

On Saturday, Ms. Knepp and Ms. Guadagno told their stories at the Flight 93 National Memorial during a panel on how art helps children to express their feelings about 9/11. Panels continue this afternoon in a tent overlooking the crash site; a learning center will be built where the tent now stands.

Of $5 million that remains to be raised in the next two months, $3 million is for the learning center that will feature programs such as these.

On display in the tent was a drawing of an American flag with a weeping eye in one of the red stripes. White images of the Twin Towers were visible in the dark pupil. The image was drawn by a 15-year-old boy with sickle cell anemia who empathized with the grief of Ms. Guadagno, his art teacher at Wolfson Children's Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Art truly heals. It saved my life," said Ms. Guadagno, 52. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was in the planning stages of the program to help young patients express themselves through art. Her 38-year-old brother Richard was her best friend, and the night of his death she felt she would never have the emotional energy to launch the project.

"That night I realized I had a question to face. Do I move forward in my life and go toward something positive, or do I stay here in the darkness that I felt completely surrounding me?" she said.

With her father's encouragement, Ms. Guadagno and her cousin founded Art With A Heart. She soon realized she had been profoundly naïve -- she had thought of working with sick children, without realizing that they would often be dying children. Her brother's death became a point of connection.

"I am working with families in such a state of crisis," said Ms. Guadagno, who has worked with 30,000 seriously ill children since 9/11. "I had experienced what it was to be a family in a state of absolute crisis and pain and sorrow. I could bring that with me.

"I wasn't just talking about how art heals; it was doing it every day for me. I truly believe the universe had a plan for me. My life raft was this program."

She isn't art therapist, but an art teacher who allows children with life-threatening illness respite through creativity.

"In those moments you can see the children completely change from being lost and in despair and frightened and confused about why they are in the hospital," she said.

The ironic beauty of the site where her brother's plane went down has allowed her to heal, though she still has moments when she thinks she can call him.

Mr. Guadagno was a refuge enforcement officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who would have appreciated the wildflowers, singing birds and deer who graze in the place where he died.

"If there's a place where this had to happen ... we are so fortunate that it's here," Ms. Guadagno said. "I walk around here, I see wildlife everywhere. I see wildflowers. I see this field and hear the wind. I feel him here in a good way."

Art in action, from day one

Shortly after Ms. Knepp's third-grade class heard the boom that day, felt the crash and saw a black mushroom cloud above the treeline, another teacher rushed in and told her to turn on the TV.

Because buses would have interfered with the countless emergency vehicles roaring through the tiny town, the school did not evacuate. The 500 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade were glued to classroom televisions when the Twin Towers fell.

That's when Ms. Knepp, by that time supervising sixth-graders, offered paint and crayons to give them an emotional break. That's when the students first began to express their feelings about 9/11 through art.

Over the next weeks the school became a magnet for media and for people from across the country who wanted to express their own feelings. A school in Colorado sent teddy bears for all the students. The Shanksville-Stonycreek teachers told the puzzled students that they had become ambassadors for the victims.

A few weeks later, Houston-based Cornell Companies, which builds large institutional buildings, contacted the school and proposed building something there to commemorate Flight 93. They settled on a sculpture and the company commissioned Pittsburgh metal sculptor Jan Loney.

For several months she became artist-in-residence as the students helped her form a concept for the sculpture and created molds under her supervision.

As the students talked, hands were a major theme -- helping hands, hands clasped in unity, offered in support or folded in prayer. The sculpture, which resembles either petals unfolding or flames leaping upward, consists of bronze seed pods imprinted with the hands of students and staff.

It was installed and dedicated in May 2002. Within a few years, Ms. Knepp said, she realized that younger students didn't know the story of 9/11, so she began to take them to the small garden that was created around it. They draw the sculpture as she tells the story of the passengers who fought back, who saved people in Washington, and explains the grief, support and gratitude for what they did.

"Last year the graduating class was in second grade [on 9/11]. This year's class was only in first grade," she said. "From here on out, I don't think the children will remember much about it. It will really be up to me to keep it alive each year as they come in."

region

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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