Art Is Relevant: Never Forgetting 9/11 and All We Need to Say

There’s a ring I wear on my pointer finger with the phrase “Art is relevant” engraved on the outside. I got it years ago at Campbell Pottery in Cambridge Springs, Pa., near my hometown. This was before I moved to New York, when I was interviewing the shop’s owner for a business magazine’s cover story. While touring the facilities, I spotted the ring and was so taken by its simple and powerful statement that I bought it on the spot; it has been on my finger ever since. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that I questioned my art’s relevance.

Just two months before that horrific day, I moved to New York City after winning a songwriting competition. Finally, I had validation that songwriting was what I was meant to be doing, and that New York was where I needed to be. My family had visited in August 2001, and we viewed the city from atop the towers. Little did we know just two weeks later, everything would change.

Newly rattled, life in NYC at the time was enough to make you question everything, from an unattended bag to the first time a plane flew overhead since that day to the reason you were spared over so many others and you wondered whether you would ever feel safe again, let alone experience joy. Suddenly, pursuing my songwriting seemed frivolous. And the record label with which I had deals pending, like so many others in the industry, was no longer willing to take risks. I thought, “How can I spend time writing songs and poems while others around me suffer immeasurable grief?”

Then I realized that proof of art’s relevance was all around me. A former Windows on the World server I met named Leda Young told me how she volunteered playing piano at the McDonald’s on Broadway near Ground Zero to provide solace to others through music; in doing so, she also helped herself cope with the loss of her co-workers in the attack.

My good friend and writing partner Barbara Anselmi had chosen to use her art and her empathy to compose the song "All Join Together," the title song for a CD that raised over $40,000 for the New York Times 9/11 Fund.

I remember poring over the liner notes to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, his album of songs in response to the tragedy, and finding comfort in its universal messages of hope and unity.

From art installations to plays to I-Love-NY-More-Than-Ever T-shirts, artists were funneling their deep sorrow, their camaraderie and their highest regard for their fellow New Yorkers in ways that would begin the road to healing. I began writing poems and songs, some scraps and some fully realized.

Now, 10 years later, James Taylor sings at the memorial to soothe our collective soul. The TV show “Rescue Me,” whose series finale aired earlier this week, has for the last seven years portrayed 9/11-related themes with such honesty, sensitivity and humanity, through both scenes and monologues that make me cover my mouth from feeling so much. In so many spaces and so many places, artists are creating powerful messages daily. Messages relevant to our shared understanding. Messages we need to say.

Today (as I’ve done so every year), I watch the names being read, scored by a lone cello. My eyes well up with every cadence, when those at the podium get to make their personal tributes, beginning with the words “And my …” then filling in the relation to their loved ones lost. Heartbreaking beyond belief.

But whether it’s a brief mention of the life they lead to a full profile in print or onscreen, we share in their stories, and those who tell them do their best to carry on. As we all do.