Downtown Artist Reflects on Painting Changed by 9/11

Naoto Nakagawa’s painting “Stars of the Forest” depicts star-shaped moss as dozens of rainbow-colored stars.
"Stars of the Forest" by Naoto Nakagawa. Photo by John Berens

On the morning of September 11, 2001, artist Naoto Nakagawa was mixing paints in his studio on Franklin Street when he felt the building shake. He thought it was an earthquake until his wife called and told him a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking the crash was an accident, he ran up to the roof to see what had happened. There, he witnessed the second plane hit the South Tower. 

Nearly 40 years earlier, Nakagawa had watched the Twin Towers rise from the windows of his former studio on Chambers Street. Now, he saw them fall.

At the urging of his family, Nakagawa fled and stayed out of his studio for the next two weeks. When he returned he resumed work on "Stars of the Forest," a painting that he had begun in early September as a reflection on "a glorious moment in nature’s drama." He had observed star-shaped moss on a forest floor along the Hudson River, "shining in the morning dew, the sunlight glinting and giving it vivid colors, like blue nesting in yellow, orange and flaming red." 

After 9/11, Nakagawa found that the work had been transformed by the tragedy. On the canvas, he now saw the star-shaped moss arranged in horizontal bands of color that evoked the American flag. Rather than sunlight, the light permeating the surface represented those who had been killed on 9/11, expressed as shining stars. 

The painting was shown publicly in 2003 at the Asian American Arts Centre in New York’s Chinatown, in an exhibition entitled "Below the Canal: After 9/11." The work remained in Nakagawa’s possession until 2015, when it was purchased by art collector and real estate developer Alan Ginsberg. Having lived through the trauma of finding and fleeing the area with his two daughters, Ginsberg was deeply moved by "Stars of the Forest: Elegy for 9/11." Ginsberg displayed the painting in his home before offering it to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. 

Naoto Nakagawa was born in Kobe, Japan, and immigrated to the United States in 1962, leaving art school in Japan to follow his dreams in New York City. His work is included in many public and private collections across the world. Now in his early 70s, Nakagawa remains active as an artist and continues to produce new work. 

By Amanda Ong, 9/11 Memorial & Museum

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