In Pen and Ink, Artist John Coburn Captures Hope and Resilience at Ground Zero

  • July 20, 2023
Framed drawing of altered lower Manhattan skyline, with upper left corner singed and missing a piece

"Taj Mahal." Gift of Canadian artist John Coburn and Thomas G. Beckett, Beckett Fine Art Ltd.

After watching television news coverage of the 9/11 attacks from his Toronto home, former New Yorker and artist John Coburn felt compelled to witness the devastation firsthand and to see whether his artwork might provide emotional support to the recovery effort.

He arrived in the U.S. in the late fall of 2001 and made his way to Ground Zero. Carrying a copy of a drawing he had made of the Twin Towers and the lower Manhattan skyline years earlier, he snuck into the guarded perimeter and set up a folding chair in the shadow of the wreckage.

Immediately, a police officer approached and told him to leave. But when Coburn showed the officer the drawing, the officer softened and responded simply: “You have to do what you have to do.” Coburn was allowed to stay and draw. 

Within the devastation he witnessed, Coburn saw opportunities to capture the city’s spirit and drive for recovery, and to transform that pain and chaos into something meaningful. Using pen and ink, he depicted the valor, generosity, and warmth that he witnessed on the streets of lower Manhattan, and at the respite centers serving the Ground Zero community in the fall and winter following the attacks.

His art inspired survivors and onlookers alike. As he grew to know individuals working at Ground Zero, as well as bereaved relatives of the victims, many asked for copies of the pictures he drew. He collected their addresses and stayed in touch.

John later compiled his drawings into a book called, “Healing Hearts: A Tribute in Drawings.” It was financed through donations from many who had been touched by John’s work. Copies of it went out free to the families of the victims.

The original drawings produced in New York during the aftermath period, meanwhile, were nearly lost when Coburn’s studio in Toronto caught fire in 2006. Of all the works destroyed or disfigured, only his Healing Hearts drawings were salvageable – some virtually untouched except for the burnt edges of the paper sheets on which they were drawn.

John Coburn's artistic journey at Ground Zero serves as a testament to the transformative power of art and the resilience of the human spirit. His ability to create something uplifting amidst devastation continues to inspire generations, reminding us of the enduring power of artistic expression and how it can help us process tragedy, while healing at the same time.

By 9/11 Memorial Staff

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