Rebuilding, Through the Eyes of First Responder Turned Artist

  • October 1, 2021
Lithograph print of the new World Trade Center standing against a dark but moonlit sky
"Tribute," lithograph on paper.

Artist Brenda Berkman was there for the end - and then the beginning - of the World Trade Center. 

In 1982, she won a sex discrimination case against the FDNY and became one of their first women firefighters, rising to the rank of Captain. That landmark ruling led her - 19 years later - into the vortex of the catastrophe at the World Trade Center. Off-duty that Tuesday morning, she nonetheless responded, arriving at the scene of the attacks just as the North Tower collapsed. Berkman spent September 11 and the ensuing weeks searching for survivors, and then for the remains of fellow fire service members and still unknown numbers of civilians who perished. She lost countless friends and colleagues that day; New York City's skyline lost a piece of its identity. 

Berkman spent another five years with the FDNY before retiring in 2006. After 25 years of service as an emergency responder, she embarked on a new learning journey at the Art Students League. There, she connected closely with stone lithography and the work of Japanese print masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. She began harnessing art as a path out of the personal trauma she had experienced on 9/11 and in the grim months she spent at Ground Zero - and collectively, alongside New York City as a whole. 

For three years, from various familiar points around the city and New Jersey, Berkman used her maturing printmaking skills to document the evolution of lower Manhattan’s skyline through the gradual construction of the new One World Trade Center, with a planned height of 1,776 feet. The 36 prints in Berkman’s study capture the tower's growth from both center stage and more subtle perspectives. Sometimes, anonymous self-portraits appear in the compositions. Several views incorporate glimpses of the 9/11 Memorial, including the 2010 restoration of the Survivor Tree, prior to the Memorial’s public dedication.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the events of 9/11, the series is the subject of a special exhibition, "Altered Skyline: Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade Center," at Minnesota’s Flaten Art Museum, on the campus of Berkman's alma mater St. Olaf College. Dr. Jan S. Ramirez, Executive Vice President of Collections and Chief Curator at our Museum, wrote the introduction for the accompanying catalogue. 

On September 17, Ramirez joined Berkman, Flaten Art Museum director Jane Becker Nelson, and St. Olaf faculty for a panel discussion with undergraduates, delving into the prints' deeper meaning and historical context.

Berkman says she would love to see the exhibit spark an ongoing discussion about 9/11 among current students, most of whom were born after the attacks or too young to remember them in any meaningful way. 

"This series is all about the resilience and hope that we have after enduring a terrible event," Berkman says. "I hope people who look at the series see that in the work. It's not about destruction - it's about coming back from destruction." 

In 2016, the 9/11 Memorial Museum acquired one of the full portfolios of Berkman’s “Thirty-Six Views” for its permanent collection. A full-color book about the series can be purchased online

"Altered Skyline: Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade Center" is on view at St. Olaf College's Flaten Art Museum through October 15.   

By 9/11 Memorial Staff

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