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Looking Back on September 11

George Kokines. September 11. Mixed Media. Elgin, IL. (Photo credit: Chris Johnson)

On September 11th I attended the Elgin Choral Union’s “Concert of Remembrance”. For the performance the Elgin Choral Union, Elgin Symphony Orchestra, and Elgin Children’s Chorus performed John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls”. The performance was riveting. As the music came to a crescendo and the recorded voices continued to list their dead loved ones, I could hear not only the crashing of the towers but the anger of those left behind. For twenty-five minutes, my ears, eyes, and mind were focused wholly on the piece, taking in its every painful emotion. When it finally ended, there was no applause. The musician’s left the stage in silence.

Meanwhile, in the lobby sat a second monumental piece created by a survivor of the attacks. “September 11” by George Kokines stretched over twenty feet wide and rose over 10 feet tall at its highest point. George’s visceral interpretation of that fateful day greeted audience members as they took a break before the concert’s second half.

Painting is not as direct of an art as classical music. Rather than fill a room with feeling emotion, it reveals its power in silence. Still, the violent reds and scarred surfaces of George’s large scale canvases screamed out with their own power. As I studied them I began to feel immersed in the chaos of the attacks. I sat down with George the week before the concert to learn about his experiences on September 11 and what inspired his powerful paintings.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): Could you tell me a bit about your experiences on September 11th?

George Kokines (GK): The city smelled of flesh. You could smell the burning of flesh throughout the city. Then there were all these photographs of people.  “Have you seen? Have you seen? Have you seen?”

Every time I go back to New York I avoid that area. Cause I used to live right over there. When I was in the hospital, they asked me, “Where was it?” and they had a map. I was at the bulls eye. [I pointed], “that’s me”.

I don’t really know anyone there in Chicago that was there too. And I don’t know anybody that was as close as I was. At that time I was 70 years old.


George Kokines. September 11 (detail). Mixed Media. Elgin, IL. (Photo credit: Zachary Johnson)


ZJ: How did you decide on your color palette for your pieces?

GK: It’s interesting because in a way it looks very patriotic. As I was working at it I looked at it and said, I’ll be a son of a bitch it’s red, white, and blue. If I chose that, that would be jingoistic. So, I thought, why did I choose this?

It was red because ground zero is red and the Holocaust is red — death you know.

In the earlier drawings of the piece, [there was a] figure that was looking up, but it was so depressing. Eventually everything became too literal. It was like looking at a pamphlet, but I wanted to tell a story, tell a moment…So, as the piece kept changing, I found myself being motivated. It was like I had been working on this thing for years just to get something that one could sense or feel. That to me was most important. It’s more important to sense and feel than it is to see. Cause there’s nothing like the actuality.

ZJ: What’s your creative process like?

GK: I don’t know, I just do whatever the hell I want. Something happens in my life, it becomes part of the painting. I usually have to paint five paintings to get one. It can never be laid out in a drawing; Drawings are different things. Sometimes they’re ideas, sometimes they’re not.

I didn’t want to make an autopsy. I didn’t want to make a conveyance. I didn’t want to have to paint dead people or blood or all that. But I needed to have a kind of chaos. That was important to me.

ZJ: How did you decide how many pieces to make? Did you just work until it felt right to stop?

GK: If I could do it in one piece, I’d do it on one piece. But I don’t decide on it. There is no decision.

[I thought] what am I trying to show here? What am I trying to say? What the hell do I need to say and why should I need to say that? Or do I just want to get a subject that is depicted? And I didn’t want anything depicted.

ZJ: How did you narrow in on how you wanted to depict it? Was it just working through it?

GK: Well, you know, I found some debris and I started thinking, debris shows the thing. It could have been many things. I could have shown a snow storm. It was the first thing I thought about after the plane hit, that the air was filled with paper from the buildings. It was all over – it was unbelievable to see that.

The subject lends itself. The technique, the perspective – all those elements lend themselves to what you’re thinking and feeling. Well, how do you make it visual? Well that’s what I do. I make it visual. I paint over and over and over.

You know it was a beautiful day. It was a beautiful blue day, that’s the thing that amazed me about it. What I did was paint a peaceful day with the tower and the church –the moment before. I had to do something. I’d been working on the thing for so long, I’d carried it through ten states. When I moved here, the dumpster was outside, I thought, why not just take everything and dump it and go to Spain?

So it worked out ok. I’m not unhappy about it… I can’t make the building fall down before your eyes like a movie can. So I reach for something more inside of you – inside of myself. I had to make something unreal real.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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