A Letter from the Artist

better angels: the firefighters of 9/11 is 343 individual oil paintings of the New York City firefighters who died on 9/11. Each firefighter’s portrait is painted intimately onto a small burned block of wood. There is a compelling personality in each face that leads the viewer to imagine the individuals – the lives they lived, the people they loved – while the sheer volume of faces measures the enormity of the tragedy. Assembled, this large multi-part work is 4’ high by 21’ long.

My name is Dawn Siebel. Although I had lived in Manhattan for 22 years, I was in my new home in Colorado on September 11th, 2001. I awoke that morning to my clock radio just before seven and the DJ said that there was a report of a plane crashing into the Trade Center. He thought it was a small plane. I heard those words like a New Yorker, went straight downstairs and turned on the TV. Like millions of others, I watched the rest of the terrible day unfold as it happened. Around three o’clock that afternoon someone said, “We think that more than 300 firefighters died today.” That was when I sobbed. That one sentence brought all the horrors of the day emotionally home for me. They were the ones who ran into the buildings. Twelve days later when The New York Times printed a two-page spread with all 343 firefighter photographs, this project was born.

More than 3000 hours were spent over six years to create the paintings, beginning with cutting and then burning the blocks of baltic birch on which the portraits are painted. An equal number of hours were devoted to finding a path to bring the exhibit into being.  Beginning in 2009, my partner in this effort was the NATIONAL FALLEN FIREFIGHTER’S FOUNDATION, whose mission is to memorialize fallen firefighters and support their families and co-workers in rebuilding their lives. I am forever indebted to them for their friendship and support. Through them I have now met hundreds of firefighters.

better angels was first presented to the public in June 2011, followed by a ten-city tour across the US in 2011 and 2012. Venues included a special exhibit in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., and the World Financial Center in New York, across the street from Ground Zero.

As I write, it is the end of December 2015. On January 12, 2016, better angels: the firefighters of 9/11 will begin a six-month exhibit at the Springfield Museums in Springfield, MA. 2016 will mark the fifteenth anniversary.

Abraham Lincoln ended his first inaugural address calling for the Nation to heal its wounds by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” For this artist, these 343 firemen represent New York, the FDNY, their selfless profession, and also – in the way of heroes – the possibility that each of us may rise to the “better angels” of our own nature.

— dawn howkinson siebel, December 2015

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

— Abraham Lincoln, concluding words to first inaugural address, March 4, 1861

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