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 3500 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. In 2013 the Colorado Springs Fire Department hosted better angels.  On January 2016, better angels began a ten-month special extended exhibit at the Springfield Museums in Springfield, MA.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the portraits were again on view in Trinidad, CO. With the support of the Corazon de Trinidad Creative District, all the firefighters in the County, the tourism board and just about everyone it seems, Trinidad and I proudly hosted better angels: the firefighters of 9/11 from August 28th through November 20th, 2021. In 2022 the paintings were again on display for three months just up the road at the Museum of Friends in Walsenberg, CO.

— dawn howkinson siebel, December 27, 2022

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 inspiration that each of us may rise to the “better angels” of our own nature, too.

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, March 4, 1861

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