I arrived in the US around the fifth or sixth of September that year for the start of my fall workshop tour. Emigrating with my family to Sydney from Connecticut in 1999, I made regular trips back to the US to teach art and creativity workshops all over the country.
The first week-long event was at a rustic and remote art retreat, Touchstone Center for Crafts, deep in the woods of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a few hours from Pittsburgh. A total of about 300 people had gathered there, away from electronic media, pausing their busy lives to come together and spend an immersive week in the craft of their choice: ironworking, ceramics, painting, drawing, glassblowing and my own class in making jewelry and sculpture with found materials.
My class of 16 students represented almost as many states in the US. Our group became very tight knit very quickly as we completed our third day of the course.
The morning of Tuesday, September 11, I was demonstrating some techniques to the students when one of the staff knocked on the studio door. Apparently there had been an accident in New York City – an airplane crashing into a building, but nothing more was known.
Incredibly, we might never have known anything was amiss that day at all if it weren’t for a maintenance worker who was on his way out the door to the retreat that morning and just caught the initial live broadcast as he was stepping out. There was absolutely no phone reception, no radios or TVs that would have clued us in.
One of my students had family in New York and went off to speak with them (they weren’t in that area of the city, luckily, but traumatized nonetheless). Soon details of that awful disaster began to seep into this peaceful, serene environment. Everyone huddled in their studio cabins, commiserating and wondering, trying to make sense of the senseless. And as the morning went on, we discovered that United Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, an hour from where we sat.
By about 11 AM, when the full scale of this tragedy reached us, everyone at the retreat was summoned into the open field that was ringed by the workshop buildings. A few hundred beautiful, frightened faces stood in a massive circle, hands linked in silence. Before long a question loomed for us all: do we all break apart now, midway through our week-long experience and return to our loved ones?
It didn’t take long for there to be a consensus. We would stay for the rest of the week, pouring our creativity, our grief, our feeling into what we produced. From that moment, this large group of people united in purpose and energy, infusing each of the workshops with awful, wonderful urgency and life. Decades later I still speak with some of those students from my class; every one of us has shared this “where were you when” tale many times since.
When the workshop finished that following weekend, I left the retreat and traveled to Pittsburgh where I would stay for a few days with a friend. It was there, several days after the fact that I first saw the horrific images, videos and news reports of this world-changing event. And it slowly dawned on me how truly fortunate I was – all of us at that art retreat were – not to have had the visual memory burned in as it was happening, but only days later, days after processing the event first through our creativity, our voices, our shared humanity. I don’t think that kind of isolation is possible in the world now, with smartphones keeping us all minutes from every world occurrence.
In the end, the way I experienced this uncontrollable marker of change allowed me to filter it through the thing I have most agency with – my creativity. I know my students and everyone there in the woods that week feels the same.
Keith LoBue is a self described ‘stuffsmith…an artist guy who likes his objects found.’ You can find out more about him and the work he does here.