A long-anticipated memorial to the 9/11 tragedy, known as the Memoria Project, stands on a 1.7 acre waterside park at Highlands, N.J., with a backdrop of the New York City skyline.
The oversized, striking sculptures that form the memorial are the brainchild of Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts sculpture professor Stephen Shaheen and represent an almost 10-year labor of love for the young teacher. Moreover countless members of the community have also helped to create the memorial giving it the depth of meaning and personal reconciliation that Shaheen was seeking. Shaheen notes, “People got a lot out of the opportunity to be involved in something tangible following an event where people where helpless to act.”
Shaheen was studying in Italy on Sept. 11, 2001, and was coincidentally being visited by his long-time friend Evan Urbania. Shaheen grew up in the town of Rumson, N.J., 10 minutes away from Highlands, and Urbania in the next town. This area, along with Highlands was in Shaheen’s words, “profoundly impacted by 9/11,” because he explains, “Many of the people who died had taken the ferry from Highlands to Manhattan that day. Nearly 8,000 were evacuated by boat to Highlands on 9/11, which became a major triage point for the recovery operation.”
Shaheen and Urbania, in Shaheen’s words, “went through the 9/11 experience together,” and it did not take long on their return to the US to realize that “Many of the memorials [to 9/11] that existed were, “personal effects,” or in other words, “things that were deteriorating.” Shaheen quickly conceived the idea of a lasting memorial involving the art that he both loved and taught: sculpture.
Urbania meanwhile, “figured out the nuts and bolts” and set about incorporating Shaheen’s idea as a non-profit. Thus the Memoria Project was born and, in a flurry of activity, a significant amount of fundraising was successfully achieved.
Consequently the main sculptures were carved during 2002 out of some 40 thousand dollars of white Imperial Danby marble donated by a quarry in Danby, Vt. This gift of marble – in fact, the same stone that was used for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.– “gave great momentum to the beginning stages of the project,” recalls Shaheen. At this time, the higher than 13 foot sculptures were being created in a National Park at the end of Sandy Hook, N.J., and in association with the sculpting process, some 37 free lectures and workshops were held.
After the initial burst of activity however, progress slowed to an extended halt, while the location and installation were, “Figured out.”
Finally, with the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaching and, in some ways, providing the necessary impetus for completion of the memorial, everything came together. A permanent location in Veteran’s Memorial Park in Highlands N.J. was finalized, and ground broken on the new site Aug. 22, 2011. A renewed sense of purpose enabled the stones to be in place by Sept. 9 allowing a formal commemorative ceremony to be held Sept. 11 in the new location. Between that ceremony and the subsequent Oct 23 dedication the same year, final details such as the grass planting and lighting installation were completed.
Another issue that has taken a considerable amount of time and energy was the carving of granite blocks with all 2,987 names of those who lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001. Shaheen found there were, in fact, four lists of the deceased to reconcile, which proved to be a labor-intensive process. The lists were closely examined for duplications and inconsistencies in terms of titles and name suffixes. Finally, only in August of this year, was the list finalized and engraving begun.
Brian Craig-Wankiiri, Chair of the Sculpture Department at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, comments, “Steve’s determination to produce a lasting memorial to the 9/11 victims without official funding, while at the same time involving innumerable volunteers, is a testament to his remarkable character. The finished sculpture is equally a testament to his extraordinary talent and vision. We are all honored and privileged to have such an accomplished and ambitious artist as a member of our faculty.”
The celebrations on Oct. 23 were joyous in terms of the completion of the project but still tinged with an air of sadness as a mark of respect to the events which caused the memorial to be built. The location of the memorial, looking across the Hudson River to Manhattan, will always have what Shaheen sensitively describes as a “visual connection to New York City,” which was precisely his intent.
Examples of more of Shaheen’s works will be on display in the Chauncey Stillman Gallery at Lyme Academy College as part of the Studio Faculty Exhibition, which opens Friday, Oct. 5 with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. and is on view through Nov. 17, 2012. Admission to the exhibition is free and the gallery is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.