Canadian artist hopes to heal 9/11 survivors with art

After surviving a devastating fire, a collection of 9/11 sketches by Toronto artist John Coburn will be exhibited in New York.

John Coburn has always felt a special connection to New York. For more than 30 years, the Hamilton-born visual artist has travelled to the Big Apple to sketch and paint.

"The traffic and the noise and the energy is what turns me on to draw," Coburn says.  

When the two planes crashed into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, he watched from Toronto in a "sad, shocked state."

"I didn't know anyone personally who died that day," Coburn says. "But for me, it was the city of my muse."

He was working on an animation project in Toronto at the time, but as soon as the work was finished in November, he headed to New York. "I couldn't watch it on TV anymore. I just wanted to feel it for myself and feel the pain."

His sketches and encounters were turned into the collection Healing Hearts, which was published in 2003 and distributed to the families of 9/11 victims.

A decade after the attacks, the Healing Hearts sketches are making their way back to New York to be shared once again. But this time, they're a little more weathered around the edges.

'City of my muse'

This sketch of the Manhattan skyline is part of John Coburn's series Healing Hearts, which commemorates New York in the months after 9/11. (Hassan Arshad/CBC)

Back in 2001, Coburn drew scenes of memorials, families and volunteers in New York. He ended up in St. Paul's Chapel, a church near Ground Zero that served as a relief centre for firefighters, police officers and victims' families.

There he met Thomas Taylor, a chaplain who encouraged him to turn his sketches into a book that dealt with the theme of healing.

"That really moved me to think that maybe a simple little ink drawing might [help] someone," Coburn says.

As he moved through churches, subways and police stations, he stopped to ask mothers, fathers, policemen and firefighters a hopeful question: "Is there something you could share with me that might help someone get out of bed the next day?"

Coburn spent a year traveling back and forth between Toronto and New York. During that time, he sketched children playing in parks, firefighters eating together and volunteers cooking for police officers. Each time, he asked his subjects to relate some advice or an anecdote that would help the healing process for anyone affected by Sept. 11.

He recorded these thoughts in the hopes of one day publishing them. But turning his collection of sketches and notes into a bound book proved easier said than done. He needed a designer, a publisher and a means of distributing the books to the families.

"It was George that kept me going," Coburn says, referring to George Cain, a 35-year-old New York firefighter who died on Sept. 11.

Coburn had met Rosemary Cain, George's mother, in the Salvation Army tent near Ground Zero. The massive tent served as a feeding station for hundreds of volunteers in the area. After sharing her son's story with Coburn, Rosemary took out a photo of George.

"She handed it to me and she said, 'If your book can help people remember my son George, then it's worthwhile,'" Coburn says.

Toronto artist John Coburn recalls a 2006 fire that destroyed much of his work, but miraculously spared his sketch series on 9/11. (Hassan Arshad/CBC)

He says he often thought of Cain during the many months he spent working on the book. His persistence paid off and Coburn found a designer, a publisher and a shipping company that were all willing to donate their services to make Healing Hearts a reality.

In Jan. 2003, 2,800 copies of the book were sent to victims' families.

A terrible night

In the years after, the original Healing Hearts sketches were stored in Coburn's Toronto studio. One night in 2006, Coburn got a distressing call. "I received a phone call at four in the morning from a studio mate saying that the whole building was on fire," he says.

He rushed to the scene and watched in horror as flames engulfed the 100-year-old building that housed his life's work. 

"I said to the fire chief, 'The most important body of work I've ever done in my life is in there,'" he says. Coburn didn't have much hope when a firefighter handed him what looked like a pile of soot a few hours later.

"I opened it up and all the drawings were in there, all burned around the edges and very water-stained - but intact," he says. "I couldn't believe it." Coburn lost hundreds of drawings and paintings in the fire, but all of the original Healing Hearts sketches and photos survived, including the picture of George Cain.

"It's hard to know why, but when I saw that card and that picture of George that inspired this whole book, there was not a doubt [in my mind] that there are good spirits up there, and that if you do something good in this world, it deserves to be acknowledged." 

Second showing

After the fire, Coburn was determined to share his sketches with the world again.

John Coburn poses in front of the Toronto building that houses his current studio. (Hassan Arshad/CBC)

"They are meant to be somewhere other than sitting alone in my studio. If the gods saved them from this fire, then maybe it's time to do something with them," says Coburn.

The sketches will be exhibited in New York Sept.1-15, and will also be featured in a documentary about the book. As the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, Coburn's thoughts are with the families he met a decade ago. 

"I put my heart and I put my love out to you guys because I know that it doesn't stop for you at the 10th anniversary," Coburn says. "I know it must be a challenge for you, so I wish you another great day and another great year and another great decade to follow."