Writing on the Wall: Tom Joyce Fabricates for the National September 11 Memorial Museum

Ten words and thirty-seven forged steel letters, their material having had genesis as World Trade Center steel, spell out a sentence by Virgil, from The Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” As epitaph to unidentified human remains from the September 11 tragedy, the thought will hang in one line, along a 100-foot span of concrete wall of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York. (The Museum’s opening had been scheduled for September 2013, although a “tumult” now in play is threatening that opening date goal.) The concrete wall will mark an actual divider between the museum space and thousands of unidentified victims’ remains from 9-11, held at the office of the New York City Medical Examiner.

This Monday evening in Santa Fe, some 50 people gathered by invitation at artist-blacksmith Tom Joyce‘s Santa Fe studio for a vertically stacked, rag-right view of the sculptural characters that Joyce and a team have forged, of the Aeneid quotation and attribution to Virgil. (The letters are awaiting final patination, and then will be fully finished.)

The font chosen for the project was Bembo, modeled on a 15th-century typeface cut by Francesco Griffo for Aldus Manutius’ printing of De Aetna in 1495 in Venice. The lower-case letter “g” of the Virgil, proved a special challenge to forge, said Joyce.

Addressing his invited guests and acknowledging his team that included a patent lawyer from Los Alamos National Laboratories, a Santa Fe graphic designer, and fellow iron-forgers and fabricators, Joyce called the National September 11 Memorial Museum Project “a difficult project. A lot of delicate issues were addressed,” he said.

Among those were a controversy, reported in April 2011 in The New York Times, about whether the Virgil quotation was appropriate or not, to this context. Caroline Alexander, citing the tendency to turn to “hallowed” texts, quoted the Loeb translation of the Aeneid in her NYT article: ““Happy pair! If aught my verse avail, no day shall ever blot you from the memory of time.” . . .  (She continued,) At dawn’s light, the severed heads of the two Trojans are paraded by the enemy on spears.The central sentiment that the young men were fortunate to die together could, perhaps, at one time have been defended as a suitable commemoration of military dead who fell with their companions. To apply the same sentiment to civilians killed indiscriminately in an act of terrorism, however, is grotesque.

Classically elegant, however, are the letters themselves, which visitors stepped over and between, marveling at the oval almost infinity-like negative space of the Os, the sinewy twining curl of the small-g of “Virgil,” and the scale of the letters which once installed will never again be seen from this vantage.

Rendering of the National September 11 Memorial Museum with inscription installed

Michael Shulan, creative director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, also spoke at Joyce’s studio and acknowledged that the choice of quote – which he said had been his – was contentious. He said that he had sought out classical sources to help illuminate how, when entering the Museum — which will be seven stories underground — visitors will be taking “a walk into the underworld.”

The memorial to the victims which opened last September 11, at the ground level of the former World Trade Center, includes two reflecting pools each of which occupies the footprint of the original north and south towers, water falling around all four sides, with the names of the nearly 3000 victims inscribed on brass parapets. The families of the victims had not wished for the victims’ memorial to be underground; and indeed, the underground siting of unidentified human remains adjacent to the as-yet-unopened Memorial Museum is proving contentious as well, with some 9/11 families apparently readying to take the issue back to court.

Shulan, reflecting on his motivations to take the creative-director job of the National September 11 Memorial Museum project, said that despite the complexities and the politics of rebuilding in New York, he had been guided by principles including collaboration, artfulness, and a desire to bring “history into the present day.” He said he also held a goal that the National September 11 Memorial Museum be “quiet, eloquent and modest.”

Michael Shulan, creative director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum

“This seems to me to speak wonderfully to that. It’s better than we ever imagined,” Shulan said, indicating the letters on the floor in front of him. He elaborated that Joyce’s project  is, as of now, the single piece of artist’s work that the Museum has commissioned to date.

For Joyce, who learned blacksmithing at 13 in rural El Rito, New Mexico (and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2003), this commission is hardly the first time that his work has engaged the deeply layered histories of steel or iron objects, or the relationship of blacksmiths to blood and soil. Joyce was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. On the first anniversary of the attacks, he was working as an artist in residence at the Kohler Arts/Industry casting plant in Wisconsin, and incorporated a small vial of ash that a friend had sent him from the World Trade Center site into an alloy that also included sand from a mandala created by Tibetan monks in Santa Fe and healing dirt from the Roman Catholic shrine at Chimayo, New Mexico.

At left, Tom Joyce’s sculptural form based on the vesica piscis

Out of the alloy he designed a sculpture based on the form of the vesica piscis, the fish symbol common to Christianity and Islam. The sculpture resembles a football bisected by a fold. Hidden inside the fold is a three-dimensional tetrahedron adapted from the fish symbol. (For my story that appeared in 2005 in the New York Times, visit this link.)

His team that aided in the forging and fabrication included David Salazar, a patent attorney for Los Alamos National Laboratories, who helped negotiate the contracts; Christopher Thomson and Susan Livermore, with forging; Michael Motley, with graphic design; Dennis Sanders, with fabrication; and Dan Nibbelink, with water-jet cutting. Joyce said he plans to be in New York this fall to oversee the placement of the letters in situ.

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