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September 29th, 2003

Drew Roth art review

by Steven Vincent

It’s been two years since Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, and many observers are wondering-why haven’t contemporary artists responded to the catastrophe? Where is the art about 9/11? And indeed, other than the poignant “Towers of Light” memorial which lit up lower Manhattan in March, 2002, artists-or so their critics have charged-have generally avoided the subject. But not Drew Roth. In fact, the 45-year-old painter, print maker and sculptor made a name for himself by creating a series of distinctive folk-like artworks that reflected the bravery and sacrifice of city workers that took place that day, and in the weeks following. More than artworks, actually, the pieces became instant icons that reflected, and in many ways helped rally, a frightened city’s reaction to the attacks. “The fire department, the police officers, the paramedics-they’re heroes to me,” says Roth, seated in the kitchen of his Soho loft. “I wanted to create something to honor them.”

The story actually begins on 9/10, when Roth put the finishing touches on a work he called “Digging for Gold.” An example of the artist’s playful, almost na?╔é─¨ve style-Roth favors bright colors and repetitious imagery that fills the canvas, almost like a child’s bedspread-this oil on canvas painting depicted a series of heavy construction machines known as “backhoes” displayed on a field of abstract shapes and garish hues. “Obviously, the painting had nothing to do with the Trade Center,” Roth notes, “but starting the next day, when the terrorists attacked and the West Side Highway filled up with backhoes and grapplers, I knew this painting was important.”

Prompted by a friend, Roth designed a poster from the image and by mid-September had 6,000 copies run off. “I didn’t want to put ?╔Č┤9/11′ on the bottom, so I put ?╔Č┤Heroes,'” recalls the artist. His choice was inspired. City workers, unsure at that early date whether the city would support them, were overjoyed to see the lean, sinewy painter (Roth is an avid swimmer who keeps himself in good physical shape) passing out free posters that praised their efforts to bring New York back to life. Soon, Roth had nearly unlimited access to Ground Zero. “The cops and fire guys and volunteer workmen down there were really touched to see me passing out ?╔Č┤Heroes,'” he recalls. “Firefighters back in their stations would see me on the street and invite me in to have lunch.” He began to feature in articles in New York Press; a newspaper in his hometown of Cleveland wrote a flattering piece about him.

After a while, other people began taking note of the artist’s efforts-which so far had taken place at his own expense. In early 2002, the Department of Design and Construction (which was in charge of the clean-up operation) paid to run off several thousand additional copies of “Heroes.” “There was a social service group in Ohio which ran 5,000 more to pass out to high school kids,” Roth relates. Roth himself donated copies of “Heroes” to New York’s Fire House Museum, the Police Museum and the New York Historical Society. Roth, however, still has the original painting. “People are always asking me to sell it, but I just can’t part with it,” he says. But “Heroes” was not all that Roth did for the men and women engaged at Ground Zero. Near the end of September, 2001, he designed two stickers, one featuring a stylized firefighter above the letters “FDNY,” and a similar image of a police officer with the logo “NYPD.” (He has subsequently extended his sticker repertoire to a soldier and the words “Iraqi Freedom.”) He then ran off some 1,500 copies of the stickers-again, at his own expense. “The guys really liked the image,” Roth says. “One cop said they were ?╔Č┤simple, bold and powerful.'”

In months following 9/11, Roth’s public profile has diminished considerably-a fact that doesn’t much concern him. “After that day, I felt a real sense of arrival,” he remarks. “I felt it touched something deep in me that gave me more confidence as an artist.” Today, Roth continues to paint, exploring a kind of self-taught “Outsider” style that captures the artist’s free-ranging talents and travels throughout Mexico and the Caribbean. He is also working on stickers honoring traffic cops and sanitation workers. “What can I say?” he laughs. “I like unsung heroes.” Given that the artist created and distributed, largely at his own expense, images that helped boost the morale of men and women struggling to repair New York-while never receiving a dime for his efforts-Drew Roth is an unsung hero himself.

-Steven Vincent

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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