Saturday, September 16, 2006

Minnesota Artisans Mobilize Community to Create 9/11 Stained-Glass Memorial Window: Part 2

Editor's note: This week, as we mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, GoodBiz113 is privileged to recognize a far-reaching project spearheaded by two exemplary artists/citizens/small-business owners in 2002. This is the second in a two-part series.

The Upshot
The towering tribute that Stephanie and Mike Podulke coordinated catches rays of light as it annexes the west side of Mayo Civic Center and Rochester Art Center. It aptly reflects the heartfelt spirit of the 400-plus volunteers who donated time, energy and sentimental glass fragments to build the meditative and symbolic salute to 9/11's heroes and victims.

At the 9/11 Memorial Window's site is a small stand, on which a comment book rests. Inside the book are photos that chronicle the memorial's assembly, plus memories and observations recorded by 150 to 200 volunteers. Among them:
* Photo, labeled "Clear shards, crystals for Twin Towers...There is a special place in heaven for those who wrap little pieces!"
* Note from the Rochester Fire Department firefighter who took a copper panel back to the fire station, where he and other firefighters punched 343 star-holes to represent the number of New York City Fire Department comrades who died on 9/11.
* Note from John and Cheryl Coleman, who worked on panel No. 7. "We used leaded crystal wine glasses given to us by Cheryl's brother, Col. George White, U.S. Army [Ret.], as a wedding gift in 1969."
* Blessing delivered by Rev. Dillman Baker Sorrells [now retired from First UU] during dedication ceremony on Nov. 23, 2002
* Poem by Abbie Whitehead, DVM, after working on the window for the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minnesota, on October 20, 2002:

Stained Glass Window

Our tears have become crystal
now that the mist has cleared.
Surrounded by their sisters
and soldered by their brothers
all soldiered in together
recruits for a war that was not theirs.
The rainbow was their lives,
all the colors were their faces.
These let the light come shining,
and let the angels fly.
For they are still among us now
we see them in the stars.
And through the crystal
we must see
the light in every one on earth;
help others to see, too --
That war and terror are not the way
to let the light shine through.

In October 2002, Dr. Abbie Whitehead, a veterinarian, was visiting from Fairfield, Cal., to have surgery at Rochester's Mayo Clinic. One day, she spied one of Podulkes' hand-painted signs and drove up to join their volunteer project.

"I thought it was neat they were doing it, and that they were letting other people get involved, too," reflected Whitehead. "I knew that talking to people while doing something physical and creative would help take my mind off why I was there. Plus, since I used to be a farrier, I was pretty adept at hammering onto a pritchel. That came in handy for punching stars on copper."

Whitehead grew up on Long Island, and had a 10-year military career in the Veterinary Corps. She was still in the military on 9/11 [stationed at Travis AFB], and knew two people who died that day: a distant cousin, and the wife of a Pentagon colonel.

"I think 9/11 affected all of us and opened a vulnerability on our own soil," said Whitehead. "I know every time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit my mother now, I think about it and recall exactly when it happened: 5:45 a.m. [PT]. It's akin to the day JFK was shot."

Thinking back to October 2002, Whitehead was poetic about her time working on the memorial. "While doing some soldering and punching star-holes one night, the Big Dipper was out," she said. "You know, the more you travel, the more aware you become that we all look up at the same sky and stars."

Within a year of completing the memorial, the Podulkes were publicly honored for their efforts. In November 2003, they won a prestigious CUDE award [creative initiative category], bestowed by the mayor-appointed Rochester Committee on Urban Design and the Environment [CUDE].

Sandi Goslee, senior planner for the Rochester/Olmsted Planning Department, said the competition is consistently keen for CUDE awards, currently marking their 20th year. "We've always had great nominees and even greater winners," she said. "Ever since the 9/11 Memorial Window was installed, everyone's raved about how wonderful it is -- both in terms of its aesthetics and the process that led to the end result."

"If you want to create something great, you've got to take risks," noted landscape architect Andy Masterpole and 2003-2005 CUDE chair. "The Podulkes did that. Physically, their memorial is great. Then, the way they managed to get so many people involved...Well, that's not easy to do these days. Their entire project was an artistic triumph of community spirit and Americanism at its best."

In December 2003, during the 20th Mayor's Medal of Honor ceremony, Stephanie and Mike Podulke received the distinguished Legacy Award for their involvement in neighborhood and civic affairs. That accolade was also well-deserved, said E. Christine Schultze, an architect who serves on CUDE, Rochester Planning and Zoning Commission, Design Review Committee for MnDOT work on Highways 52 and 14, and board of directors for 1000 Friends of Minnesota.

"To me, it's incredibly important to recognize urban initiatives such as the Podulkes' project," noted Schultze. "Artists who have that kind of collaborative and guiding spirit, thoughtful approach, and the power to inspire others and work through people, deserve all the support their communities can render."

OK, but why build a 9/11 memorial in Rochester, Minn. -- so far away from Ground Zero? "Essentially, Rochester is an agrarian town; there's a real undercurrent of agriculture here," Schultze explained. "It's important to remember that, in some sense, 9/11 was like a war. It's hard for people to talk about and simply isn't discussed. That kind of quiet absorption is very Midwestern and is always there.

"To me, it seems perfectly logical that this memorial would happen here. It's like six degrees of separation. 9/11 was part of the entire country. Yes, it happened in New York City, some 1,200-plus miles away. But it's something we all care about, and somehow need to connect with that and express that."

Phil Wheeler, director of the Rochester/Olmsted Planning Department, agrees. "Some of the closest parallels include Pearl Harbor, JFK and the Challenger disaster," he said. "Tragic events such as 9/11 remind us that we're part of the same community. Mike and Stephanie's project helped people deal with their sense of loss, and provided a sense of involvement and control."

Wheeler and his wife, Sue, donated some of Sue's late mother's glass to the memorial. He appreciates observing personal reactions to the community art -- especially, those of the thousands of international visitors who visit Rochester annually.

"Our 9/11 Memorial Window seems to have an effect on people -- not unlike the impact that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall has," said Wheeler. "It reminds everyone that we're all part of the same community."

The Financials
Stephanie and Mike Podulke provided tools and equipment, and donated materials and supplies to construct the 9/11 Memorial Window; Olmsted County donated use of its fairgrounds for construction; the City of Rochester contributed $4,000 for supplies and framing; and Mayo Civic Center paid for the installation. Estimated market value: $40,000.

"The Podulkes never asked for supply money; I asked them what they needed," Hunziker noted. "Imagine using broken glass to make that kind of statement. Sheer genius."

Sutherland agreed. "No one could have watched video coverage of 9/11 events without being affected," he said. "What happened in this country could have happened anywhere in the world. The Podulkes helped us see and feel that. And what did we give up? Just a little public space. That's easy to do, and we -- meaning all cities -- need to do more of it in order to encourage more community art."

Donna Drews, executive director of Mayo Civic Center, frequently gets to note people's reactions to the memorial. "There's no doubt that, on both a local and international scale, the memorial creates a sense of awe in everyone who experiences it," she said. "We were very pleased that the Civic Center was chosen for its installation. It gives us the opportunity to diversify our role by sharing the 9/11 Memorial Window with visitors from all over the world."

The Takeaway
So, after incurring inestimable out-of-pocket expenses and devoting time -- time that could have otherwise been spent on actual paid projects -- would the Podulkes do their 9/11 project again? In a heartbeat.

"Why do we live?" Mike rhetorically asks. "Time comes out of the business. Sure, it's a sacrifice of sorts. But it's the right thing to do. Involving others in creating a tangible expression of our collective grief and sympathy was, for us, the right thing to do. So we did it."

What would the Podulkes tell other artists and small-business owners who endeavor to make a difference in their communities? "Have the courage to dream about it," Stephanie advised. "Don't wait for permission or approval. Just move forward with your vision."

It's no secret that entrepreneurs have, uh, control issues. How do they steer projects that require a certain degree of hands-off collaboration? "Be consumer-friendly and wary of over-controlling it," said Mike. "Just provide the supplies and tools needed, dream, and be willing to relinquish control. Organizers need to let go and give people the power to express themselves."

"We knew that we couldn't design the memorial by committee," Stephanie explained. "So, we spent a lot of time visualizing an approximate end result, then did a very basic design. People could act freely in our well-planned, experiential playgound...On the rainbow-colored ribbon, for instance, volunteers did a fantastic job of being sensitive and intuitive."

Then there's the responsibility of being accountable to stakeholders -- i.e., beyond any requisite financial reporting. "No doubt, we owe a note of gratitude to the city and county for giving this opportunity to the community," said Mike.

"Yes," Stephanie nodded. "Thanks go to the city, county and citizens for believing in us and having the courage to create and display this memorial."

Last question: What if -- perish the thought -- the community's 7-foot-by-33-foot 9/11 Memorial Window breaks? Without a beat, Mike responded, "We know about 500 people who can fix it."

For a thought-provoking take on the five-year anniversary of 9/11, check out Bloggermann.