Cover Story

Art aflame

"Art aflame" Continued...

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2005

And so "Mako" Fujimura, with an impressive exhibition, an established ministry dedicated to promoting thoughtful art in modern Babylon, and a presidential appointment to the National Council on the Arts, is WORLD's eighth Daniel of the Year.

Although Mr. Fujimura's solo shows and formal exhibitions extend back two decades, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have a fervent claim on his current work. He, his wife, and three children live in an apartment three blocks from the World Trade Center. On that morning son CJ, then 10, and daughter Lydia, age 8 at the time, headed to the first day of school at P.S. 234 near the north tower. Older son Ty, then 13, began eighth grade that day at a middle school nearby. Mr. Fujimura's wife Judith left the apartment to run errands, and the artist traveled by subway to a Bible study uptown.

Mr. Fujimura's wife saw the first plane go into the north tower and before understanding what was happening, found herself instinctively running back to the apartment for passports and important documents. Returning by subway to lower Manhattan, Mr. Fujimura was trapped beneath Ground Zero for over an hour, until eventually the trains were backed north two stops and passengers were let out. "You could say we were too close to know what was going on," Mr. Fujimura recalled. Above ground swirled a gray storm of ash, with stricken, blood-smattered New Yorkers rushing past him: "There were 8,000 kids around the towers at the time of the attacks, and I didn't know where mine were."

He found CJ first. "If I'd come out of school five seconds earlier," CJ told his father, "I would have been in trouble." What happened is now legend. Firefighters and teachers saved the lives of Lower Manhattan's schoolchildren, evacuating many to nearby stores and other schools, hustling them behind sealed doors just before a jet-fueled fireball incinerated bystanders and torched vehicles for blocks around. The students heard and in some cases saw the deafening avalanche of glass, cement, steel, and people as first the south, then the north tower collapsed.

Mrs. Fujimura managed to locate the couple's other two children. Safe and reunited, Mr. Fujimura and his family found themselves homeless. The collapse of the towers shook their own building, exploded glass, created a gas leak, and filled the block with debris. They would not go home again until December. School would not reopen until February. Everywhere they were surrounded by the deaths of friends, neighbors, friends of friends, or dads of friends.

While his family found temporary housing with a series of friends, Mr. Fujimura returned to his Tribeca studio a few blocks west of Ground Zero. There he found the sirens of 9/11 persistently shrieking in his head, along with "my own inept, feeble prayers during my subway ride home as literal hell was breaking forth above." He wrestled with the artistry of the terrorists, the penchant for destruction in his own heart, and the idols to modernism now fallen in his backyard. Then came the seed of an idea, and he wrote an e-mail to friends: "Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom."

Tribeca Temporary grew from that seed, a "Ground Zero teahouse" and a community space for artists displaced by the attacks. With fellow painter Hiroshi Senju, Mr. Fujimura turned a studio into a place for restoration and healing from spiritual as well as artistic losses where, Mr. Fujimura said, "beauty too is defined as a participant in the suffering of the world."

At Tribeca Temporary incomplete works were the norm and beauty-through-brokenness the theme, yet the artists managed to pull together exhibits of the work and gained a following.

Faced every day with the smells and sounds of Ground Zero, and at nightfall with its floodlights, Mr. Fujimura found more and more that the way to Shalom was through refining fires. In the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Dante he fixed on the line, "The fire and the rose are one," and launched into his own "knot of fire" with imagery that, too, moved beyond destruction to redemption. Instead of the destruction in his neighborhood, he focused on what he calls the "sacrificial art" of firefighters who protected his children. "Rescue workers imagine saving lives, a beautiful and relevant use of imagination. The artist who tries to be vulnerable will intentionally suffer," he said.

Born in Boston, Mr. Fujimura spent his grade-school years in Japan, graduated from Bucknell, and returned to Japan for six years of study in the traditional nihonga technique under a Tokyo master, earning a master's and a doctorate from Tokyo National University during that time.


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