‘That’s another firefly;’ Exhibit repurposes artist’s on the ground experiences after 9/11

Kendall Johnson readies his new exhibit, “Ground Zero: A 9/11 Memoir in Word and Image,” which opens Saturday at the Sasse Museum of Art in Pomona. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

By Lisa Butterworth | Special to the Courier

When Kendall Johnson got a phone call from the Chancellor’s office of New York City’s Department of Education just before 7 a.m. on September 11, 2001, he didn’t yet know the twin towers had been hit. But that’s exactly why the head of student services was reaching out. “We don’t know what to do,” she said, describing the huge plume of smoke she could see over lower Manhattan while telling him to turn on his TV.

It’s not surprising she thought to call him. As a renowned psychotraumatologist, the Claremont native had helped train school crisis teams from all five of New York’s boroughs. Within a couple of days, Johnson was in New York himself, assisting in the tragedy’s aftermath.

Now, more than 20 years later, the artist and writer’s exhibit at Pomona’s Sasse Museum of Art examines his experience — the devastation and the hope. Ground Zero: A 9/11 Memoir in Word and Image opens this Saturday, September 9.

Though Johnson is a Vietnam veteran, a former firefighter experienced in battling California’s wildfires, and had years of experience as an on-site traumatic stress consultant, nothing could have prepared him for the crisis he encountered on the ground in New York. Though the training he had given several years prior was based on working as a team to each member’s strengths, in the wake of an event as far-reaching as 9/11, crisis management personnel were simply “doing what they could,” sent out individually to cover as much ground as possible. “Some of them went to schools that were hardly hit at all, and others, they had to catch up with [students] on the street because they had evacuated the schools and they were running through bodies,” he said.

Johnson went to New York nearly every month for the next two years. “My job over that period of time was to help [crisis personnel] pull themselves together so that they could function, and then give them direction on what to do. So, I spent a lot of time on the street, I spent a lot of time in morgues, I spent a lot of time in field hospitals,” he said. “And I carried my own shit home.”

Painting and writing became tools for processing. “I had this marvelous opportunity to employ the arts, which I originally was using just to cope with the excess emotionality,” he said. “And all these bizarre things were coming out.” Unexpectedly, those things had less to do with the havoc he’d most recently witnessed, and more to do with Johnson’s memories of his time in the Navy. “Vietnam started coming out while I was under the stress of 9/11,” he said.

It wasn’t until the Covid lockdowns of 2020 that Johnson truly began using art and words to examine what he experienced in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. “There were parallels I could now see that I couldn’t see before. Just like during 9/11, I was tuned in to stuff that I had not been able to get close to because they were just too hot — flashbulb memories,” he said. “But after watching other people in worse circumstances than I ever was involved in, suddenly I could see parallels in my own experiences.”


This is “Boots on the Ground,” by Kendall Johnson, part of the new exhibit “Ground Zero: A 9/11 Memoir in Word and Image,” at Pomona’s Sasse Museum of Art. Photo/by Gene Sasse


Johnson, born and raised in Claremont (his great-grandfather moved here before the turn of the last century) and now living in Upland, always had an affinity for art. His mother, “a delightful soul,” was a watercolor painter. His father, a World War II vet who had survived the Battle of the Bulge, was a land artist, shaping their yard into a masterpiece with recycled materials and rocks from the foothills.

Johnson was also inspired by another local artist, Karl Benjamin, whom he called “my hero.” Unlike the hard edges found in Benjamin’s work, Johnson’s Ground Zero paintings are abstract and textured. The expressionist sponge-mottled layers of acrylic paint on canvas evoke thick smoke with shapes that resemble fractured structures and silhouettes of people seeking the grace of humanity after facing its worst. Each painting is paired with words — memoir-like snippets, philosophical confessions, viscerally immersive poems. At times something he’d already written lent itself to a painting. Other times he wrote to the specific painting itself. The combination of mediums creates an alchemy of its own; the true impact of Ground Zero is the sum of its parts.


Artist, writer and Claremont native Kendall Johnson’s “Ground Zero: A 9/11 Memoir in Word and Image” opens Saturday at Pomona’s Sasse Museum of Art. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo


The exhibit doesn’t simply recount one of the most cataclysmic events in our country’s history. It’s an exploration of our response to it, and what goodness can be gleaned from even the darkest of times.

“When we’re confronted with something that appears largely negative, we can come up with some gold,” he said. “We can find fireflies if we look for them. They’re really there, but it’s up to us to see them. So, this isn’t about all the trauma of being there. It’s also about lessons that can be learned, and that’s what I’m trying to lean into.”

Johnson relates a story about firefighters who wouldn’t let the city clear rubble until all of their fallen squad members had been found, and about how the handlers of the extremely hardworking canines tasked to find bodies at Ground Zero asked local massage therapists to apply their talents to the animals — “They brought the dogs back to center” — helping them continue an impossible job. “I’m very much impressed with thinking like that,” he said, with awe. “Human beings have an amazing capacity. They just have a fall-down amazing capacity.


“Lost Souls,” by Kendall Johnson, is part of the new exhibit “Ground Zero: A 9/11 Memoir in Word and Image,” at Pomona’s Sasse Museum of Art. Photo/by Gene Sasse


“Part of this exhibit is showing those things. Another is to say, ‘What are we doing when faced with the collapse of everything we hold near and dear to us? How do we respond to it?’” he said. “We can look at it in terms of the opening of possibilities. They may be opening too quickly for us, they may be a little too catastrophic for our taste, and we wouldn’t ask for that. But given that it’s here, and given that you can’t rebuild that pile of dust into a building again, can you keep open to the possibilities that the story isn’t over? That’s another firefly.”

The Sasse Museum of Art is located in the basement level of the Progress Building, 300 S. Thomas St., Pomona, CA 91766. More info is at sasseartmuseum.org.


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