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'My Way Of Giving Back': Artist Survives 9/11 Attacks & Paints Two Towers Of People

An image of an artwork that appears to be two rectangular towers, one blue, one greyish-white
Schandra Singh, Courtesy
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Painter Schandra Singh was living across the street from World Trade Tower 2 on Sept. 11, 2001. She escaped, and when she returned to her building, she found this canvas still intact. She created this painting, which includes images of close to 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I'm Schandra Singh,.I'm a painter. And right now we are in my new studio, which is in Bridgewater, in an old mill. I lived across the street from World Trade Tower 2, I had a small loft there.

This story is part of VPR’s 9/11 remembrance project, featuring the voices of Vermonters reflecting on how their lives were changed by 9/11. To find the full project, go to www.vpr.org/911.

I woke up, my phone kept ringing, and it was before cell phones for me. And someone kept hanging up on the machine. And I pick up the phone, and it's my mother, and she's saying, "Schandra, the World Trade Tower's on fire." And I said, "What?" And she said, "The World Trade Tower's on fire."

And I turn around, and when I turn around and look at those big 8-foot windows, I just saw people's things, just things like rain flying down. I didn't look directly at them, so I wasn't seeing fire. I wasn't seeing smoke. I just was seeing like rain, like pens and papers.

I wasn't even that nervous, 'cause I didn't know what was happening. My mother didn't even know what was happening. Then I said, "You know what, Mom, you’re right. What should I do?" She said, "I would leave."

But I was so close to the World Trade towers that my only way of going uptown was to go through them. But I was near Battery Park. So I said to her, I'm gonna go to Battery Park, where it's open space. And I put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and my keys, that’s all I took with me.

“I walked down my stairs and as I was coming out of my building, the second plane hit Tower 2 right next to me. It was a ginormous explosion. I didn't know it was a plane, I thought it was a bomb.”
Schandra Singh

I walked down my stairs, and as I was coming out of my building, the second plane hit Tower 2 right next to me. It was a ginormous explosion. I didn't know it was a plane, I thought it was a bomb. And my whole building shook.

I went outside and saw a huge flame coming out. Then as I was standing there staring at it, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and it was my neighbor, David. And we were watching it and nobody knew it was a plane. Nobody knew what was going on.

As we were watching it, things were falling, like debris was falling, stuff was falling. But then all of a sudden, things started to fall that were not like debris. They were not catching the wind. And that was people...that was people.

And I remember I turned to David, and I said, "That's not debris falling." And he looked at me, like he knew.

And pretty soon right after that, all of a sudden — 'cause we didn't think it was gonna fall, the tower — the tower that we were under, Tower 2, just started to collapse. And I remember thinking at that moment — 'cause I was literally a block away from it, and it's the second-largest building in the world — I remembered thinking for half a second (this would have been my last thoughts of my life), "Wow, my life is over so quickly."

But then I grabbed David's hand, and I said, "We have to run." We ran all the way to the end of Battery Park. I remember getting to the end of Battery Park and being like, “Oh my God," you know, I was happy — not happy, but I was like, "We're alive."

I was in shock that we were alive, because if we'd made it that far, and no big beams had hit us, or we weren't covered with anything ... He remembers when I said that to him, "Oh my God, we're alive," he remembers the dust cloud just taking me over, and me turning white.

So I'm telling him, "We’re alive," and he's going, “What the hell is happening to Schandra?” You've seen those pictures of people, that was me, you know, covered with all the white.

"And these fighter jets flew above us, and I remembered getting really scared and saying to David, "What's gonna happen now?" ... and so when he said, "They're probably gonna go get whoever did this to us," instead of saying "Yes, go get them," I actually on that day of Sept. 11, sat down and said a silent prayer for all of those people who are gonna be innocent, who are now going to feel what we felt. "
Schandra Singh

And these fighter jets flew above us, and I remembered getting really scared and saying to David, "What's gonna happen now? Are they gonna drop bombs?" Because we were in a war. It was a war for a day, you know, it was a war.

He said, "No, no, no, don't worry." He said, "Those are our guys." He goes, "They're probably gonna go get whoever did this to us."

And so when he said, "They're probably gonna go get whoever did this to us," instead of saying "Yes, go get them," I actually on that day of Sept. 11, sat down and said a silent prayer for all of those people who are gonna be innocent, who are now going to feel what we felt. You know, now with our going to get them, all the children, and the mothers, and the men, and whoever it is who have nothing to do with any of this, now what are they gonna get?

On that day of 9/11, 'cause it was a small studio, I had an 8-foot by 3-foot white canvas that I hadn't painted anything on, standing on an easel. And amazingly, when I got into my apartment, I for sure thought that would have knocked over. It was still standing there in the heart of Ground Zero, and vertical.

One day, maybe a month or so later, it was a miserable day, and you could see Ground Zero at that point. You see all the burning and smelling and … I just like, kind of like magic, I just had this idea in my head. And I thought, you know, I want to paint two towers. And I want one tower to be a pattern of Muslims praying — Muslims pray in three different positions. And then the second tower, I want to be made up of every single person who passed away on 9/11, totaling 2,915 people in the exact opposite position, with their hands in the air.

A photo showing a close-up representation of people lined up together in stacked rows, painted in grey and blue.
Schandra Singh, Courtesy
A close-up view of those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks as depicted in Schandra Singh's painting.

And I had it like a vision in my head. And I thought, and I want to do it on that canvas that's still standing down there.

And I told my parents, “Can I move up to the house in Vermont, and make this painting on the canvas that I left in your house in New York?” And every day I spent on the computer, just printing out images of every single person.

And so as I was doing the painting, the painting slowly turned into an optical illusion. From a distance, it's just these two forms, and then not until you get closer do you realize it’s people, on the left side, and not until you’re even closer do you realize it is all actually individual people.

It was my way of talking about human nature, and then all of a sudden being a 9/11 survivor myself, and a terror survivor myself, understanding abrupt trauma, you know, and for no reason, no fault of my own, watching people die around me for no fault of their own.

It, to me, just didn't want to be a memorial. It wanted to ask a question with the painting. The Muslim side is for you: It's for you to decide what you want. You know, you might have other reasons for the Muslim side. That's OK. That's what makes it a painting and not a memorial.

A photo showing a close up of two groups of people tightly packed in stacked rows, one of people holding their hands up, another of people bent over in prayer.
Schandra Singh, Courtesy
Schandra Singh says in her painting, she wants the viewer to interpret the meaning of the right tower, made up of, according to her, Muslims in prayer.

All I could do that day was run away. So this was my way of going inside and doing something. I couldn't be a fireman, but this was my way of being a fireman. This is my gift, my way of giving back, and those people gave me their souls. So I wanted it to be a gift for everybody.

Schandra Singh’s painting is at her studio in Bridgewater. She says families of those who died on 9/11 sometimes come to see their loved ones in the painting. It may be the only piece of art made by a 9/11 survivor on a canvas that came out of Ground Zero.

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