On September 10, 2011 New York graphic designer Karen Simon‘s memorial to 9/11 was posted on a billboard on the Long Island Expressway. She had created it ten years earlier. It was accepted into the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and The Library of Congress. I wanted to know the genesis of her image and asked the following:
Obviously, the rationale for the billboard is clear. But how did you go about getting them posted after 9/11? I had started my graphic design business three years prior. I worked largely with non-profits, who basically stopped advertising. I was in the streets that day, assisting people coming up from the WTC. I came up with this image a few days later and carried it around (like Richard Dreyfuss building his mountain in Close Encounters), showing it to anyone I could to start a dialog, it seemed to make people feel better. I printed posters from my printer, posting it in many West Village storefronts (see attached). People contacted me just to talk.
My partner, Valerie, got meetings with the GAP, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, we tried donating it to raise money, things were too chaotic on the retail side to pull this together. We tried to get a stamp made, we contacted Dianne Feinstein, John Potter, the postmaster general, found out that disasters don’t get commemorated until 50 years hence, unless an act of congress… After almost two months of trying to give the image away, I finally said that’s it, I made art. I’ll let it go. But, I was driving to Queens later that day and saw that so many billboards remained empty. I called Valerie and asked her to make it happen (she had no experience in this area). Ten years ago AK MEdia and Clear Channel agreed to donate the space. Simon Does paid for the posting and printing. Each billboard remained up for almost one year.
Clear Channel donated space for the recent hanging. How did this happen? Valerie contacted billboard companies again. The original contacts no longer existed. The one to respond most favorably was Harry Coghlan at Clear Channel with this unbelievable location. They contacted us on September 7 with the 25 x 60 board opportunity. They made it happen. They posted it at 5:00 on September 10.
Ten years after the emotional moment, did you feel any urge to change your billboard in any way? The image was originally designed with no text. It was very powerful but seemed to grab people in the gut with no uplift for the flooding emotions that we were all experiencing. I integrated the text Rise Above and the message was complete. So, no, I did not feel the need to change the billboard. It’s one of my most efficient designs.
How do you feel about the use of these images? Are you attempting to make a patriotic emblem? A memorial? Or something else? I felt very nationalistic at the time. New York was the best New York I have ever seen. It was quiet and humbled. I did create an emblem for the time, which then became timeless. I created a dialog.