It’s early on a Tuesday autumn morning and a sixty-two-year-old painter is standing in front of his home conversing with a neighbor and some firefighters who have arrived to investigate a reported gas leak on the block. About a mile to the south a thirty eight-year-old sculptor who was working so late the day before he decided to spend the night in his studio on the ninety-second floor of a skyscraper is probably still asleep. For several years he has been obsessed with the Tuskegee Airmen, the nearly one thousand African American pilots who flew for the United States Air Force during the Second World War. They got their name from the site of their training, the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. For one work the artist uses hair to weave five pilot caps similar to those worn by the Tuskegee Airmen, caps he then places on microphone stands to evoke the vocal harmony groups of the 1940s. Another sculpture features a full-scale resin cast of the artist dressed like a Tuskegee pilot, but with his body pierced by eighteen small fighter planes (P-51 Mustangs like those favored by the Tuskegee Airmen). The entire sculpture, which resembles a Kongo nkisi nkodi power figure bristling with metal spikes, is painted gold and raised on a metal stand. Its title, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, references the Uncle Remus tale and the Christian martyr so often depicted in old master paintings, while the. In the late 1950s before he came to New York to pursue the life of an artist, the painter attended pre-med classes at the Tuskegee Institute where he also received flight training as an R.O.T.C. candidate. On that September morning as he, his neighbor and some NYC firefighters chat on the corner of Lispenard and Church Streets, their attention is suddenly grabbed by the sound of an airplane passing low overhead. Seconds later they see it crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center, the same building where the sculptor has spent the night. The moment of impact and the painter’s shocked response (he is heard repeating “holy shit” several times) is captured on video by a French filmmaker who has been following this company of firefighters for a documentary film. This turns out to be the only known video of the initial impact of American Airlines Flight 11, a moment which is also very likely the instant of the sculptor’s death since the ninety-second floor is among the eight floors immediately devastated by the crash of the fuel-laden Boeing 767.
(Jack Whitten, Michael Richards)