Artist has concrete plans for 9/11 memorials
by Geoff Gehman of the Morning Call, Lehigh Valley, PA
Most people see concrete pipes as building materials. San Priest sees them as emotional tunnels connecting a country rebuilding itself after 9/11. Most people see a road sign for a gradual merge as a traffic warning. Priest sees the solid vertical lines separated by dashes as the World Trade Center towers,
one standing as the other falls.
Priest, a mural painter and concrete lover from Naples, Florida, has an uncommon project for these common elements. She plans to paint her 9/11 versions of four road signs on two kinds of concrete forms -- a tube laid on its side and an upright circle with portholes. She intends to place these 8-foot-high, 10-ton structures in 11 American cities, customizing messages from Florida
to Hawaii. She envisions her "911SAN" as a space for contemplation, a refuge from media babble.
Priest, 50, is driven by an optimism as sunny as Florida and a will as strong as concrete. "It's a quest," she says in the West End house she shares with her significant other, Simon Priest, Dean of Muhlenberg College's the Wescoe School of Continuing Education. "We all need a little peace and harmony after being bombarded by so many horrible images and messages related to the
fifth anniversary of 9/11. These signs are just quick images to calm our brain, to give new meanings, some sort of structured healing."
Mortar has always flowed through Sandra Priest's veins. Her grandfather and father finished concrete and laid bricks for a living. Growing up in Gary, Ind., she was fascinated by the building of patios and the slightly heady smell of a wet sidewalk in the sun. She rhapsodizes about concrete's durability (i.e., the Roman aqueducts) and its mercurial character ("It's always curing,
always going forward").
Priest found the concrete part of "911SAN" on Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after four hijacked airplanes became terrorist bombs. Because all the country's airports were shut down, she had to drive rather than fly from her home in Naples, Fla., to Chicago.
Stuck in a massive traffic jam, she had plenty of time to notice the road-construction materials around her. Senses sharpened by the eerie silence of the highways and the skies, she began to imagine sewer pipes, storm drains and concrete forms as a spinal column connecting thousands of shocked travelers, who were driving hundreds of miles to their homes or homes away from homes.
With her concrete spine in place, Priest began designing a paper skeleton. For the next four years she roamed the U.S. photographing concrete forms and signs associated with 9/11 in 48 states, from Civil War battlefields on the East Coast to California's redwood forests. She shot license plates with "9" and/or "11." Long a believer in the magic of numbers, she shot 65 mph signs
because 6 plus 5 equals 11. Her driver, her partner, Simon, says he didn't mind her requests to backtrack a mile to pull up to a car with a significant license plate.
"San has a disarming charm, a resilient spirit and an infectious energy," says Simon, a former professional photographer and ex-head of an online education company. "I know when she gets passionate about something, the best thing to do is to get behind her rather than in front of her."
Priest initially intended to exhibit the photographs. Her goal changed radically in May when she spotted a road-grade sign in Maine. Attuned to anything remotely related to 9/11, she associated the picture of a descending truck with vehicles descending into ground zero to remove the ruins of the World Trade Center. What sold her on the idea, what gave her goose bumps, was the percentage of the grade:
After years of struggling to arrange and codify her photos of signs, Priest finally began developing a scheme. She placed four of her paintings of road signs in a row. First is an airport sign representing the four terrorist planes; Priest added ''9 miles'' to key into 9/11. Then is the gradual merge sign symbolizing the twin towers. Next is a fire-station sign, signifying the emergency operation
at ground zero. At the end is the 11-percent road-grade sign, documenting the recovery of ground-zero debris, with an upward arrow expressing a rebuilding of skyscrapers and spirit.
The original signs are a kind of mustard. Priest's versions are red, orange, yellow and green. Reading from left to right, the colors ask viewers to stop, slow down, proceed with caution and go forward. In other words, they're emotional semaphores.
Priest wants to place one of her sign sculptures in Naples, Florida, where she has lived for ten years. She also wants one in Hawaii, where friends describe their double grief after 9/11. Islanders not only suffered from a severe decline in the tourist trade. Living off the mainland, an
ocean from the sites of the terrorist attacks, they felt geographically and emotionally disconnected.
Priest envisions a sculpture in the D.C. area, to mark the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon; and in Pennsylvania, for Flight 93. She doesn't plan to erect one in Manhattan, where the World Trade Center was destroyed.
Ground zero, she says, is too sensitive, too sacred. "I wouldn't want to put one there unless I was asked, unless it was genuinely wanted. The site is already a memorial; you don't need another one."
Priest has absolutely no doubt she'll complete her mission. She points to her successful 10-year plans. She was 20 when she began making wedding gowns from photos. At 30 she became a real-estate broker. Ten years later, she moved to Florida and started studying art, resuming a teenage passion to paint murals. Then she sold her portraits to raise awareness of breast cancer and money for the Naples
chapter of the American Cancer Society. Buoyed by the reception, she became a wall and ceiling muralist, painting vivid realist and impressionist scenes at her customer's requests.
The 50-year-old has another asset: a valuable team of loved ones in Florida. Priest's son, Carey Foley, is a construction manager. Her daughter, Mindell Peterson, is a marine biologist who specializes in saving and nurturing mammals. Priest says she gets her vivaciousness and gung-ho spirit from her mother, Millie Van Horn. For years she's admired her mom as a storyteller; "911SAN,"
she believes, is her chance to tell tales -- with signs.
Additional motivation comes from people with a stronger connection to 9/11. There are the New York father-and-son firefighters Priest met in Salzburg in 2002 and then, by utter coincidence, two days later at Oktoberfest in Munich. She tears up recalling their need to escape New York's marking of the one-year anniversary of 9/11, their humble thanks for her thanks for their ground-zero deeds, their
cheerful invitation to help them celebrate life.
'"I have never done anything that I haven't accomplished," says Priest. "Now, this is a much bigger project than anything I've done. But it doesn't scare me. I like big: I have a hard time painting small. And I can't stop because some people think it's sensitive; I think it's better to try to heal than not try.
"I mean, do you have to be rich and famous to have something really good to say? I don't think so. And if that's the only way to get something forward, that doesn't say much about the U.S. This country is built on freedom and speaking out and coming up through the ranks."
Priest may have the stars, or at least the numbers, in her favor. Her van, the one that advertises her mural business, has two Muhlenberg College parking stickers. One reads 1199; the other, 1190. Both were given to her by random coincidence, two years in a row.
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