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Article following the unveiling of "In Unity", the painting commissioned by the International Associaiton of Black Professional Fire Fighters in honor of the 12 Black Fire Fighters lost in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. A four page story about the art and life of Artist, Synthia SAINT JAMES.
Once upon a time in a land far to the west a beautiful baby girl was born. She was like a lot of other little children in most ways. The girl loved to play and dream. The child might have lived an ordinary life, except for a special gift that brings beauty and brilliance to the world.
Well, Synthia Saint James' life is no fairy tale. For more than thirty years, the Los Angeles-born author and artist has made a steady but slow advancement as a painter and illustrator. Sometimes it was rough. Now, in the wake of the great sadness over the September 11 tragedy, and how it is to be memorialized, a Saint James painting is on center stage. That is why the nation is about to see her true colors.
The New York City fire Department lost 343 members on September 11, 2001. in the World Trade Center's collapse. Twelve men were African American, which did not get much exposure in the mainstream news. The Vulcan Society of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters
(IABPFF) wanted their memory honored. Synthia Saint James was awakened a few days later at 6 a.m.
"I got a phone call from the fire department down in Jacksonville, Florida, where I had worked with a lady who is a lieutenant," she recalled. "She knew six of the firefighters who died. She said, 'Synthia, we have all been in a shock, and not knowing what to do to make things feel better or to just do something.' She asked if I could create an image for them."
Saint James had less than 2 months to complete the memorial tribute. A Vulcan Society Memorial ceremony was slated for November 11. The deadline was unusually tight, but the Los Angeles artiist came through.
"First of all, I had to figure out what size I was going to paint it," she said. "And, I had to--because of the time constraints--go to my framer and have them start the frame according to the size of the piece and also the matting according to one of the colors I knew I would have in it, so I could ship it ahead of me. And then, as soon as I finished the painting, I had to get it to my printer so he could make prints of it, so he would have that starting, so we would be ready with prints by Christmas."
It was the start of an ambitious plan. Saint James was to do the work and attend the service where it would be unveiled. The artwork was to become prints whose sales would be used to benefit the lost firefighters' families. The artist worked with speed fired by great emotion.
"To wake up and see the planes crashing into the WTC twin towers was extremely devastating," she said. "And we were all suspended, not knowing when it would end or what would happen next."
As most people in the United States, the artist watched the repeated television broadcast of the plane crashes. Saint James said she was immediately aware that suddenly the kind of violence often only talked about in the news had come home. Also, New York was the city where her career got its start.
"Even though I wasn't in New York, I always will be part New Yorker," she said. "So this was really feeling for the first time an invasion on your own land."
As November 11 drew close, she shipped the finished painting, "In Unity", ahead to a New York hotel where the IABPFF President Ted Holmes of Jacksonville, Florida, was waiting. Saint James arrived in town on time. The painting and she were presented to the families and friends of new York City's 300 or so black firefighters near the end of the Vulcan Society memorial rites that began 2 p.m. that day in the Greater Bibleway Temple Church on Rochester Avenue in Brooklyn. The original painting went right to Vulcan Station, the black New York firefighters' Crown Heights headquarters. "it has been hanging there ever since," she said. "That was another healing."
Out of the Big Apple's 11,300 firefighters, only a few hundred are African American, mostly because of the Vulcan Society's efforts. The group has lobbied, threatened and sued the city to hire more blacks. Society Vice President Michael Marshall said the one dead and eleven missing men of the September 11 tragedy allowed their contributions to the force to shine through. "Death has no race." he said in a September 30 Newsday story. At the same time, he lamented that the loss of a dozen members, along with the upcoming African-American firefighters' retirement, will likely leave less than 300 black workers on the force. Still, the Saint James portrait hails a broader vision.
The husband of one of Saint James' friends is a fire chief, so she wanted a special tribute to men and women whom she saw as heroes. "I didn't want to make it literally to twelve men, or anything like that, but more to the unity of the firefighters," she said. "There is a lot of healing that has to take place. And the healing has to do with all the black men and women firefighters out there to know that they are being honored for the fact that they are risking their lives everyday."
Saint James is a self-taught, virtually self-promoted wunderkind. She sold her first painting in 1969. She made $75. Her monthly rent was $125.
"I was amazed," she said. "First of all, it's like getting money for something you love doing. We are so taught that generally, the job you get is a real job and it's hard work, but it's probably something you really don't like doing. You can't wait for lunchtime, or when you get off, or when you go on vacation, or when you get a holiday. To get paid for something that you love doing almost feels like you are cheating."
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