MIDTOWN — Painter EJay Weiss was listening to WNYC inside his Chelsea studio on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when suddenly the radio went dead.
Weiss grabbed a pair of binoculars and ran outside in time to catch a magnified view of the south tower’s collapse.
“I wanted a better look,” Weiss recalled. “I needed a sense of what was happening here.”
Three days later, he started painting.
Now, almost 10 years after the Twin Towers collapsed, his series titled “9/11 Elegies: 2001-2011” is finally complete. It consists of 12 paintings that cover 50 feet of wall space and is currently on display inside the Narthex Gallery at Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue between East 54th and East 53rd streets.
A native New Yorker, Weiss said it was important for him to show his pieces in a public space, rather than a formal gallery, in advance of the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
The exhibit officially opened on Aug. 20, and on Tuesday, Weiss hosted an intimate breakfast reception where he described the process behind the creation of each of the 12 panels.
“I didn’t want to paint these,” said Weiss, who still lives and works in Chelsea. “It’s catharsis. It was the only way I could continue.”
Weiss painted nine canvases in the series between 2001 and 2002. As he worked in his tiny, 9-foot-wide studio, Weiss found that he had to cover each canvas with a sheet every night before he went to bed. Although not particularly graphic or gory, the paintings were too painful for Weiss to look at when he woke up each morning, he said.
“It was just so ugly in terms of what it represented,” Weiss said.
He began the first four pieces by painting a pristine grid on the canvas to resemble the facades of the Twin Towers.
“And then I attacked them,” he continued. “I clawed them. I scratched them. I beat up on them.”
Hidden in these first four paintings are images of figures falling and smudges of red that represent blood.
“Every single mark in every single canvas had a meaning to me,” Weiss said.
“This is my hometown,” he added. “So I take this personally.”
When officials allowed the public access to the Ground Zero site in the weeks after the attacks, Weiss went there and collected bags of ash and gravel. Those samples made their way into several of the paintings, making them coarse to the touch. Weiss ran his fingers across several canvases as he circled the room, eliciting a harsh grating sound.
Weiss thought he was finished after he completed those nine canvases in 2002. But this year, he revisited the series and painted three more pieces to reflect the perspective that 10 years have afforded him.
“I closed the final triptych with just a new day, the dawn of a new day,” said Weiss, whose final three canvases depict colorful skies and distant views of Manhattan. “It’s a tabula rasa.”
The reception on Tuesday provided an opportunity for those gathered to learn more about the series, but also to reminisce about their own experiences on Sept. 11.
Many recalled the burning smell that permeated everything after the attacks, as well as the proliferation of face masks and missing-person posters.
Edward Rubin, a writer who attended the reception on Tuesday, was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and recalled the way his eyes burned for weeks afterward.
“I’m not so fond of the 9/11 experience,” said Rubin, who has collected roughly 75 of Weiss’s paintings in the past 30 years. “But his work here, he’s turned what is essentially tragedy into a prayer.”
Martha Niggeman, another collector of Weiss’s work who came to the reception, felt that this was the artist's most profound series yet.
“There’s something way beyond this chaotic destruction that you can grab onto in these paintings,” Niggeman said.
Niggeman first viewed the paintings before the reception on Tuesday so that she could observe them alone.
“I didn’t want anyone to tell me what it was or what it wasn’t,” she said. “I actually kind of cried because it was so powerful.”
The exhibit in Saint Peter’s Church will be open until Sept. 25. Weiss will host another reception, open to the public, on Sept. 8, and the church will also hold a tribute concert on Sept. 17 featuring the Chelsea Symphony, as well as original pieces from two composers.
One composer, Aaron Dai, was inspired to write his piece after viewing Weiss’s paintings. The other, an Israeli composer named Yishai Shefi, lost a brother in the Sept. 11 attacks.
When construction on the 9/11 museum at Ground Zero is complete, Weiss said his exhibit will move there to form part of the historical documentation of the catastrophic day.
“When 9/11 happened, it was such a monumental moment,” Weiss said. “It’s etched onto our sense of the now because we experienced so much, and it’s still with us.”