Unity banner at VA was art teacher's idea to move beyond 9/11 tragedy

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 9, 2011

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — For many people a decade ago, Sept. 12 was as healing as Sept. 11 was tragic.
A day after the terrorist attacks, in a bedroom community where many people commuted to jobs in lower Manhattan, Leslie Hudson-Tolles knew that art — in the hands of children — might be a salve.
Art, she hoped, could be an emotional outlet to bring a disheveled citizenry together.
“It just came to me that we could all work on a banner,” she recalls.
As the art teacher at Veterans’ Park Elementary School in Ridgefield, Conn., Hudson-Tolles coordinated construction of a “unity banner” with input from every class in the 500-student school.
The artwork combined images such as stars, stripes, handprints, hearts, eagles, the outlines of states and the diverse silhouettes of people.
Parents worked in shifts to laminate each piece, as Hudson-Tolles raided every supply closet she had for red, white and blue construction paper and moved from class to class, giving students their tasks.
On many of the images, students, faculty and administrators wrote messages, both patriotic and inspirational. When the banner was complete, connected and hoisted to a wall, it stretched from the school’s front hall and into the lobby — more than 100 feet long.
“We did that banner in one day,” Hudson-Tolles says. “It was such a healing thing. … The kids felt like they were doing something, and that was so important. It was important to me, too.”
That same banner is now on display in a long corridor at the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury, connecting Building 6 to Building 42.
Hudson-Tolles plans to see it today, and she knows the visit with her husband will be emotional. It still serves as a contemporary piece of art, forged in response to a benchmark day in American history.
“I’m so thrilled,” she says, adding that it should be seen by as many people as possible. “I hope it brings a sense of pride in the country and how it (responded).”
Over the past 10 years, the unity banner has been displayed in the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut and in the state capitol building in Hartford.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Hudson-Tolles, who ended up with the banner, unrolled it for display at Erwin Middle School in eastern Rowan County, where she was teaching.
She had moved to North Carolina with her husband, a Freightliner employee, and today serves as art instructor at Sacred Heart Catholic School.
The banner was meant to travel, Hudson-Tolles says, and she’s happy people in this part of the country are able to share in it. She considers the VA Medical Center a perfect place for it.
Jennifer Thomas, an interior designer for Evergreen Arts & Plants, was under contract with the VA to find artwork for the 9/11 anniversary, and she heard about the banner, which was being stored in Hudson-Tolles’ garage-attic.
It’s heavy, and takes two people to carry it. The VA installed it Tuesday.
Hudson-Tolles says the young children who created the banner now range in age from 14 to 25.
The emergency contact telephone numbers for numerous children at Veterans’ Park Elementary had the World Trade Center’s area code. Some of their parents also were firefighters. Cell phones weren’t working.
The school’s administrators and faculty instituted a news blackout for the day. While some parents rushed to the school to be close to their children, other students had to go home by school bus, still not knowing what had transpired that morning in New York.
Hudson-Tolles was among the instructors who accompanied the buses and walked to the doors of the children’s homes, making sure they weren’t returning to empty homes.
“This was serious business,” Hudson-Tolles says. “We just told them it was a go-home drill.”
The next day’s banner was in response to the losses Sept. 11 brought, but it also embraced the saving of “thousands and thousands” of people who made it out of the twin towers before they collapsed, Hudson-Tolles says.
“Everyone seemed to know someone lost, and everyone knew of people who walked out of the World Trade Center,” she adds.
“Boy, was that a horrible day.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.