The Art of Healing Comes to New York

L.J. Rebhan is an artist in Raleigh, N.C., whose biggest worry, before Sept. 11, was the approach of her 30th birthday. Pam Pulver is a mime from Seattle, Wash., who regularly entertains schoolchildren in Alaska. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, both decided to put their talents to use to help and heal strangers in and around New York.

Ms. Rebhan, the daughter of a New York police officer, is organizing an art auction in Raleigh to benefit the Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. Ms. Pulver is flying to New York in early November at her own expense to perform her magic in schools where children have lost parents and friends. In the face of an atrocity far from their homes, they are determined to neither wring their hands nor hide from reality, but to do something for the grieving and the wounded.

New Yorkers apparently will have to get used to this outpouring of affection from places that some have dismissed at one time or another as fly-over country or provincial backwaters. The best will readjust with grace and humility; the worst will continue to wallow in their special brand of yahooism and write supercilious letters to newspapers that start off with phrases like: “As a postmodernist, I blah-blah-blah.”

Ms. Rebhan took her inspiration from a report on National Public Radio about one of the hero firefighters, Gerard Barbara. The report noted that Barbara often picked up broken shards of glass at fires and made them into cityscapes. “He saw something beautiful in something so devastating,” Ms. Rebhan said. “So I thought we had a responsibility to pick up the pieces and do something for all those wives and children the police and firefighters left behind.”

With no experience in such matters and uncertain where all this would lead, Ms. Rebhan started talking to her artist friends in Raleigh about her idea for an art auction to benefit the families of hero cops and firefighters. She reached out to art students at nearby colleges about creating and donating pieces for the auction. The response was tremendously-but not unanimously–enthusiastic. “I did talk to this one established artist who said to me, ‘Well, I’ve already given things to similar causes,'” she said. “I looked around his space and saw this plethora of artwork, and I walked out. I was thinking, imagine a firefighter saying, ‘Well, I’ve already fought two fires today, so I’ll sit this one out.’ To me, that’s not an option. These people-the families of the police and firefighters–have to deal with their grief for the rest of their lives. You know, I learned that life is short and precious, and I’ve done a lot of things with my life, but I’ve never done anything great. Now I want to try to make a difference in the lives of some people.”

She has set up a Web site, auction_pieces@hotmail.com, to accept donations from artists. And she has been in touch with representatives of the Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, who have been hearing talk lately that the families of hero cops and firefighters have been taken care of. Far from it, they say.

Ms. Pulver, the mime, will arrive in New York from Seattle on Nov. 7 to give at least seven free performances, four on Staten Island and three in lower Manhattan. “I’ll do a 45-minute show, and then a workshop where I’ll show the kids some of the illusions,” she said. “And I’ll probably call on a teacher or principal for audience participation. The kids always love that.” Ms. Pulver studied theater and art at Northwestern University in Chicago and in London. “I went to London for voice training and returned home a mime,” she said. She is now an artist in residence with the Washington and Alaska art commissions.

She is using her frequent-flier miles to pay for her trip here and will be staying with friends to keep expenses low. Money, in any case, is not the object of her mission. After watching the horror unfold on Sept. 11 and hearing the reports of grieving and traumatized children, she decided she could play a role in the healing process. She contacted arts coordinators at the Board of Education, and they put her in touch with individual schools. “One of the things I’m becoming more aware of is that the center of what’s happening isn’t necessarily Manhattan,” she said. “It’s out in the communities.”

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Clarification: In this space last week, I wasn’t clear about Sept. 11’s toll on Staten Island. The city’s least-populated borough lost about 70 firefighters and at least 250 current and former residents. The column indicated that the borough had lost 70 residents. Would that it were so.

The Art of Healing Comes to New York