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Sedona sculptor creates September 11 memorial

by Maria Belli

On the morning of September 11, virtually every American was glued to their television screen. Instantly, most of us were paralyzed and speechless. Many stayed home from work and school.

For Sedona artist Edward Breathitt, who had taken a visiting-artist residency at Murray State University in Kentucky, that morning was no different than any other.

“I was at home writing letters throughout the day. Not having a television, I was totally unaware of the events that had taken place that morning. When I went to teach my class at 2:30 in the afternoon, all of my students were present, but there was an unusual silence in the classroom.

“There was no mention from any of them about the attack that had occurred. The mood of the class puzzled me - they are usually a very talkative bunch. Rather than trying to discern what was going on, I went on with my lecture until the end of class at 5:30.

“When the class was over, I went into my office and turned on my radio. The first thing I heard was an account of the attack on the World Trade Center. I immediately walked over to the student union to watch the events on the news. Two-hundred students were crowded around the large screen TV with looks of shock and fear on their faces.”

For about two weeks, Breathitt said, he was completely shut down creatively. He had several projects to complete, but when he sat at his work bench, he was unable to make the first stroke. After several days, Breathitt subscribed to a cable TV service so he could track the events that were occurring.

“Unable to work, I found myself watching cable news about six hours a day, and at some point I began taking notes,” he said. “This was a very unusual routine for me since I had not had a TV for over 10 years.”

One evening, he was watching an interview with the New York City planner and the question was asked “Will the city rebuild and if so when?” The response was “The city will definitely rebuild. It will be five to 10 years before any structures are built, but in the meantime we will create some type of memorial.”

As soon as Breathitt heard these words, it was as if a creative floodgate had opened. “Many images started to appear in my mindscape and I was unable to turn off the switch.”

After a sleepless night, Breathitt went to his studio and began to rough sketch some ideas. The creative flow was very strong. He questioned his students about their creative output and learned that most of them were experiencing the same creative block that he had just worked through.

“I asked several students that I felt might be up for the challenge, if they wanted to collaborate on a creative response to the 9-11 tragedy, if for no other reason than to just get our creative expressions flowing again,” said Breathitt.

Each student that he approached agreed enthusiastically, and with a group of nine, they began to meet and collaborate our ideas. The focus was to design a memorial and there was no agenda other than the creative process. This took on so much momentum that other art students were asking to participate to increase the group to 12. There was no credit being offered in this endeavor but everyone was so anxious to participate, it seemed to be a vehicle for them to positively cope with this tragedy and enable their own healing process.

Breathitt decided to approach the Dean of Fine Arts to see if she would put this on the curriculum, as an accredited class the following semester. It was a perfect fit for an upcoming lecture series called “Artists Response to Tragedy.”

The project took on a life of its own.

“As we were researching magazines, newspapers and books on 9-11 for our project, I kept coming across articles about Father Mychal Judge, and what an outstanding servant to humanity he was,” said Breathitt. “Not only was he of great support to the Fire Department, he went out of his way to help addicts, alcoholics and homeless in his community. He never turned his back on anyone and exemplified the true personification of a compassionate being.”

Breathitt felt that as a personal contribution to this tragedy, he would create and donate a bronze bust of Father Judge to present to Engine 1 Ladder 24, which Judge was most closely associated with.

Many people in the Sedona art scene are not familiar with sculptor Edward Breathitt, who moved to Arizona in 1993 and built his home and studio in Sedona in 1995. He is not affiliated with any galleries or exhibiting his work locally. For most of his career, Breathitt has been almost exclusively a commissioned sculptor with an emphasis on representational portrait sculpture and monumental bronze.

He is a fine arts graduate of the American University in Washington, D.C., and has been sculpting professionally for 18 years, including a three-year term as a make-up effects artist in the Los Angeles film industry a number of feature film credits to his name.

Breathitt attributes his success to the many great mentors that taught and inspired him and states that he will “be a student until the day he dies.” Passing the gift along also has been important to Breathitt.

So, when the September 11 Memorial Project began to take shape at Murray State, Breathitt called on one of his favorite Sedona apprentices, Patrick Reider, to come out to Kentucky to help and learn.

“Pat came in when the class officially started in January,” said Breathitt. “I knew that to successfully complete this project in our given time frame, that I would need someone other than myself working full-time on this project. Pat was very instrumental in our successful completion. After it was all over, Pat and I calculated that we had over 3,000 hours into this project just between the two of us!”

Breathitt wasn’t satisfied with just a bust, he wanted to work Judge’s fire helmet into the composition, and to do so successfully, he decided to have his hand resting on the helmet with a fragmentation of his arm unifying the composition.

“Pat sculpted the helmet, made the molds, cast and chased the wax, and signed the piece with me upon completion,” said Breathitt. “There was about a six-week period where we were lucky to get three or four hours of sleep a night to meet our production schedule, and several 24-plus hour shifts with no sleep at all.”

“The experience changed my life,” said Reider.

On May 17,  a delegation of 22, including the 9-11 Memorial Design Project students, supporting faculty and staff of MSU, University President F. King Alexander and various University administrators, boarded a plane from Nashville to New York.

On Sunday, May 19, they made their presentation to NYC Fire Department Engine 1 Ladder 24 and friends, family and colleagues of Father Mychal Judge.

“Standing in front of those brave men who put their lives on the line and who lost 347 members of their fire fighting family was a proud and rewarding moment for us all,” said Breathitt. “The culmination of all our efforts had come down to that one very emotional moment.”

The ceremony received media coverage from CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and Time Warner’s NY News Cable One.

“All of our efforts had paid off,” said Breathitt.

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