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The Daily



12-01-03: Former Celina woman sculpts chalice now on display at Smithsonian

Standard Correspondent

On the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, Jessica Stammen, 21 at the time, attended a meeting of the leadership team at St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan, N.Y. The team was planning a service to reach out to the young creative arts community in the neighborhood, and Stammen had agreed to return to the church at 8:30 a.m. the following morning to pick up flyers advertising the service.
The next morning, she overslept, not by a little, but by a lot. She couldn’t think about the flyers or the church — she was in such a hurry to get to her art class at Cooper Union, a liberal arts college in Manhattan, that she didn’t even listen to the radio while she made her way to school. She did not yet know about the event that would change her life and the lives of everyone around her.
She learned about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center as she arrived at school.
“Everybody was just dumbfounded,” she said. “We went out during a break and watched the buildings burn. It was such a shocking thing that no one knew what to do. We all sat in our classes for another hour before a professor finally told us to go home.”
Although it would take her weeks and months to recover from that feeling of shock, as an artist she had the sense that the images of that day had to be captured.
“I don’t really know what I was thinking, but a couple of my roommates and I grabbed cameras and tried to get as close to the buildings as we could. We just saw so much,” she said. “Like everyone else in the city, we were walking around aimlessly, trying to register what was going on — which never really happened. I told myself I needed to be as close as possible or as far away as possible. I could not deal with anything in between.”
Stammen, who spent part of her childhood in Celina, and who is the granddaughter of Pete and Lou Ann Stammen of St. Henry, stayed as close as possible to ground zero in the days following the attack. Her church, St. Paul’s, became a center of solace for rescue volunteers — the historic church, where George Washington once prayed, even took the unusual step of closing to the public so that it could better serve its new and weary congregation. Stammen spent days there dishing up food and comfort.
“I was obsessed with feeding people,” she said. “We organized the food, we made sure people were getting coffee. It was very much about food. But St. Paul’s was also serving spiritual food, offering counseling so that people’s spirits could be renewed after they had been gnawed at by their surroundings.”
Almost as immediate and as compelling, she said, was her urge to express everything she was feeling through art. The church’s pastor, Rev. Lyndon Harris, told her, “We need an artist down here,” and within the first hours after the attack, “he had named me the unofficial artist-in-residence.”
One of Stammen’s first projects was to recruit her fellow art students, round up donated art supplies and make 23 six-foot-square banners that were hung around the church yard, facing out.
“Each banner had one word, or maybe a passage from scripture. One banner just said, ‘Courage.’ The banners were a way for us to face out to war, to say that we are a community that has pride, that has hope, and we’re going to confront this,” she said.
Stammen continued to volunteer at the church. Gradually the dust, smoke and rubble cleared, along with her thinking. She came to understand that going back to school, after what had happened to her neighborhood and her adopted city, was impossible.
“I was completely dysfunctional, as were many students,” she said.
But not completely. Out of the ashes came an idea. With the support of a benefactor, Stammen received and used a piece of a steel beam from the World Trade Center’s towers to create seven large steel-and-bronze chalices that represent the sense of hope and survival that was born on Sept. 12. The bowls of the chalices, cupped by bronze hands, rest on replicas of the columns of the twin towers.
Stammen, who had never undertaken such a project before, had to rely on the help of others to walk her through the process. Her mother, Jo Ellen Stammen, a former illustrator of children’s books and now a painter living with her family (Jessica’s father, Tom Stammen, and her two brothers) in Camden, Maine, helped her work through her feelings during the long and difficult project.
“When I felt like I wanted to give up, she would give me a boost,” Stammen said.
She was aware that the project was not exactly her own.
“When an artist works in a private studio, it is very important that you are pursuing a personal vision very passionately, without any compromises,” she said. “But when you are working on a project that I thought of as a very public piece, meant for community use, you have to realize that it’s about a lot more than yourself.”
The chalices have become very public pieces. Six of them have found homes in such places as the Smithsonian, at St. John the Divine Church in New York and at Stammen’s church, St. Paul’s. The seventh will tour churches around the country; Stammen is planning to bring it to this area next spring.
For now, Stammen is substitute teaching in the same school district in Camden where her father works, taking this time to map out the details of the tour, and to tell the story of Sept. 11 and the days that followed and how God worked through people to turn darkness into light. Someday, she plans to return to graduate school and continue studying art. For now, she has to tell this story.
Immediately after the terrorist attack, she said, hundreds of would-be volunteers were turned away from the World Trade Center site and its environs. So many people wanted to help. With the chalices, people can connect with that part of the national memory, can draw hope and courage from the sight and feel of the metal that survived.
“For the people who didn’t make it to the site, it’s an amazing thing for them to be able to touch the steel, to see the banners from the church” that accompany the chalice, Stammen said. “I don’t think that people would have had the same reaction to the chalices if we hadn’t used that steel. Everyone wants to have some contact point with something that came from the site.”
For Stammen, the chalices have come to represent what her pastor has called the Sept. 12 Community — a community of hope and healing.
“I want people to experience the hope that came out of that community, the hope that made it possible for the physical and spiritual nature of the site to be transformed,” she said. “That’s what this chalice is all about. It says that God can transform us absolutely.”


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