POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Schandra Singh lived, breathed and smelled every painful second of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City. Less than two months later, an undisturbed canvas in her apartment 1½ blocks from Ground Zero called the painter to create a compelling, haunting and deeply personal representation of the day that shook America.
Singh, who has a studio in Poughkeepsie, is a graduate of Saddle River Day School in Saddle River, N.J. She was born in Suffern, N.Y.
In September 2001, her 8-foot x 3-foot canvas stood in her apartment upon an easel. She slept as the plane hit the first tower, awoke to a phone call from her mother and scrambled to safety. Read her harrowing account here on a Vulture.com story that details her path to safety.
The moment she decided to paint her work, called “Untitled” -- on one tower, miniature portraits of 2,915 victims and on the other, Muslims in praying positions -- came to her in early November of 2001 while at Ground Zero. “It was a miserable day,’’ Singh said. “It was cloudy, cold. I had to constantly go down to Ground Zero. I had lost my job because it was funded out of the World Trade Towers, and my home. On this day I concretely remember walking towards my apartment building. I just stared at the ruins. It just hit me. I just really saw it like magic.”
Singh didn’t tell people about her idea. A year later the Suffern native took her canvas to her parents’ home in Vermont. She thought about her project, and the canvas.
“What’s amazing is a lot of things were destroyed in my apartment during the attacks,’’ Singh said. “But the canvas never moved. Even up on an unstable easel, it just remained standing. It was a vertical canvas, in the shape of the Towers. It was calling me to do this.”
“What’s amazing is a lot of things were destroyed in my apartment during the attacks,. But the canvas never moved. Even up on an unstable easel, it just remained standing. It was a vertical canvas, in the shape of the Towers. It was calling me to do this.” -- Schandra Singh
It took Singh nearly a year to complete the painting. She gathered images of every person she could find who died in the attacks. She researched their backgrounds on Legacy.com. She added everyone together -- i.e., police, firefighters, Cantor Fitzgerald, people who died on the planes, the Pentagon, and Windows of the World -- and categorized each of them. People searching for a loved one can find a key to “Untitled” to find their loved one.
Making the painting was a ritual for Singh. She realized she could finally go back into the towers, this time as an artist. “I had to go into the room with them every day, and tell something beautiful about them.'' she said.
Singh’s Muslim side of the painting includes men and women in two praying positions. “I wanted the viewer to decide what it was,’’ she said. “I didn’t just want the painting to be a memorial. I wanted to also ask a question with the painting. What’s fascinating is that 15 years later, we’re still asking the same question.”
Earlier this year, curators from the National September 11 Museum visited her in her Poughkeepsie studio. The piece will be displayed there in the near future.
Singh, who's father is Indian and mother is Austrian, was a standout tennis player as a young girl, but fell in love with art when she was a teenager. 'My parents were thinking I might get a tennis scholarship. When I told them I wanted to go to art school, it freaked them out. I fell in love with art as a private thing.”
She still feels emotional impact from the events of 9/11. “If I didn’t have my paintings, my psychiatrist would be a millionaire,’’ Singh laughed. “After 9/11, I started seeing an amazing psychiatrist. On one of my first visits she said ‘I can tell you that coming here won’t take this away. The one thing we can do together is to make sure it never holds you back,’’’ Singh said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
For more on Singh’s work, click here to visit her website.