Date September 9, 2021
Media Contact

9/11 at 20: Two decades later, Brown faculty artist reflects on ‘Tribute in Light’ and 9/11 aftermath

Paul Myoda, co-designer of the installation that lights up New York City skies every year on Sept. 11 and now a Brown associate professor of visual art, vividly remembers the day the piece debuted nearly 20 years ago.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Paul Myoda picked up the phone in his Brooklyn apartment and called Julian LaVerdiere, a friend and colleague.

“Julian and I were talking about how ground zero looked,” Myoda said. “It was illuminated by these searchlights that made the smoke look like a sort of ghastly illuminated plume. We thought, it’s almost as if we can still see and feel the buildings, even though they’re not there anymore — like they’re phantom limbs.”

Drawing of "Tribute in Light" on the cover of the New York Times Magazine
Myoda and LaVerdiere's illustration of "Tribute in Light" graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine on Sept. 23, 2001.

They transferred their “phantom limb” vision to the page, creating an illustration of two skyscraping pillars of light at ground zero; it graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine on Sept. 23, 2001. Six months later, the illustration became “Tribute in Light,” a real, physical art installation at the former World Trade Center site. The pair’s piece received so much acclaim that it continues to appear at the site every year on Sept. 11.

Even now, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Myoda — today an associate professor of visual art at Brown University — remembers the surreal day the piece debuted six months later, in March 2002.

“It felt as if the whole city paused,” Myoda said. “It stopped everyone in their tracks. All these boats gathered in the harbor and, after a minute of silence, they leaned on their horns at the same time. It seemed like the sound of foghorns was echoing through all of New York.”

The conception of “Tribute in Light” may sound spur-of-the-moment, the artist said, but it was actually three years in the making. 

In 1998, the public arts organization Creative Time approached both Myoda and LaVerdiere and asked if they were interested in creating public art installations to mark the new millennium and the first mapped human genome, expected to be completed in 2000. The artists were both fascinated by bioluminescent organisms — living beings that emit light, such as fireflies and particular types of dinoflagellate algae — and decided to team up on a project focused on bioluminescence.

“We decided we wanted to make a bioluminescent beacon and put it where everyone could see it: on top of the World Trade Center, the tallest building in New York City,” Myoda said.

The two artists split their time between a laboratory in the American Museum of Natural History, where they bred bright dinoflagellates, and a studio in one of the twin towers, where they installed test beacons and drove around the New York City area to view their work from different angles.

Just weeks after the pair had vacated their World Trade Center studio, the towers collapsed and New York City turned upside down. The pair’s bioluminescent beacon would never debut, but its development helped inform the creation of “Tribute in Light,” a piece that, in keeping with the original vision, could be viewed everywhere across the city.

It’s almost as if, every year on Sept. 11, it’s sending out a kind of Morse code saying, ‘Life is here. We exist.’

Paul Myoda Associate Professor of Visual Art
Paul Myoda wearing a face mask and looking over a student's shoulder

Two decades later, New York City, and the country as a whole, has changed. The events of 9/11 seemed to unite Americans of many backgrounds and political persuasions: In the wake of the attacks, most Americans supported then-President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and root out al-Qaeda leaders who were responsible for the attacks. Today, by contrast, the country is polarizing faster than other major democracies across the globe, and a costly 20-year war on terror has left a majority of the country disillusioned with the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, with most Americans supporting the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Against that backdrop, “Tribute in Light” has served as a comforting constant for millions — including the families of those who died in the attacks, many of whom helped choose the name of the piece in conversations with Myoda and LaVerdiere. 

Myoda believes part of the installation’s enduring power is its ambiguity: For some, it is a memorial for the dead; for others, it’s a symbol of New York City’s enduring strength in difficult times, from attacks to hurricanes to pandemics. He said he and LaVerdiere have rejected multiple proposals from officials who hoped to use the piece as a political backdrop, including one from then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in late 2001.

Movie Poster featuring "Tribute in Light"
Both "Tribute in Light" and Myoda himself are featured in a new Spike Lee-directed documentary on the post-9/11 history of New York City.

“He said, ‘Oh, the lights look sort of bluish — what if we had one blue light to represent police, one red light to represent firefighters and one white light, and that makes the colors of the American flag?’” Myoda said. “We said no, because while the police and firefighters were absolutely heroic in the response effort, we felt that this was a multi-national event. People who worked in the World Trade Center came from 90 different countries. New York is a melting pot of people from all over the world.”

After two decades in the public eye, Myoda has learned valuable lessons about balancing creative freedom and social responsibility while making art. He often passes those lessons on to his sculpture and drawing students at Brown.

“I always tell students to make art that they’re excited about — art that would make them jealous if it were created by someone else,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s important to show your work to other people and to be very attentive to how they respond. You need to know how your art can be read or misread. You have to assume some responsibility for how other people interpret your work.”

Myoda said interpretations of “Tribute in Light” have run the gamut, from the religious to the cosmic. His own interpretation is comparatively simple.

“I’ve started to see it as a way to mark time,” he said. “It’s almost as if, every year on Sept. 11, it’s sending out a kind of Morse code saying, ‘Life is here. We exist.’”