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Shanksville school sends helping hands to artist for Flight 93 memorial

Thursday, May 02, 2002

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Shanksville students visited the studio of a Lawrenceville metal artist yesterday to assemble a sculpture that celebrates the cooperative spirit their community demonstrated after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Artist Jan Loney, with students from Shanksville-Stonycreek School, displays part of a sculpture that she created with their help and the help of other members of the Shanksville community. The sculpture, which is a memorial to the people who died aboard United Airlines Flight 93, will be unveiled May 17 and will stand outside the school's main entrance. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

With the encouragement of artist Jan Loney, the 35 high school art students placed 22 large pieces that resemble leaves or flames of fire on a 7 1/2-foot steel structure that looks like a tree.

Each leaf weighs 22 pounds and bears the impressions of the hands of Shanksville students, teachers, administrators and cafeteria workers, who, along with the town's 245 residents, offered all kinds of help after United Airlines Flight 93 slammed into a reclaimed strip mine a mile and a half outside their town.

The imprints, which range from the fragile fingers of the tiniest kindergartener to the large, weathered hands of a school custodian, represent the Shanksville people who served food and offered lodging to rescuers and investigators and gave comfort to the bereaved.

Loney, who has worked 16-hour days to finish the piece on time, said, "Each of the pieces is similar but has a different texture because of the different hands."

"It looks like a Van Gogh tree," said the students' teacher, Joy Knepp, explaining that the sculpture's flamelike shape reminds her of the tree Vincent Van Gogh painted in "Starry, Starry Night."

The sculpture will be unveiled May 17 and stand outside the main entrance of Shanksville-Stonycreek School.

"I feel like I couldn't have done this without all of you," Loney told the students, adding that she could use their help in the next two weeks.

Before May 17, Loney will wash a patina over the sculpture and burnish each leaf with steel wool to create a rich brown, coppery tone.

With those techniques, Loney said, "you can get the look of a cast bronze without the six-figure budget."

Students reacted to the sculpture favorably. One said it looked like a flower on the top of a mountain. Another thought it would be taller and a third student suggested that it be painted.

Joel Weigle, a sophomore who was initially skeptical about the project, voiced his doubts.

"I think it's going to confuse people in about 20 years," Weigle said, adding that future students may wonder, "What is that supposed to be?"

Loney replied that a plaque will explain the purpose of the sculpture. The work was funded by a five-figure budget from Cornell Cos. Inc., which operates private federal and state prisons.

For about a month, Loney worked with the students at their school. Initially, she asked them to draw their memories of Sept. 11. Images of the twin towers and the Pentagon abounded.

Then, Loney asked her collaborators to think about the Shanksville community and how they might represent people coming together to help others.

Students drew arched hands, receiving hands, giving hands and a claddagh ring with hands holding a heart that was in flames.

In one day, six classes of 30 students used aluminum foil to create molds of 500 hands. Loney glued those molds to a cardboard teepee wrapped in paper.

Eventually, the students gently pressed their hands into a mold lined with plasticene clay and made each leaf, which Loney cast.

Some students stayed after school and used a saw to cut each leaf.

Loney, who has worked on large sculptures before, said this project was especially memorable.

"It was such a luxury to work on a project of this intensity and to spend so much time with the students. ... When I look at this piece, I think of these hands and the potential of these students, the work, the experiences," Loney said.

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