“Breaking Down Walls”

Photo by Sandy Russell
Written by Doug Geyer


Photos have been capturing our hearts and minds ever since Nicéphore Niépce captured a view of his estate in eastern France with his camera obscura in 1826,

Whether via film or chip, there’s something magical in arresting and holding moments of history both sweeping and grand as well as personal and pedestrian. Goggled explorers encircled by wisps of snow on the summit of Everest and our neighbor’s dapper snowman.
One giant leap for mankind or tiny feet taking their first, small steps.

The ability to bend light to our will is only part of the power. It’s in the viewing and sharing of those frozen images that the photographer transports themselves and others through time and space, connecting us to places we’ve never been, people we’ll never meet, and events we should never forget. We experience both the heartrending and heartwarming through images mimicking passports, held in our hands or framed on a wall.

But as anyone who’s ever clicked a shutter or tapped a screen knows, it’s all too easy to lose those moments in basement boxes, shelved scrapbooks, and archived JPEGs. Bringing photos back into the light takes intention. Sharing them takes passion.

426 Raw Walls 2 brought both intention and passion together and a dedicated artist’s photos into the light. But what happened on the evening of October 7, in a raw warehouse on Findlay Street goes beyond an Alumni Association fundraiser and to the heart of what the AAC is all about.

“To create and sustain radical, forward-thinking, contemporary visual artists and designers whose creative contributions make a substantial difference in all the lives they touch.”

A friendship that started at the AAC between two non-traditional students is part of why that mission statement is more than words on a website.

Sandy Russell (BFA ‘02) and Jennifer Grote (BFA ‘03), were slightly and more than slightly older than the typical student. At 44, Jennifer followed her dream of being an artist while still working as a nurse. She and her grown children were in school at the same time after she accepted a scholarship to the AAC. At 25, Sandy felt an instant kinship with Jennifer when they first met. Their ongoing relationship, in tandem with this Alumni Association opportunity, would ultimately inspire Sandy to reconnect with over a decade of photos inspired by the events of September 11, 2001.

Sandy already had a trip planned to New York City as part of an AAC student group. As the reality of what transpired at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that isolated field in Shanksville reverberated around the globe, she didn’t change her plans, just her senior thesis. She wanted to chronicle the wave of patriotism that was swelling up in response to the now tangible threat of terrorism. Heading out pre-GPS, without a place to stay, Sandy embarked on a trip that would evolve into an annual pilgrimage. She was driven by a desire to document all the various ways people from various backgrounds, nationalities, and races were coming together in a rare display of solidarity. Year after year, mile after mile, and roll after roll, she kept her vision in focus.

And life happened.

She got married, had children, a full time job. But she kept traveling on her own dime with limited time. Going to the same spots the same time each year but meeting and engaging with new and different people and fellow pilgrims. First responders, military veterans, families, citizens, protesters, humans.

The sites changed and evolved as well. “The Pit” was slowly and respectfully transformed into “Reflecting Absence” – a memorial of trees and twin fountains perpetually flowing into twin pools. The names of all 2,977 victims, as well as the six who died during the bombing of 1993, inscribed on bronze panels forged around the perimeters. The memorial at the Pentagon came to life over time to honor the 184 who perished there. And the smoldering scar in the Pennsylvania field grew into the Flight 93 National Memorial to remember the 40 who gave their lives to save countless others.

Sandy saw it all through the years but didn’t always see her photos.

“The last two years that I went, I took the pictures, downloaded them on the computer… and I never even looked at them.”

It was Jennifer’s encouragement as they worked together to organize this year’s Raw Walls event that empowered Sandy to pull together her work and display it for the very first time. And not just a few chosen for framing but over 500 5×7’s. Even still, a fraction of all the moments she’d captured.

“She planted the seed. She really did. I’m sure she knew the possibilities before I did.”

While walls were constructed in the donated space for AAC artists to exhibit their art, walls were also broken down. No budget walls, no space and no audience walls, busy life walls. Walls that can typically inhibit and discourage artists from displaying their work and audiences being moved by it.

“To create and sustain… artist and designers… make a substantial difference in all the lives they touch.”

Sandy remembers on the night of the show how many were drawn into the world of her photos. And how many needed to step back and momentarily away, touched and moved as they were.

Though Sandy hasn’t been able to travel to the trinity of hallowed spots since 2013, her annual pilgrimage hasn’t stopped – it simply got shorter and more local. And she has brought along a very special helper. Her oldest son John, who was a second grader in 2013, has been coming with her each year.

“On September 11, 2013, after visiting several firehouses, we were at the station on Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine. As I was telling my stories, John was finishing my sentences for me. It showed me how much he was listening and how much he’d learned that day. He has learned so much about me as a person, as an artist, and about 9/11. More than he would have otherwise ever known.”

These moments with John are ones Sandy will never forget. And thanks to her dedication as an artist, and the support of the AAC family, her photos and what they captured won’t be easily forgotten, either.

(read Sandy’s overview of 426 Raw Walls 2 on the Alumni Association page)