East Carolina University students, sophomore chemistry major Elijah Terry and sophomore computer science major Xavier Williams, view art within the “Memoirs to America” art exhibit.

East Carolina University’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement and School of Art and Design hosted the opening reception for “Memoirs to America,” an art exhibit dedicated to the remembrance of 9/11, on Sept. 3 in the Main Campus Student Center (MCSC).

“Memoirs to America” features reflective essays written by ECU students from a history course within 24 hours of the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. The exhibit will be featured throughout the month of September, where the essays and graphic posters are hung throughout the second-floor art gallery in the MCSC. 

On Sept. 12, 2001, history professor Karin Zipf said she taught a women's history course where she assigned her students to write journal-style essays on their emotions and feelings about what had taken place the day before. She said the essays, which are now featured in the exhibit, document the raw emotion felt throughout the university after the 9/11 attacks.

“When I went to class early that next morning, the day after 9/11, I could feel that my students were really, really anxious and instead of ending class, I asked them just to write down their thoughts and feelings,” Zipf said. “I also knew that quite a few of them were families of military personnel, so I knew there was an awareness among these students that might not even exist among other students.”

Zipf said she kept the essays in a file instead of grading them and eventually donated them to the university archives. She said students were enthusiastic about donating the letters and the university awarded the students with a recognition as donors. 

As Zipf has reflected on the essays for 20 years, she said she has developed an intimate connection with the words written in them. She said to see them in person at the exhibit is something she would have never imagined when she assigned the essays 20 years ago.

“To see these essays visualized in a way that I could never have imagined in this thoughtful and extremely provoking way is beyond anything I could have ever imagined,” Zipf said. “I walked up here (to the exhibit) and I was just slam floored, it was just amazing.”

Zipf said her hope is that people who visit the exhibit understand the raw emotion of fear, questioning, empathy and anger that the essays capture. She said she was impressed with the exhibit, as well as the graphic design and its use of color, negative space and wording.

Senior graphic design major and sports studies minor Bryan Keith created the exhibit as well as the featured graphic designs. He said as “Memoirs to America” is his first exhibit, he was overwhelmed and nervous, though he felt fulfilled and honored as he has a close tie to the subject of the exhibit.

“This exhibit means a lot to me, I had family members that were at the Pentagon and at the twin towers. They didn’t lose their lives, thank God, but there were a lot of people that did lose their life that day,” Keith said. “(The exhibit) can really show a mirror and a window to what a lot of people at that time felt and how they handled it.”

ECU students can use the exhibit to see what transpired on campus after 9/11, Keith said. He said the essays inspired the exhibit and his graphic design, so he titled the event “Memoirs to America” because he wanted people to understand that his art represents the essays.

Keith said he focused his designs around imagery using words with various colors such as red, black and white. He said he hopes people who experience the exhibit understand that it is important to come together when hard times arise.

“I feel like during that time, that’s (coming together) exactly what we did and when things happen, we all come together and rally together,” Keith said. “I want people to look at this like, a lot of things went wrong but it’s still an honoring of the exhibit.”

The exhibit was in the works from June 6 to Aug. 12, Keith said. He said during that time, preparations were made such as the printing of the essays and the QR codes to go along with them that allow guests of the exhibit to view the essays online.

Keith said he felt emotional when preparing for the exhibit opening as it was a new experience for him, though he ultimately felt thankful and honored.

“When I was first putting it (the exhibit) up I was very much emotional that this is something that I did and that I can be proud of to put into my body of work and my portfolio and just honored that a lot of people received it very well,” Keith said.

Art Education Professor Alice Arnold said she found the exhibit to be moving and meaningful, and she invited her students to attend the exhibit for extra credit. She said it was important for her students to understand that art can range from happy and fun to sad and emotional, such as the essays.

Arnold said the exhibit was a great idea and she was glad that Zipf captured her students' emotions on Sept. 12, 2001. She said 20 years later, the events that took place on 9/11 still cause her to be emotional.

“I think it’s important to realize that art is the embodiment of human emotion and if we just stick with soap operas it’s either going to be happy, happy, happy or sad, sad, sad and not much nuance,” Arnold said. “I think a lot of people say ‘oh, that’s life, it’s just really wonderful or it’s not,’ and gravitate to those extremities.”

One of the reasons why she was interested in the “Memoirs to America” exhibit is because she recognizes that good art takes time, Arnold said.

Arnold said she was excited to see that her students who attended the event were bringing their friends and partners to experience how moving the exhibit is.

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