9/11 memorial held at a community center

I hung them on the wall so that each family can look them in the eye and see that they are not alone in their grief. -Gina Johnson

Gina Johnson holds a miniature from her exhibit. /
Photo by Jingfeng Cui

UPDATE September 2: An exhibit titled “Faces of Remembrance Display Wall” is scheduled for the Arlington Community Center, 27 Maple St., Sept. 6-10.

The event, hosted by the city’s Council on Aging, features a collection of portraits by Arlington artist Gina Johnson commemorating Massachusetts residents who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The collection is made up of detailed pencil portraits of “209 individuals,” says Johnson. She put them all on a 22-foot-long display wall made up of two pop-up panels. Johnson thinks it is more calming to see a wall of portraits drawn in memory of individuals than to look at an individual picture.

“I hung them on the wall so that each family could look them in the eye and see that they are not alone in their grief,” she says.

Of the 209 people, one is from Arlington — Joseph Mathai, a 49-year-old managing partner of Cambridge Technology Partners who split his time between Boston and New York, YourArlington reported last year.

The wall may have taken 9 years

Drawing a single portrait takes Johnson an hour; completing the 9/11 portrait wall took him many years. “Probably 2007 to 2016,” Johnson said, unsure of the exact dates she made the portraits. For her, the duration of the project or any other way to measure her efforts does not seem to matter as much as the drawing itself.

“It’s about seeing their hearts, looking into their eyes, and that brings me joy,” Johnson describes the drawing process.

She believes it is an act of celebration of life.

Johnson began doing portraits when she was 16 and has since done many volunteer projects, including the 9/11 Portrait Wall. Influenced by her mother, who served in the Navy, Johnson believes in kindness and compassion.

Over the years, Johnson researched online and then drew portraits based on public photographs of the deceased on 9/11 shared by their families. Johnson sought out beautiful expressions in the images, then worked to produce portraits that would bring joy, rather than sadness, to the family. When she was not satisfied with the photos she found, she looked for others. While working on the project, she Googled every year, sometimes every month, for new images.

209 people

She didn’t know any of the 209 people. She says she will never intrude on a family’s private life, and that’s why she won’t initiate contact. But she hopes to send the original portraits to the families. “It’s my dream,” she said.

Johnson is proud of her work. “If you look at each one of them, they have sparkles in their eyes,” she says.

She calls the project “a personal mission.”

“Not everyone will understand,” she says, adding that she’s met people who don’t understand her motivation for creating and arranging “a wall of the dead.”

Johnson doesn’t want to be seen as someone who strives for public recognition that can then be politicized. “What I do is honor their service and find an image that represents and shows something memorable,” she says.

Johnson has faith in the renovated community center and the city. She worked at the Legacy apartment complex in the Center for over a decade and had many fond memories. “I made the whole place a community,” she says.

Eventually, because she wants to put the portraits online on her site Operation Home Linksshe was looking for technical support — so that a given family could one day more easily find the portrait they were looking for among hundreds of copies.

“This totality of everyone together really lessens the horror of losing their loved ones.” says Johnson.

Where and when

The mural will be on view at the Community Center on September 6 and 7 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., September 8 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., September 9 from 8 a.m. to noon, September 10 from 8 a.m. at 16 o’clock

Coffee of September 8 with artist: Join Gina from 9-10 a.m. on Thursday, September 8 for a coffee to discuss her project.

September 11, 2021: Remembering Arlington’s 9/11 Victim 20 Years Later

This interview with YourArlington Jingfei Cui editorial staff was published on Thursday, August 25, 2022. It was updated on September 2 to add an artist’s date.

Jill E. Washington