After September 11, 2001, Peter Max felt the need to lift the spirit of America by creating a sign of hope and happiness amid the terrible tragedy. One year later, he did what he did best. He painted a portrait of the 356 firefighters that lost their lives, and gifted them to the families of those heroes. In a 2002 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Max reflected on that day, what he did to help, and the time after.

Q: A lot of people felt art might seem frivolous or irrelevant after Sept. 11. How did it make you feel?

A: Anything outside the mourning of loved ones is frivolous. A fancy restaurant is frivolous. Dressing nice is frivolous. We’ve all lost loved ones. You can never replace someone you loved. Somehow, [Sept. 11] got me thinking a lot about life. The richness of what it is to be alive here and now. To be able to be present. What is life all about anyhow, if not to love and serve others?

Q: You, like many artists, have begun to use Sept. 11 in your work. Might it become a cliche? Or seen as exploitative?

A: I did it strictly as a labor of love. I wasn’t born here. When I discovered America at the age of 15, I realized all of the world loves America. Despite the problems we have, people love what America is about: the freedom, the creativity. I was lucky to be a painter. It’s all about loving others and serving the world.

Q: You’ve made portraits of firefighters from Sept. 11. How did that happen?

A: When the [attacks] first happened, within a half an hour I had gathered up my guys — I have 150 people who work for me [in his Manhattan studio] — and said, `We’re going down there and lift rocks.’ We wanted to help out, give manpower. I asked, `What can we do?’ One of my art directors said, `Why don’t you do what you do best?’ So we did patriotic posters and printed them up in two or three days. I was in disbelief at all the sadness. I thought, `My God, if I could only paint all the portraits of those who died. But it’s impossible. How can you paint 3,000 people?’ I thought I could paint the firefighters. Then I thought, `It’s impossible.’ I said to my assistant, `Is it possible?’ I gave it a shot. I didn’t think I would ever do all of them. I was thrilled to be involved in honoring these people. After four days of looking at maybe six a day, the one thing that dawned on me was — and I’ve never met any of those individuals — I said to myself, `I’ve seen you before.’ I realized that people have similar eyes. Almost every pair of eyes is the same. It’s eerie, strange and very, very sad. I’ve known their eyes. I just painted and painted. Two days before Oct. 12, I finished my 356th one. Then we blew them up. The size of each one is a foot wide by 18 inches high. I loved every moment of it. They’ll be given to the families. I want only to lighten the sadness in people.

Q: You’re rich and famous now. Do you sometimes wish you could be starting all over again, just another anonymous artist? Do you ever wish you were back at the beginning?

A: I feel like I am at the beginning. I have a 30-inch waist. Can you believe it? I have this amazing nutritionist and this wonderful exercise program. I’m 65, but if you saw me, you’d say I was 45. I feel 28. It all happens like it happened a minute ago. I love the world. I love everything that’s in it, even the hard things.

Q: How did you become an icon?

A: Very, very slowly. Success happened to me because I always listened to my inspiration. By all means, always listen to your inspiration.

Q: You’re an optimist. But this is a dangerous, deadly world. How do you stay happy? What’s your secret?

A: We’re living in a beautiful world, even though we’ve had terrible moments in our short history. Mankind is only maybe 10,000 or 15,000 years old. You can imagine how tough it was in the Dark Ages. We’re living in a wonderful time.

Surround yourself in the patriotic works of Peter Max when you visit our exhibition now open through November 18th. Click here for more information.


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