For 12 years Belfast artist and filmmaker Marcus Robinson has been on the ground at the World Trade Center bearing witness to its construction and celebrating those who, girder by girder, have built the tallest skyscraper in the western hemisphere.
Marcus Robinson’s unconventional documentary “Rebuilding the World Trade Center” has just won a Craft British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award and will air on the History Channel on September 11 (at 6pm ET).
His 12 years, and counting, at the World Trade Center have not been about the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack but rather an ongoing artistic project about creation, the human spirit and most importantly as he put it himself a “celebration of the heart of working people.”
From his studio on the 68th floor of Tower 4 it is not hard to see what a special project he has undertaken. Surrounded by portraits of construction workers painted on wooden boards taken from the site, and looking out over the ongoing creation of the World Trade Center there’s certainly something magic about what he’s undertaking.
What he started he calls a labor of love, dedication and even a “calling,” a project that he sees as being complete when the World Trade Center is finally complete, which could be five or six years from now.
The 84-minute “Rebuilding the World Trade Center” follows the community of construction workers, many of them Irish and Irish American, working on the 16-acre site. Robinson uses a mixture of “of time-lapse film, video live action, hand-painted animation and a specially designed sound-score,” which he painstakingly created himself, to accentuate the vibrancy of the site.
He told IrishCentral, “I was living in London when the events of 9/11 happened. A lot of the work I do is about urban transformation either from demolition through the years or construction through the years.
“I knew when [the attacks] happened that I wanted to be involved in it somehow, to tell a story that would be different, take away some of the prejudice, or the way people perceive it. In one way it’s all mixed in with politics and nationalism and flag-waving and a whole load of things and that takes away from the fact that there are men and women here that are building something amazing and healing.
“I wanted to use this as a metaphor that would symbolize something about the human spirit and its ability to transcend and rise above adversity. To create out of nothing, that in a way is the whole key phenomenon about human life and creation.”
Through telling the stories of the men and women working on the site of the WTC, Robinson tells a timeless human story and holds up a mirror to New York City and its rich diversity.
“The tradition of all the men and women who built New York City, the fact that the people who are working here are descended from a lot of those workers – it’s still the fact that people are building this city with their hands. I sort of find that moving, that the city is creating itself,” said Robinson.
“This extraordinary site is full of people who are very passionate. There’s real love in the construction community, even though you might not think it. People sort of think builders are uncouth and bad tempered, which in a way they are, but underneath it all there is a real humanity and honesty which I find very appealing.”
He added, “There’s a lot of Irish on the site and a lot of Irish American guys, in that real tradition of iron workers, descended from those original Irish who came to Canada or North America. Then there’s a lot of Irish guys who are doing the groundwork, the digging the trenches and the bedrock and everything.“
Often Robinson’s day starts atop One World Trade Center as early as four or five in the morning. Armed with his 35mm film and camera he records the sunrise, the massive construction site and the workers creating this amazing skyscraper. His work also takes the form of paintings of the workers, many painted on scraps of wood found on the site with pieces of dirt and cement still clinging to them. In his studio, on the 68th floor of 4 World Trade Center, his work stands tall (some up to 16 x 18 feet in size) towering above the memorial pools below and with a bird’s eye view of the newly completed and impressive 1 World Trade Center.
“A lot of them are drawn from life on the site and then the big ones are a mix of drawing and imagination, frames of film I’ve taken. It’s a sort of combination. Trying to create a more dreamlike landscape based on reality,” he told IrishCentral.
“Luckily the paintings have become really popular and a lot of the construction workers have acquired them for their family which is really moving that they come and get me to do a portrait of them.”
His work is about having their work acknowledged. Journeyman iron worker, Irish American Tommy Hickey put it well in the movie: “It means a lot. He’s kinda like doing it for us. To show people the hard work that we all do, not the people that put money in and put these buildings up financing them.”
The artist has become part of the furniture on site. At first seen as an observer or an outsider Robinson said it took a while for the workers, many of whom he now considers his buddies, to accept him.
“It took a while to be discreet enough to get the guys to trust me, so I could be close to them. Luckily over years that happened. Right at the very end,” said Robinson.
“The main foreman is a really really tough guy. The whole time he’s angry and swearing and shouting. He sort of took me under his wing and I was really the only person he’d let up there to film. So I was very, very lucky."
Robinson was even given access to some trial runs for the placement of the spire atop the 104-story Goliath of a building. Gaining access to the top of the highest skyscraper in the western hemisphere he said was very “exciting.”
“I was up there every morning at 4 or 4:30 with this foreman guy and I’d bring him a coffee and we’d sit and chat.
“I found it very special.”
Currently Robinson plans to continue his project until Tower 2 and 3 are completed, which could be another five or six years. His project is almost entirely being funded through the sale of his paintings, which can be viewed at MarcusRobinsonart.com/artwork/paintings.
Twelve years ago, he admitted, “I had no idea there was going to be the biggest recession ever and all the political dealings. Tower 3 was supposed to be up and running already last year so there are challenges, but in a way when you totally commit to something you have a sense of peace because you know that whatever it takes that’s what you’re going to do. There’s no backing out.”
As for an endgame for Robinson the destination is all in the journey.
“The main focus is being totally present in this moment and being there for the site. In a way the endgame is just that. It’s sort of exciting, in that I’m open to whatever might happen. Obviously there’s a dream that the paintings would so inspire people that they would travel around the world and be bought by collectors and the film would be able to touch people in a certain way.
“Over the next five or six years, which is what the site will, at least, take, I want to do a lot more painting of the guys and a lot more paintings about New York City.”
For this Belfast artist being part of this snippet of world history and recording the great feats of these men and women is what the project is all about.
He told IrishCentral, “What’s exciting is that it’s a purely artistic process. I came here with a longing to do it. I knew that whatever it takes I was going to create this truly artistic vision, sharing with the guys, the men and women who are here and being part of it.”
For more information visit MarcusRobinsonart.com.