A survivor at death's door ; Unable to use his studio since Sept. 11, artist George Kokines wonders how his work will change

Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Oct 16, 2001; Julia Lieblich, Tribune staff reporter;

Abstract:
In his studio in a converted loft building once at the foot of the World Trade Center, [George Kokines] looks at his work to check for damage. Kokines goes through his mail in a coffee shop near his studio. At left, one of his paintings, "Quartet."

Full Text:
(Copyright 2001 by the Chicago Tribune)

Artist George Kokines stands behind the barricades next to tourists snapping pictures of jutting pieces of metal that look to him like fingers reaching to the sky.

Ground Zero is their photograph. Ground Zero is his home.

"That's my studio," says the 70-year-old Chicago-born and schooled Abstract Expressionist painter, pointing to a converted loft building once at the foot of the World Trade Center. Inside are more than 200 paintings and drawings, a lifetime of work that may not have survived the attacks, and a home that's still virtuallyoff-limits weeks later.

Among the thousands of people evacuated from the area, he endures the thick smell of debris each day to "revisit the scene of the crime," he says. Many who witnessed and then fled the attacks are only now able to begin to discuss the events with some clarity and ask questions about meaning that might have struck them as indulgent in more peaceful times.

"I'm an artist, but what does that mean?" he asks, gazing on the studio that now overlooks a funeral pyre. "What kind of a thing is painting?"

A survivors story

On Sept. 11, Kokines, who studied at Chicago's School of the Art Institute and taught for a time at Northwestern University before moving east, decided to have coffee across the street from the World Trade Center rather than walk through the building, as he did so many mornings -- the beginning of the kind of story survivors tell again and again as if one more repetition will shed light on the unfathomable.

"I loved going in there and watching people race to work," he said smiling. "I was always aware of how close they could be and not touch each other."

He remembers looking at his watch, thinking he had to get uptown and uttering, "I have to catch a subwa..." when the first plane hit. And he remembers running south.

"The World Trade Center fell and I tried to outrun the smoke," he said. "It was like Masaccio's painting of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden. Everything seemed to move in slow motion.

"I was never so scared," he said. "I'd like to think I'm more heroic than that."

Kokines went to the bar he works at one day a week and poured drinks for the patrons as they watched the news. "My humanitarian act was getting people drunk," he said. "But you can't dole out forgetfulness."

He crashed at friends' homes for a few days. But he craved solitude and a respite from recounting the moment the plane hit the building or the overwhelming feeling of survivors' guilt that sound like a cliche unless it's yours.

"I'm so grateful to be alive, and in another sense it's strangely disappointing that I didn't get killed," he said. "You feel very guilty escaping with your life. ... I think about the firemen I saw running in and I really feel bad. I guess they're all dead."

Walking the streets

He'll never yearn again, he said, to be in the middle of history being made.

For days, he walked the streets uptown where the city seemed untouched, sitting in coffee shops and wondering what had become of his home. He laughed too loudly when a man asked him if he could help out the homeless.

And he wondered about the fate of his paintings so tied up with his identity -- mere objects when more than 6,000 people were missing.

"I finally thought: I may have lost my work," he said, "but I didn't lose my hands. I became an artist so I could do this till I die."

Perhaps if he'd lost a family member, he'd be calling for all-out war. But Kokines, a former Marine, said he's hoping for a measured response. "We must have learned something from these wars," he said. "Nobody ever wins them. The vanquished many times come back to haunt you."

He takes no comfort in organized religion, instead focusing on people's capacity for compassion and resiliency, like the rescue workers he watches from behind the barricades.

"I believe in good acts of people," he says. "The good stays on afterwards and the evil is interred in their bones."

`Don't want to forget'

Ultimately, he says, it is through his painting that he will remember a public tragedy that feels intensely personal. "I don't want to forget these things," he said. "The smell that permeates the city shows that somebody put it to you and they want you to remember. How you remember is going to make the difference."

`Ghostly white all around'

When he finally was able to visit his loft for 15 minutes, accompanied by a National Guardsman, the 2,000 square-foot space was strangely beautiful.

"There was a ghostly white all around," he said, like a room untouched for a century. He did not have time to check the bulk of his work stored in racks. But he could see that a group of small floral paintings had emerged intact. And to his delight, a work which he painted in oils on carved 8-foot cement columns had survived.

It seems it was pure chance that his works may have survived unscathed. "My windows were closed," he said. "Go figure."

A group of Muslims working at the bar have offered to help him clean his studio when he is finally allowed to come home for more than 15 minutes at a time. Then he will pick up a paintbrush and see what shape his work will take.

When another painter asked Kokines how he expected his work to change, he said there was bound to be a shift after an attack that altered the world in an instant, particularly for an artist living with death at his door.

"You can't rehearse what you haven't confronted before," he said. "I don't know what I'll be painting, but I'll feel it. I'll know if I'm lying to myself."

One thing he's sure about, he will turn to the paintings on columns first. The columns that still stand tall in the face of disaster like fingers reaching for the sky.

[Illustration]
PHOTOS 3; Caption: PHOTO: In his studio in a converted loft building once at the foot of the World Trade Center, George Kokines looks at his work to check for damage. PHOTOS: Kokines goes through his mail in a coffee shop near his studio. At left, one of his paintings, "Quartet." Photos for the Tribune by Justin Lane.