Linda Stein was working in her art studio in lower Manhattan when the police burst in and shouted for her to get out. It was Sept. 11, 2001, and terrorists had just struck the World Trade Center towers nearby.
“We just starting running,” Stein said. “At one point, I turned around and said, ‘Why are they throwing furniture out of the towers?’ It wasn’t furniture. It was people jumping. Another time I turned around, and I saw one of the buildings come straight down. The whole day, I ran for safety and protection.”
Ever since, Stein has explored the theme of protection in her art work and is showing tapestries, sculptures and a video related to the theme at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. “Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females” is on view through Nov. 5.
After the attacks, it took Stein many hours to reach the safety of a friend’s home uptown. She stayed there eight months. She lost access to her studio, and her apartment four blocks from her studio was a total mess. Because the dust and debris from the incineration of the towers settled everywhere and into everything, she had to replace nearly all her possessions — “the couch, the carpet, the mattresses, the window curtains. Everything had to go.”
Numb for the better part of a year because of what she experienced and witnessed, Stein slowly returned to art making as part of her recovery from the emotional trauma of surviving the attack. “I had a lot of thinking to do, and I did watercolors to try to settle myself,” she said.
Eventually, she returned to sculpture, on which she based much of her success as an artist, and surprised herself by gravitating to human forms. “I had always been abstract, and I thought I would continue making abstract sculpture. To my surprise, there was a waist. There was a shoulder, and the work was figurative. I didn’t understand it. What was I doing? I am an abstract artist, and I was making figures that were like warriors with armor.”
As she further freely explored, the protection theme emerged and eventually led her to the Holocaust, “where protection was in such short supply.”
The work in Portland is broad in scope. There are 10 “Heroic Tapestries” that illustrate the stories of heroic women, like Anne Frank, who gave up their lives to help others. They didn’t see themselves as heroes, but acted heroically, Stein said. She also made a “Protector” sculpture that began to resemble the pop culture fictional superhero Wonder Woman, who was introduced in 1941 and a protector and defender. There’s also a series of sculptures made with spoons and shells, which address physical and emotional abuse, and a video that highlights female heroes at the time of Holocaust.
Overall, Stein wants people who see the exhibition to feel empowered to act heroically in their own communities, to resist scapegoating and discrimination and stand up for victims.
“I want people to say, ‘Well, I may not be able to save lives like these 10 heroes, but what can I do on an everyday basis? What can I do to show empathy and be kind?’ ”
Stein is a widely decorated artist and educator. She won the Artist of the Year Award in 2016, given by the National Association of Women Artists.
WHEN: Through Nov. 5; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St., Portland
INFORMATION: mainejewishmuseum.org or (207) 773-2339
RELATED: Linda Stein will discuss her work from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3 at the museum.