Middletown: Portraits Of Loss

Helping Families

Nancy Gawron gets calls from strangers all the time these days. Richard Schlesinger reports on this artist who is trying to help people come to terms with loss.

Gawron is an artist in Middletown, N.J. After Sept. 11, she started painting portraits of lost family members as a favor for a few of her neighbors. She refuses to take any money.

"I was one of the lucky ones. My family came home," she says. "When I started looking around at how many families didn't, like everybody else I wanted to do something to help."

Now, her project has mushroomed. Gawron will not turn anyone down. She has promised to draw the portrait of anyone lost on Sept. 11. So she has thousands of potential clients. "It's basically an 8-hour day, 5 days a week; it's the only way I can keep up with them," she says.

She says she will work until no one else wants a portrait. "It would take 10 years. I do a portrait a day, five days a week, 3,000 people," she says.

As word has gotten out, she has gotten busier. So far, she has done 180 portraits. She has a waiting list for another 270.

The drawing is easy for Nancy - the hard part is hearing the stories: "The ones that hit me the most are the women that were pregnant on Sept. 11.

Some widows have asked Nancy to use her canvas to reunite families that can never really be together. She draws family portraits, including husbands who were lost.

"One of the women that picked up one at the house, her baby was born 4 days after Sept. 11. She cried when she saw it. The one thing she said to me was, 'Now, I know what we would have looked like.'"

Today, she is working on portrait number 124. Susan Blair was a 35-year-old assistant director for the Aon Insurance Corporation. She worked on the 92nd floor of Tower Two, and was engaged to be married.

"Susan represented for me in my life the closest thing to unconditional love that you get," says her only sister, Leslie. "When we were younger, we fought like cats and dogs. When we were older, there were just years that we were just inseparable."

It takes one day to do one portrait; one by one, Gawron peers into the lives of hundreds of victims. And she puts one more human face on the tragedy every day that she sits down in front of a blank canvas.

"I always start with the eyes," she says. "Once I have the eyes looking at me, then the portrait feels alive, and then it's like I'm looking at a person even if the rest of it isn't in.

"It's probably the most rewarding and inspirational thing I've ever done. I can't quite explain what it's added to my life."

When they first see the portrait of Susan, Leslie and her mother Sally White are touched. Anything that keeps Susan's memory alive is important to Sally and Leslie, who have been coming to terms with their loss – slowly. "I sometimes still pick up the phone and go, 'Oh shoot, this is a riot. I gotta call Sue'" Leslie says.

Susan's portrait is now in her mother's house. "It means the world to me," Sally says.