Exhibit showcases community's response to 9/11
Robert Carley remembers listening to the traffic report while he was driving from his Norwalk home to his office in Stamford when the announcement came over the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
The report made it sound as if it were an accident. But by the time he got to the office on Harbor Drive, the second plane had hit.
"I get into the office and there's chaos in the office. Everyone's listening to the news. Since we were right on the water we could actually see the smoke from the towers later in the day coming across Long Island Sound," said Carley, now a Darien resident.
"We were all lined up looking out the windows across Long Island Sound. I remember turning to a coworker and saying how right before our eyes we are watching thousands of people die. It was an incredibly emotional, depressing time."
But he has another vivid memory of Sept. 11, 2001 -- within days flag tributes started to spring up everywhere.
"To me it showed American resilience, it showed that Americans weren't defeated. Norwalk citizens rallied around the flag. I remember very well across from the Motor Vehicle Department some kids set up a stand and were selling flags. I remember how they were selling like hotcakes," Carley said. "Soon traditional flags sold out so people turned to their own creativity to bring the flag to life in new ways."
For instance, a neighbor of Carley's had a huge pumpkin in his yard and painted the American flag on it.
"It was so well done that it inspired me. I am an artist and illustrator but I decided that I had to take pictures of these tributes. It was such a unique time in American history and I wanted to document it."
Community members can see Carley's photos documenting these flag tributes at an exhibit now on display at the Norwalk Museum. The exhibit continues through Oct. 8.
While the Norwalk exhibit features photos of local flag tributes, Carley has criss-crossed through 43 states on what he refers to as flag trips.
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He uses a camera he inherited from his father, who died in 1993. Carley didn't pick up the camera in earnest until the spring of 2001.
One of his first photos was taken at the Sono Arts Festival. It was of a folk artist and was recognized by the Ridgefield Guild of Art.
Carley has since taken more than 30,000 flag photos in all different categories such as trucks, boats, flowers and houses.
"You name it, an American flag has been created out of it. Necessity is the mother of invention. People felt so compelled to show their patriotism that they took what they had available, they took what they loved, like their car, or their truck and they incorporated a flag into it," Carley said.
He said the most personal flag he took a photo of was of a man who had tattooed the American flag on his face.
"Other than painting your house like a flag, that is probably the most personal thing that you can do," he said.
Carley said the first flag house he ever photographed was in Kent, where he also has an exhibit this month, as well as in Hartford, and at the Darien Historical Society.
Carley said that he is continuously inspired by the patriotic Americans he meets, the incredible tributes that people create and the privilege he has in being able to photograph them.
"Whenever I start off on flag trips I always say a little prayer asking for surprise discoveries," he said.
What impressed him the most when taking the photographs right after 9/11 was the incredible unity throughout the United States.
"We had intense unity after 9/11 and unfortunately it's faded, like a lot of the tributes now are peeling and cracking and fading or have disappeared but life goes on. People forget. And with my exhibits I am trying to make Americans appreciate how we can be unified, and how we can be unified again for the country's health."
On Sept. 18 at 2:30 p.m., Carley will present a talk "Searching for the Red, White and Blue." He will be talking about his quest to document the patriotic flag tributes that sprang up after 9/11, and his photographs. Following the talk Carley will answer questions from the audience.
The Norwalk Museum is at 41 North Main St. Hours are Wednesday to Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. and alternate Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.