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Out of loss, inspiration <br> As families mourn loved ones lost on Flight 3407, musicians and writers find ways to express a community's collective grief

For Gunilla Theander Kester, the moment of insight came in a checkout line.

She was at the supermarket, clutching flowers to mark a friend's birthday. Two women standing nearby asked her about them. Kester admitted the bouquet was for a victim of Flight 3407 -- and that she planned to place the blossoms at the Clarence crash site.

The crowded checkout line grew quiet.

Then, as one, people moved aside so Kester could walk to the front of the line. One woman grabbed her arm and said: "Take all your good memories -- with you."

That's when Kester knew: The loss of Flight 3407 had affected not just her but an entire community. She knew at that moment she had to turn the disaster into subject matter for art.

"We as artists have a certain responsibility," said Kester, "to respond to history."

The result of Kester's realization is a new anthology of poetry, essays and other writing about the disaster called "The Empty Chair: Love and Loss in the Wake of Flight 3407." The book, which Kester co-edited with Buffalo novelist Gary Earl Ross, is the first volume dedicated to works about the crash -- and comes as the high-water mark in what has been a steady outpouring of related artwork in the past year.

Songs. Poems. Essays. Letters, diary entries, photographs, illustrations -- all this and more has poured out of artists in Western New York and beyond.

But this artistic aftermath to the 3407 tragedy also raises tricky questions about the intersection of history, culture and art. Is it possible to create meaningful art in the wake of devastation? Is it appropriate, or even right?

What purpose does such art serve in the larger community -- and will anybody profit?

"When I first wrote it, I didn't necessarily write it for anybody to hear. I wrote it for me," said Mark Weber, an Amherst musician who found himself grappling with these questions after he wrote a song called "3407." "It was my way of getting through the process."

Some artists, like Weber, said they created their works to deal with personal pain. Others said they wanted to help the community heal.

But others go a step further, claiming that the role of the artist is nothing less than this: To deal with exactly the sort of situation the crash of Flight 3407 presents us with, a situation so horrible we can barely turn our faces toward it.

Art, they say, makes us look. And remember.

>Tributes in song

The anthology, which collects poems and other writings and is available in bookstores such as Talking Leaves and Borders near the Walden Galleria, is only part of the burgeoning landscape of 3407 artistry.

Music about the crash on the night of Feb. 12, 2009, and its 50 victims, has also flowed from the pens of songwriters over the past year. Works include:

"You Are Beauty," a six-minute ballad by Cheektowaga native Sheri Whalen, who now lives in Frostburg, Md. Whalen performed the song in Clarence last June, at a memorial run and fundraiser, and recorded it with the help of a local gospel choir.

"Sail on Angel," an inspirational composition written by Getzville's Tom Hoolihan, a retired high school science teacher who performs twice a month in Roswell Park Cancer Institute and donates the proceeds of his music to Roswell's pediatric wing. Hoolihan plans to include the song on his second CD, "Beyond," which will be out later this year.

"Love Knows No Boundaries," a song written by Western New Yorkers Christina Abt and Noa Bursie, and performed at memorials as well as played on the radio. The song was put together within days of the crash, with Abt contributing the words, Bursie the melody, and many musicians from the Buffalo area jumping in to help. Abt now sits on the memorial planning committee in Clarence, where officials have thanked her and the others for creating the song.

"Message From Maddy," a song penned by New Jersey resident Andy Rajeckas, in memory of 3407 victim and former Buffalo State College hockey player Maddy Loftus.

"3407," the song written by Weber, who lives near the crash site and watched emergency crews respond to the scene on Feb. 12. Two weeks later, Weber, a professional musician who performs with the band Uptown, sat down and composed "3407" in a single session at his piano.

"The idea that kept coming to me was, 'It could have been you or me,' " said Weber, whose song lyrics contain that phrase. "It really was more than just a Western New York tragedy. To me, 3407 was to Clarence what 9/1 1 was to New York City. A major catastrophe that makes you say, 'What happened here?' I wanted to put that to music."

>A response to tragedy

But why do artists feel pulled in that direction, as many so clearly have been? Is it suitable -- or even right -- to use words, music and images to respond to a tragedy that took the lives of 50 people?

Ross, the co-editor of the anthology, said he feels that it is not only appropriate for artists to write and compose about these subjects, but necessary. "As a writer, I would say that any subject is a seemly subject for art," said Ross. "Art is an attempt to make sense of the world. Nothing makes us have that sense of 'why?' more than a disaster."

Experts on the psychology of disaster-related memorials agree.

Art born of tragedy, like war or death, performs an important act by serving as both a current reminder and a future lesson about what happened and why.

"The Flight 3407 [crash] was a horrible tragedy for the Buffalo region," said Dr. Mark Gottdiener, professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo and the author of books including "Life in the Air," an examination of airplane travel.

"Memory alone doesn't suffice, in such a situation," Gottdiener said. "As a community response, it's important to have some tangible memorial of the flight, and of those victims. It's an objectification of our feelings -- that's very important to our grieving process."

"And," he added, "it will help future generations remember a tragic event."

Brenda Kuklewicz, who lost her 41-year-old brother Brian in the crash, said the songs have helped her heal. "I think they are beautiful songs. They are expressing what I am feeling -- right on the nose," she said. "I have to say that one, 'You Are Beauty,' is a favorite. My son -- my brother was a big part of his life -- every time we get in the truck he says, 'Do you have the 3407 CD, Mom?' It amazes me."

>The loss was personal

At the same time that melodies and lyrics were pouring out of musicians, Kester, a published poet and classical guitarist who lives in Amherst, was dreaming up the idea of an anthology of writing related to the crash, as a way of processing her own grief over losing her close friend, Susan Wehle, a clergy member at Temple Beth Am in Williamsville.

"It was a catastrophe. For me personally, and for the whole community," said Kester, who recorded a CD with Wehle a few years ago. "She was a born leader. Who knows what she could have become?"

Kester asked Ross, another friend, for help in putting together the anthology. The pair waited until fall to put out a call for submissions. When material came in, Kester and Ross decided to include everything that was sent them -- even letters, diary entries, texts of e-mails. They didn't bar anyone because of age, content or writing ability.

The response was overwhelming. A second edition is now being planned, which will include even more material that has flooded in since the first call.

Ross said that the bulk of submissions focused on Wehle and on Alison DesForges, the noted human rights expert from Buffalo who died in the crash. But other victims are represented as well.

There was a personal side to many submissions.

Alexa Draman, at 13 the book's youngest writer, voiced an emotion echoed by other musicians and writers when she said that for her, poetry was a way to cope with unexpected death.

Alexa's poem, "The Music in My Heart," is dedicated to Wehle, her bat mitzvah teacher. Alexa wrote the poem two days after the crash, and read it publicly at her bat mitzvah in August. When she heard about "The Empty Chair," she decided to submit her poem for consideration.

"We finished [our lessons] the week before Susan died," said Alexa, an eighth-grader at Mill Middle School in Williamsville. "She was very inspirational. She thought the same way [about God] as I did -- so we had a kind of connection."

The poem, Alexa said, "didn't take me that long, because I knew what I was going to write. It just came out of me."

>Proceeds for memorial fund

Most of the artists said that any proceeds from their projects are being directed toward the memorial fund for victims of the crash. They said they never intended to make a nickel by writing or singing about the disaster.

Kester and Ross said that was their agreement about the anthology -- which sells for $12 -- from the beginning.

"There is no profit in this," Ross said.

Abt, the writer behind "Love Knows No Boundaries," said 500 copies of the CD have been sold so far. Funds raised by CD sales are being directed to the memorial fund, she said.

"Everyone involved in the project felt as if a greater hand than ours was at work," she said. "And everyone gave of their time and talents freely."

Weber, the Amherst musician, is charging $2 a download for his "3407" song online, but explained that he spent money recording the track; he's trying to recoup those expenditures.

"I spent a lot of money to make the song," he said. "I've probably made about $2, if that."

Everyone seems to realize that the idea of making money from art related to the crash is a touchy subject.

And it is. But Kuklewicz, the family member of a victim, said that she appreciates the artistic efforts to memorialize the tragedy so much that she doesn't mind if somebody makes a little bit of money.

"That's fine with me," she said.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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