By Clara Keane  | September 20, 2018 | Events 


The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s (FCFRD) Behavioral Health Section in collaboration with local artist Kathy Sullivan offer the Ashes2Art Program for first responders. According to the FCFRD, the weekly art class “allows participants to employ the unique creative abilities of emergency personnel directed in new ways.” This month, to honor the victims and survivors of 9/11, participants of Ashes2Art displayed their work at the Reston Art Gallery & Studios. The gallery was open September 6-20, and a special reception took place on September 11th.

Contributing artists to the First Responders 9/11 Art Show

“The Behavioral Health Office of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has transitioned our approach for helping our personnel from a traditional responsive model to a more holistic proactive model. The Ashes2Art program is one of the programs that gives our members another tool for addressing and reducing stress inherent in our emergency response profession,” explains Captain William “Buck” Best, Behavioral Health Uniformed Officer. Sullivan, who holds an MAAT from the University of Louisville, leads the program on Thursdays at the FCFRD’s Well-Fit center.  In addition to traditional art materials, participants also incorporate donated, meaningful materials.  Sometimes wearing masks for protection, participants used wood gathered from a house fire as charcoal and auto wreckage parts for sculpture. Some of the pieces displayed in the show were created by individual participants, and others were collaborative projects.

Instructing art classes with Ashes2Art has been a rewarding and enlightening experience for Ms. Sullivan. She was continually impressed by the resilience of first responders and the strength of their community dedication.  Sullivan’s reflections, “What did this civilian learn”, deliberated on the art process and resulting artwork, and accompanied each art piece in the show.

The reception on September 11, 2018, offered the community a place to gather to both honor the victims and survivors of the tragedy that occurred 17 years ago and to celebrate first responders’ work every day to keep communities safe. Several visitors remarked on how meaningful it was to connect with first responders and their families in this setting. Generally people only interact with first responders within the chaos of an emergency, and this show offered everyone the opportunity to step back and connect at an individual level.

Art therapists Emmy Lou Glassman, MA, ATR-BC and Sangeeta Prasad, MA, ATR-BC pictured with Kathy Sullivan, MAAT, and Captain Best at the reception on September 11, 2018. 

Gallery images posted with permission of the FCFRD:



Everyone Goes Home

Medium: Wood, magazines, ink

What did this civilian learn?

This quote was chosen by the Responders to be painted over a collage that had been pieced together over time. The amount of strength and unity and sense of family within this profession is extraordinary and is exemplified through this quote. First Responders live together, eat together, and risk their lives together throughout every shift. The common themes throughout the artwork displayed are positivity, rule following, resiliency, and spirituality/religion. These traits are essential to First Responders in order to function and succeed on many different levels. Every time sirens are blaring and trucks are racing to the designated scene, we all should be sending the thought or prayer that everyone goes home.


Strictly Black-and-White  

Medium: Paper and chunks of charred wood from a house fire (authorized by homeowner)

What did this civilian learn?

The First Responders possess an intense dedication to the “black-and-white” of rules and guidelines which cannot be blurred or the result could be injury or death. Personal discussion ensued when this artist suggested adding color to this piece. It was strongly relayed that First Responders have to be “black-or-white” in order to safely execute their individual roles as part of a team functioning in such dangerous jobs. Using the charred house fire wood as charcoal stimulated some intense discussions about September 11th. On another piece of paper (which remains back on site), a color was chosen to write illegibly whatever the participant felt at that moment regarding 9/11. Note the amount of symbolism found in this piece and the amount of respect shown for each other’s separate piece of work. Each drawing is separate and detailed yet is joined together through the processing of one specific topic in creation of one collaborative piece. The beauty of the Ashes2Ashes program is that it allows the First Responders to get in touch with the freedom of making mistakes, blurring lines, and adding color in the situation that is free form judgement and dangerous consequences.


Coca-Cola Drawing Exercise

Medium: Paper, pencil, and watercolor/coffee on damaged garage door from house fire (authorized by homeowners)

What did this civilian learn?

After initial hesitation when blindly thrown into a drawing exercise, these Responders produced images that are exactly to-scale. Notice the strength and precision in each and every one of these drawings. Armed with only limited previous drawing instruction, this exercise was meant to provide a starting point from which future classes would be designed. These drawings exhibit particular personality traits that these Responders each hold within them: accuracy, precision, determination, and dedication. This Amazingly simple representation of the mindset inherent in these First Responders is complimented by the charred garage door donated by homeowners who had to experience these particular traits firsthand.


Pantyhose Sculptures

Medium: Pantyhose, wire, wood, gesso, paper, broken windshield, burnt car bumper, and automobile wires (donated by NoVa Auto Recycling)

What did this civilian learn?

As with all of the art projects, an image of a final product was intentionally withheld in order to allow for a purer process of creation. These Responders jumped right into the process and adapted other resources to help manipulate their pieces. This action represented the resiliency and resourcefulness of these participants in order to achieve their final goal. Note that the final result of these organic pieces is the symbolic element of nature and beauty, yet again affirming the positive attitude naturally seen within these Responders. The purity of the white organic shapes amidst the charred bumper and broken windshield leads back to a comment form one of the participants, “Even flowers grow back after a forest fire.”


Vehicle Body Panel Mask

Medium: Crushed metal from automobile wreckage (donated by NoVa Auto Recycling)

What did this civilian learn?

The attention to detail and precision methodically presented itself throughout the First Responder’s drive to preserve the natural integrity of the crushed metal. This First Responder immediately saw a face in this crushed piece of automobile wreckage.  Instead of turning this piece into something different, this Responder deliberately attempted to enhance the crevices and facial features through sanding and painting. The result is a beautiful yet striking piece dedicated to the natural strength of its character. This mask reflects a life of many stories, some intense, but most unavailable for discussion.



What did this civilian learn?

This Responder and former marine spent a lot of time and attention on the construction of this warrior-esque mask. The background, a melted water hose container, was a natural choice to compliment this strong image. Choosing Champagne Pink resulted in an amazing juxtaposition between the embattled warrior needed for this heroic job and the beautiful feminine exterior that is truly embraced and celebrated in this piece.


Mandala Exercise

Medium: Paper, pencils and markers

What did this civilian learn?

This exercise was meant to provide a method for relaxation through methodical, meditative repetition of patterns. The process was relaxing and peaceful and provided a platform for spontaneous discussion. This would be a good stress reliever for these participants however each Responder seems to have a stronger inclination ‘to give to others’ over giving to themselves. It is an altruistic element of the First Responder and something that is almost embedded in their personality from birth. We call out in the middle of the night to these strangers to come and save us from disaster…and we don’t even know their names. This civilian learned GRATITUTE in its highest form.


Mask-Her Aid

Medium: Paper mask with aluminum foil, wood putty, paint, feathers, and automobile wreckage (donated by NoVa Auto Recycling)

What did the civilian learn?

This First Responder spent hours on this piece, taking it home on several different occasions. Without a particular design in mind, this participant allowed the mask to evolve organically. By introducing the automobile parts, this participant added a “warrior” aspect to the playful and feminine piece. The importance of this program was confirmed by this Responder on several different occasions. Ashes2Art provided a connection to the cultural identity of the First Responder while navigating through the process of retirement. This program’s goal is to provide an outlet for navigating life’s changes by providing a safe, playful, and productive environment for expression.


Add-A-Line Exercise

Medium: Paper and pencil

Task: Add a sentence to one exposed sentence without seeing the preceding sentences.

What did this civilian learn?

This exercise demonstrates how positive and strong the inner voices and truths are of these First Responders. The introduction to writing was met with doubt but everyone trusted the process and participated. In a culture that is dependent on rules and structure, these Responders showed tremendous trust in diving into the ‘unknown’ of this exercise. The result truly speaks to a community of strength in attitude, strength in character, and strength in positivity. Keep in mind that each person was unaware of the content of the previous lines in this piece yet all of their messages resonate with such similarity.


Automobile Wreckage Collage

Medium: Wood and miscellaneous part from automobile wreckage (donated by NoVA Auto Recycling)

What did this civilian learn?

A large number of First Responders contributed to this collage piece with the simple instructions to choose any piece and place it anywhere on the board. Originally, the goal was for the collage to be turned into a certain symbol but given the size of these pieces, we decided to let it evolve organically. At the end of the process, the participants chose to focus on the facial profile in the lower right-hand corner with the rest of the pieces in gold representing the variety of thoughts, images, emotions that are swirling around their being. With a strong foundation in religion or spirituality, the last step was to place the card of Jesus as a constant image rotating in the mind of the figure. The resulting piece is an exquisite show of strength and dedication in the midst of chaos; with the gold tone evoking a shrine-like dedication to all responders and all civilians affected in emergency situations.