Capturing strength: Paramedic Kate Bergen honors the women of 9/11
Through a series of portraits, Kate Bergen hopes to elevate the stories and recognition of the women who answered the call on that September day
Shortly after the world went into lockdown in 2020, Paramedic Kate Bergen pulled out her paintbrushes, and never looked back.
Channeling her pandemic anxiety, she poured her heart into a series of paintings honoring first responders – her colleagues – for their dedication and commitment to the communities they served.
Bergen's “Modern Day Rosies” series – a collection of portraits of actual frontline workers portrayed in the iconic Rosie the Riveter fashion – elevated her to a professional artist who also works in emergency medicine.
For the final piece of the series, Bergen painted a group of eight female first responders who were working the COVID-19 public health crisis, who were also on the frontlines during another significant time for public safety: September 11, 2001.
‘The Women of 9/11’
Inspired by the dedication of the eight women and in honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Bergen is working on her next series: honoring the women who responded to the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In listening to the stories of those she’s connected with up to this point, Bergen is awe-struck. “I feel like I’m walking with giants,” she said.
Her portraits are painted from actual pictures of the women with an element from that September day. She plans to complete five portraits each year for the next five years, for a total of 50 portraits by the 25th anniversary of the attacks in 2026, including two paintings depicting fallen female first responders.
Tanya Justin was in her second day of paramedic school when the building she was in shook as a plane crashed into the Pentagon just across the river. Now a fire instructor with DC Fire & EMS, she had never told her story from that day to anyone outside of her family members, an honor Bergen doesn’t take lightly.
“With this project specifically, I really have to get it right,” Bergen said. “I want to make sure that I’m making the best tribute I possibly can for these women, who have been so overlooked as it is.”
Making those personal connections is a vital part of the process for Bergen, who channels the emotion from those conversations into the painting process: “The more I know, the more I can get involved in the person’s life, the more I can bring that part of the painting to life.”
Justin’s portrait is Bergen’s favorite of the six she has completed so far.
“I think I really got the emotion in her eyes right,” she said. “The strength, the sorrow, the resilience. How strong she is, what she’s gone through.”
When Ret. NYPD Capt. Debra Faiello agreed to be included in the project, she had only one request of Bergen: “Please capture the essence of my dog.”
Faiello was a search-and-rescue handler with the Canine Unit and it was important to her that her dog, Caesar, was depicted accurately in Bergen's painting.
It was Brenda Berkman’s portrait that really intimidated Bergen, though.
Berkman won the right for women’s inclusion in the FDNY following a successful lawsuit and was part of the inaugural graduating class that included 41 female firefighters in 1982.
“She takes no prisoners; she is not someone I would want on my bad side. I was terrified to get her painting wrong!” Bergen joked. “She is such a strong supporter of women and women’s rights, just an amazing presence and example to other women.”
Honoring women where they are
From Bergen’s perspective, the women who responded on Sept. 11, 2001, are often overlooked by the media.
“The men in New York City got so much of the ‘thank you, you’re our heroes,’” she said. “Not that they’re not, and not that any of us in this field are looking for that, but you really didn’t hear much from the Pentagon or Pennsylvania.”
For her, elevating the names and images of those not typically thought of during remembrance specials is her way of honoring their efforts on that day and in the days since. As a collective, she hopes that’s how the series is viewed by others.
However, extending an invitation to be a part of the project has been a delicate task for Bergen, who wants to be upfront about the future. Her dream is for the series to one day be admitted to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and to include the women in her portraits in that journey, without triggering any negative emotional responses.
“I don’t want to cause that for them,” she said. “I’ve had to have that conversation with each woman, even the ones that seem like they were the strongest women out there, who probably go home and sleep just fine. We’re all human. I’m sure that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, and I’m sure that day is why they’re so strong right now.”
And for Bergen, that’s why she chose this project: “That’s what the series is about: sharing resiliency from 20 years ago, how that has shaped them up to now and how strong they really are, not only to the world, but also to them.”
Read next: NYC Fire Museum honors FDNY EMS response to COVID-19
This article was originally posted Sept. 10, 2021. It has been updated.