TAMPA, Fla. — The features of New York City firefighter Joseph Agnello are beginning to emerge, sketched roughly in charcoal by an artist who had never met Agnello but is determined to bring him back to life on canvas.
Michael DeMinico, working from a photograph published in the New York Times, will soon dab oil paint on the 9-by-12-inch canvas to flesh out the mustached visage of the 35-year-old Agnello, one of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Then DeMinico will move on to the next photo and the next, until he has captured on canvas all Sept. 11 victims as they were in life. He works alone, usually, in the garage studio at his home, but the project has evolved into something much bigger than one man's response to a national tragedy.
DeMinico, a 50-year-old trial lawyer, is an accomplished painter who sells other works for thousands of dollars. To him, creating the portraits seemed a logical step in his own struggle to comprehend what had happened.
"At least in personal terms it would give me some kind of sense
What began as a private, self-help exercise has turned into a public art project during the past few months as word has spread. People have responded with letters, phone calls and donations, and a nonprofit foundation has been set up to support the effort.
DeMinico, who is married with two children, has scaled back his law practice to pursue the project. He spends 25 to 30 hours a week on it, preparing to put oil to the initial group of 15 portraits. He figures it will take several years to finish them all.
The idea arose from his reflections on the six-month anniversary of the attacks in March. In April, he took out a notice in the New York Times announcing his intentions and seeking comment from victims' families and others. He printed his phone number and Web site address.
People who saw the ad called and wrote. About a dozen families sent alternate pictures of their loved ones from which he will now work.
New York Gov. George Pataki's office called about possibly incorporating his project into a larger plan to commemorate the victims. A documentary film crew also has begun chronicling his work and will follow him to Fairhope, Ala., next month, where he will sell some of his other paintings in a fund-raiser for the Sept. 11 project.
Jack Lynch, vice president of the 9-11 Widows' and Victims' Families Assn., which represents about 720 families, says he welcomes anything that will keep the face of his son, Michael, a New York city firefighter, in the public consciousness.
"Obviously, we want to have this memorialized in every fashion we can," Lynch says. "We want this to be fresh in everyone's mind throughout history, and anything that contributes to that effort is acceptable to us."
DeMinico thinks and talks fast, picking subjects randomly. He tends to attack painting the same way, which is one reason longtime friend and art colleague Jack Casey got involved as the project's conservator.
Casey is the detail man, enlarging and manipulating photographs from which DeMinico works, and making plans for how the finished work will be framed, preserved and stored. "I'm always amazed by his intensity," Casey says of his friend. "This isn't a matter of painting a few portraits.... I've never seen him happier--that he can make this kind of contribution and have such a positive response."
DeMinico has ideas about how and where the portraits might be displayed. Gallery space in New York or Washington might be logical, he says, but ultimately he sees the decision being made by the families.
"This is resonating," said DeMinico, "and that's gratifying as an artist, to feel as if what you're doing is making that connection, bridging that gap. That's what I think art is about."