Do you remember where you were when it happened? The September 11 attack on the Twin Towers? The turn of the millennium? The legalization of gay marriage? Or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? I know exactly where I was on November 22, 1963. That afternoon, news of President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassination was broadcast over my high school’s PA system. I can still picture the classroom and the tears on my teacher’s face. It was a dark day.
A milestone is an event that can be either triumphant or tragic. I have recorded many such moments in my journals over the past three decades, and these pages transform them into time capsules that trigger deep memories when revisited years later.
On the bright side, I’ve applauded the Boston Red Sox when they broke “The Curse” by finally winning a world series in 2004. When jubilant Americans elected Barack Obama, the first Black president, an inspired world erupted with joy.
Conversely, 2011’s devastating 9.1 earthquake/tsunami in Sendai, Japan crippled a nuclear reactor and sent more than 15,000 unsuspecting people to their death. This disaster has largely faded from the collective memory, but it still stands as a sober reminder that our planet is ultimately in control, and we only rent our existence here. Closer to home, the American psyche was rattled after a senseless massacre of 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, took place at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. Regretfully, the memory of this tragedy tends to return with the latest mass shooting.
My artistic response is often inspired by the intense news coverage of these events. Newspaper clippings, photographs, torn pieces, and raw marks of multimedia collage add visceral energy that depicts the gravity of the situation. On September 12, 2001, I began to add images in my journal about al-Qaeda’s surprise attack on the United States the day before. This practice continued until the end of that year, resulting in more than 50 pages of personal “reporting” and reflection.
The perpetrator of that heinous attack, Osama bin Laden, escaped justice for a decade. This was also the beginning of a chapter of great controversy in US politics and military intervention that still exists today. With the news of his assassination in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, images of his face were suddenly everywhere. As I looked into his defiant eyes, they became the focus of my painted journal entry. One day, his eyes were open; the next, they weren’t.
Some milestones are nothing short of miraculous. When US Airways Flight 1549 departed La Guardia airport on the afternoon of January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger didn’t expect a flock of birds to cause a double engine failure, which forced him to land in the Hudson River. When the news broke, Manhattanites watched a flotilla of volunteer boats speed to the floating plane. Incredibly, the rescuers brought all passengers and crew to safety before the plane sank! If you look closely, my watercolor painting of this event offers a fictional scenario: a benevolent river god, arms overhead, supports the downed jet on the river’s surface until all are saved.
We all experience profound moments that don’t create headlines, but still have deep personal meaning. Maybe it was the thrill of learning to ride a bike, receiving a college diploma, or winning the job of your dreams. When my wife gave birth to twins in 1998, I brought my journal into the delivery room and waited until the doctor stamped our infants’ inky feet on their birth certificates. I then asked if she would do the same in my journal! Eyes rolled, but the attending staff granted my wish. When I look at those pages today, the incomparable joy of that day is enjoyed once again.
I’ll admit that some milestones have imprinted so powerfully on my memory that they don’t require documentation. 53 years ago, I watched a fuzzy, black & white television broadcast of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. I have no journal entry of that moment (yet), but I’ll never forget it.
Next month: “Confessions of a Functional Typographer”
Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of two books, including Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm, 50,000feet.