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August 18, 2022

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9/11 memorial T-shirts fashioned into art at UNLV

9/11 Exhibit at UNLV

Leila Navidi

The “Common Threads” sculpture is seen in the lobby of Lied Library, part of a 9/11 exhibit on the campus of UNLV on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011.

9/11 Exhibit at UNLV

UNLV alumnus Troy Gillett stands in front of his Launch slideshow »

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When the country began mourning on Sept. 11, 2001, people in Las Vegas gravitated to the one place that made them feel closer to the victims of the terrorist attacks: the New York-New York.

Thousands of people contributed to what became known as “the shrine,” a spontaneous tribute in front of the hotel’s replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Jim Lawson, facilities manager at the resort, said the tribute started with flowers in memory of the victims of the attack that targeted New York City’s World Trade Center and grew day by day.

“All people would do is just look,” Lawson said. “It was almost an area you’re afraid to talk, because it was so sensitive.”

People from all over the world left letters, photos and American flags. Children left toys. And most prominently, T-shirts from police and fire departments nationwide were left in honor of the emergency workers who lost their lives.

More than 5,400 T-shirts were draped on the fence along the Strip, some with handwritten messages to those who died.

“It’s heartbreaking when they’ve got a personal connection. They are talking about someone they knew,” said David Schwartz, director of the Gaming Research Center at UNLV.

Items left at the shrine soon became so numerous that the hotel reached out to UNLV to preserve and catalog them. Schwartz helped inventory thousands of T-shirts that went into the university’s special collections archive.

But with the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaching, UNLV’s libraries dean, Patricia Iannuzzi, had an idea to use them for a special exhibit — she just didn’t know exactly what.

“I thought we needed some kind of public art installation to make meaning of the collection and show to a new generation, since it’s been 10 years,” she said.

So she sought help from Troy Gillett, a College of Fine Arts alumnus. As soon as he was approached with the idea, Gillett said, he submitted a proposal: a 32-foot tall double helix — a molecular structure of DNA, the blueprint for life — made from about 3,000 of the shirts.

“What I was interested in was people’s motivation for bringing materials down to the New York-New York and why roughly 5,000 people decided to do this,” said Gillett, who runs a Las Vegas construction business. “I wanted to make a statement on what ties us together as human beings, what people do in times of tragedy when they collectively have an unconscious need to reach out.”

After two months and more than 100 hours — with help from students Marlene Sui, Kurt Chang and Javier Sanchez — Gillett folded 3,000 shirts and built a 500-pound art installation that will be displayed at the entrance of the UNLV Lied Library for the next six months. (Sui is a recent fine arts graduate; Sanchez is a UNLV student and Chang is a freshman at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, graduated from the Las Vegas Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts last year.)

“The double helix is a metaphor for what makes us human and what ties us together in times of tragedy,” Gillett said. “My story isn’t different from anybody’s. It was shocking and we were hit with denial and vulnerability.”

A multimedia kiosk with a slide show depicting how the piece, called “Common Threads,” was constructed is part of the exhibit.

Special Collections Director Peter Michel said more personalized shirts and items with messages on them will be on display, and visitors can sign an oversized paper scroll to share their thoughts and mark the anniversary.

“It’s a living collection that still resonates,” Michel said. “We’re providing another way to remember what happened.”

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