How One Grieving Artist Turned Tragedy Into Art

Sandra Bertrand


Before the September 11, 2001, attacks, before the current pandemic, grief of such cataclysmic proportions seemed unimaginable for many.  But when sculptor Suse Lowenstein’s son Alex, along with his schoolmates, was lost in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, unimaginable grief became a tragic reality for her.  The question was, how to survive it?

This mother turned to her art, sculpting herself naked, frozen into the position she fell upon hearing the news of her son’s death.  Soon after posting in the Pan Am Victims’ family newsletter about her project, 75 women responded, and the result, “Dark Elegy” has become a monumental sculpture, now residing on Suse’s East Hampton property.  Director Jill Campbell’s documentary Seat 20D (First Run Features), provides an eloquent and stirring depiction not only of the work and its creator, but a landscape of those whose lives have been effected by the art.



Campbell’s camera lingers in closeup on the shapes of the sculptures clustered about Suse’s lawn.  Arms are raised, heads and hands are clasped, bodies twisted and prone in the agony of grief.  The sculptor walks among them, randomly touching an arm here, a leg there.  In its totality, it can be painful to contemplate, yet cathartic.

“Americans are not quite ready to accept nudity,” the German-born artist reflects.  She is irked that such reactions get in the way of the work. Its power is unmistakable. I couldn’t help when watching recalling Rodin’s figures from the “Gates of Hell.”  She explains the steel armature of the forms, wrapped in chicken wire, injected with foam and synthetic stone, then covered in a fiberglass mesh that gives the forms a bandaged look.  Other works on her property are finished in bronze, but such efforts seem futile to her without a permanent home for the monument.  What will become of it is anyone’s guess and a concern for her younger son.  Attempts were made to persuade Syracuse University where Alex attended to accept “Elegy” but so far it is too “large” for them.

Particularly touching are glimpses of Remembrance Week, held annually at the university with 35 scholarship students participating (the number of student victims on the flight).  A chorus of voices ring out with a rendition of “I’ll be Seeing You.”  At another moment, Suse and visitors to the monument listen to a musical recital on the anniversary of September 11.



The film is laced with personal accounts of mothers who suffered a similar tragedy.  One woman’s daughter, a fledgling photographer, printed a photograph of herself as a gift to her mother shortly before the flight.  Suse’s own physical pangs of loss are echoed by another mother who compared the moments when she heard about the crash to her original birthing pains.

Several years in the making, “Dark Elegy” is undoubtedly a moving and profound work of art.  But perhaps its larger significance is in the solace it has provided for the grief-stricken women it represents.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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All images courtesy of First Run Features
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