Captain Berkman retired from the New York City Fire Department in 2006 after 25 years of service, which included her critical role as a first responder to the World Trade Center disaster site on September 11, 2001 and in the many months following. She began her career in the fire service after winning the federal sex discrimination lawsuit she initiated that resulted in the hiring of New York City’s first women firefighters. The documentary Taking the Heat, which chronicles Brenda’s struggle to integrate women into the FDNY, aired on PBS in 2006. She has also been profiled in several books and numerous articles. In 1996-97, Captain Berkman served as a White House Fellow, the first professional firefighter to be awarded this prestigious leadership development fellowship in the history of the program. She has also led both local and national women firefighters’ organizations.
Today, Brenda is a printmaker, specializing in stone lithography. She started studying printmaking at the Art Students League in New York City two years after retiring from the FDNY. In 2011, Brenda decided, for the first time, to deal with her 9/11 experience in her art. She drew and created the stone lithograph print “2001”, a self-portrait depicting a bent over figure, covering her head and moving away as if under attack from above.
Most recently, Brenda put together The 9/11 Decade, a special collaborative art project featuring a diverse group of fourteen artists from different backgrounds, generations and perspectives. Each artist contributed by creating their personal responses to the events of September 11, 2001 in the form of a monoprint (unique single works based on the same matrix image).
Each of the 21 monoprints featured in The 9/11 Decade project is based on Brenda’s stone lithograph print “2001”. Of the 21, Brenda created 9, which depict the ten year progression of her 9/11 experience – as a World Trade Center first responder, as a search, rescue and recovery worker at Ground Zero for nearly 10 months, all the way through where she is today. The 11 monoprints contributed by the other thirteen artists (two worked in pairs) speak to their individual 9/11 experiences, memories and reflections. By showcasing her 9 monoprints alongside their 11, the exhibit’s construction, in and of itself, is a symbolic reference to that transformative day.
Brenda’s hope is that this project honors the people lost that day and the many workers and volunteers who helped at the Trade Center. She and the other artists also hope the project provokes critical thinking about our country’s actions in the last ten years and provides healing and a way forward for both the artists and the viewers.