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THANKS, AMERICA. Whether your response to war is raging anger at U.S. imperialist militarism or faith and allegiance to the chief, it's refreshing to witness sincere hopefulness and appreciation for this country.

How ironic (or not so) that it emanates from an immigrant and an artist.

Painter Emilia Fitz came to the United States from Poland nearly 30 years ago with her aesthetic soul mate and husband, Zbigniew. They lived in New York City and further upstate for a while, migrated back to the south of France for a decade in the 1980s and have, since 1996, settled in Vail, Arizona. This week, their show of new work at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery opens with a dark, but simple title: 9/11 and Other Work.

Theirs is anything but simple imagery.

"Our paintings have twisted images. Anger, shock as well as beauty stare back at you because of all that is happening," says Emilia Fitz of the collection of more than a dozen paintings, photographs and drawings created by the duo since the attacks on this country 18 months ago.

"Now even a smile is twisted," she adds.

The work memorializes New York City, but also Arizona, France and the places they have traveled to and the people they've met along the way.

About 10 of the large-scale paintings are focused on Sept 11. Big, brash colors are splashed on enormous canvases. The surface is filled to the brim with figures glaring back at the viewer. Allegory prevails. While they don't actually paint on the same canvas together, their individual work is clearly inspired by 40 years of conversation and artistic companionship.

Inspiration has also come from the politics of their home country. Neither Emilia nor Zbigniew could stomach communist control of their creative spirit.

"We left Poland with $20 in our pocket--no money, no language. We were like artists in other controlled countries--Iraq, for example," Emilia explains. "For a long time, we lived in poverty in Europe."

Along the way, they gained skills as textile designers, acquired a command of English and came to the United States. But while living back in Cannes in 1991, a life-shifting event occurred.

"The Gulf War caught us and that awful fear of war came rushing back. This phobia we lived with since childhood about communists and missiles and war was too much."

A Phoenix curator discovered their work and commissioned them to return to the United States and create 14 paintings. But not much gelled.

"We were looking for something to provoke us to paint something big. We listened with all our senses. We listened instinctively," says Emilia.

"Big" came in the form of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since then, they have painted feverishly and symbolically.

"You can't understand the world through reality all the time. So now our expression is symbolic," she explains. "Now we're hungry to go deeper."

They have been back in the United States for seven years. And they're grateful for melting-pot America. It's opened their minds and given them a sense of direction as artists.

"We have to pay back this great country with our talent. It's our responsibility," explains Emilia.

So when terrorism hit their adopted country on Sept. 11, they responded the way grateful immigrants--and artists who feel ethically bound to express universal feelings--tend to do.

"We have to give hope to future generations. We will show the beauty and strength of the people. Sept. 11 didn't break us."

And how has the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and now Iraq affected their artwork?

"You can't ignore what's frightening. You have to deal somehow," offers Emilia.

"The role of artists and people of culture is to unite, to get behind the fears. Our duty is to see with love, to look inside to the human soul with all our hearts," she adds.

The new work is grisly and beautiful and portrays very real anguish after terrorist attacks have touched a culture. Emilia Fitz believes it's still possible to respond to these subjects with the full range of emotions, especially in a free country.

"I promised myself to be a good artist, even back in Lubin, Poland, as a young teen not allowed to pursue my passion. And here I am in America, more than 40 years later, still making art with that not-so young, but still handsome man. We're so grateful to be here."

Thanks, America. From Emilia and Zbigniew Fitz.

9/11 and Other Work continues through April 26. A reception for the artists takes place on Saturday, April 5, from 5 to 7 p.m. Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery is located at 135 E. Congress St. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Call 792-4503.

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