NEW YORK – Since Sept. 11, one image has become worth much more than a thousand words — it has turned into a symbol of a new era in America.
Eliza Gauger, a 17-year-old from Bellingham, Wash., sketched a picture titled "Mommy Liberty," the day after the terrorist attacks. What took the teen five minutes to design, has become a national phenomenon.
The image has made the rounds on the Internet, run in newspapers and been pasted on T-shirts, mugs and tote bags that are being snapped up by the hundreds. Gauger is donating all funds raised from the image to the Red Cross.
After creating the image with a watercolor design program on her computer, Gauger posted it on her online journal. Within 10 minutes she began receiving responses, and by the following day had received around 50 e-mails and 20 postings — mainly positive — on her Web site, members.home.net/elizagauger.
"Instead of writing an essay or a monologue or a song, which a lot of peers were doing, I express myself better through art," she said. "I could've described her standing there but it wouldn't be the same … Art affects something differently. If you're just looking at something with your eyes, it goes right to your soul."
Gauger said the nationwide calls for peace at a candlelight vigil ignited her creativity.
"Everyone was standing up to the mic saying things like 'give peace a chance' and 'no retaliation,' but I don't think these people were thinking clearly about this man or what he's capable of accomplishing if we don't protect ourselves," the high school senior said of Usama bin Laden, the man suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks.
CafePress.com, an online outlet for artists to submit and sell their work, has been selling Gauger's design through a program established to benefit victims of the Sept. 11 tragedies.
"Hers is the top seller," said Maheesh Jain, vice president of business development for the Web site.
Jain considers the design an "Internet phenomenon." He's even received the image in e-mail from friends outside the business.
"It's just caught on and spread like wildfire," he said. "A lot of the other designs are straight-forward patriotic, but hers has a different tone to it."
Gauger has received responses from around the world — thanks from Italy, kudos from troops aboard an aircraft carrier, praise from Australia and support from mothers around the country.
Criticism has been rare, and is usually related to the gun Mommy Liberty is holding.
"Someone from the National Guard e-mailed me and said he wanted to use the image in a newsletter but couldn't print it if it had a gun in it, and asked if I could change it to a sword," she said. But Gauger would not exchange one weapon for another.
"There's absolutely no way that I can make people interpret it the way that I can — and that's one of the dangers and the joys of art," she said.
Others have responded saying the image is creepy, but Gauger said this was partly intentional. "She has a look of desperation and anger. It is supposed to have an edge to it. That why it's gotten such a reaction."
Gauger also found herself receiving mail from pro-gun groups and responded to them with a message explaining the image in further detail, which is now posted on her Web site, and reads, in part:
"My own mother deplores guns of all kinds, having been held at gunpoint when she was about three years old by her abusive, screaming father. But if she felt she had to protect me or my brother, she would pick up anything she could to defend us. That's what I wanted to represent. The torch of freedom replaced by the gun of defense."
Already the inevitable business offers have started coming in, including an inquiry about incorporating the image onto wine labels. However, Gauger's mother, who is a lawyer, is guarding the image carefully. "I have not released the copyright to anyone," she said.
One thing Gauger wants to make clear is that she will not profit from "Mommy Liberty." All money earned is being donated to the Red Cross.
"I'm anemic, I can't give blood, and I'm 17 so don't have much money. This is how I'm contributing," she said. "I didn't think of that while I was drawing. I was just expressing myself."