River Of Names Mural: Artist, Project Chairs Respond

Yesterday, the Westport Library responded to criticism of its decision to replace the River of Names mural — the massive artwork filled with 1,162 tiles depicting Westport history and residents — with a digitized version.

Part of the reason, officials said, was the objection of 3 of the original organizers of the 1997 fundraising project to hang the artwork on 2 adjacent walls, rather than as one long piece.

This morning, the 3 — Dorothy Curran, co-chair of the River of Names capital campaign, and author of a book accompanying the project; Betty Lou Cummings, chair of the same campaign, and Marion Grebow, the artist who created every individual tile — respond to the library’s response, and the “06880” comments that followed.

Much has changed in the 22 years since our project began.

The important parts have not. The much-celebrated artistic and financial success of our Westport Public Library Community Capital Campaign project, the creation of a 6’2’-by-26’4” oblong bas-relief ceramic tile donor mural, with 1,927 donor surfaces on 1,162 separate interlocking tiles, loosely arranged in 50 columns and 29 rows, bounded by bookshelves with 10 book spines each, endures.

At one level the work was a timeline, running from 1637 to 1998, showcasing 80 colorful, randomly placed historical tiles and 4 historical theme tiles at the corners.

993 gleaming white ceramic river tiles, contoured as bas-relief waves, and bearing donor names or messages in blue calligraphy, were the dominant visual pattern.

The River of Names was hung in the lower level of the Westport Library.

Each donor’s process of selecting a location and parsing a message was highly personal.

Names marked with a star symbol flagged Westport-area authors.

Names marked with a heart symbol conveyed love.

If one stood close to the finished wall and peered across the 26’4”-long mural surface, truly, to the eye, the ceramic tiles became a shimmering river.

For the moment, however, the mural endures only as a memory.

The River of Names includes tiles for the original Westport Library, built in 1908 on the Post Road (now next to Freshii) …

To accommodate its exciting “Transformation” project, the Westport Library had the mural removed in sections by fine arts professionals and placed in storage. The 8’8”-wide hallway where it resided no longer exists.

We all want the 6’2”-by-26’4” mural back.

But where? And how?

The Westport Library is proposing to “bend” it, sideways, outside the Children’s Library, so that one part of the mural would face west and one part would face north.

Artist Marion Grebow went back to her design to be sure, but the 6’2” high x 26’ 4” long mural, an interlocking design, has no vertical seam. The thick ceramic tiles cannot simply be folded in a straight line to “bend around a corner.”

So which donor tiles should be cut in half? And – given the fragility of the medium—would cutting shatter the divided tiles? And what happens to the jagged edges at child level?

And would the result still be beautiful? And honor the pride that each donor had in each tile? And honor the artist who conceived and wrought a different, unified work on a single vertical plane?

We welcome the opportunity to review the new, detailed, tile-specific, mural schematic that the Westport Library envisions. To date, we have not seen it.

(From left): Betty Lou Cummings, Marion Grebow and Dorothy Curran, at Monday’s meeting with Westport Library officials. The women were told of plans to digitize the River of Names mural.

Separately, we applaud the library’s planned interactive digital display of the mural tiles, with separate online access. It’s is a great idea for teaching, reference and entertainment. But it’s no substitute for the sheer beauty, the interplay of light, volume, form, color, texture and meaning, that one experiences when viewing the original work of ceramic bas-relief mural art.

Also, a “tile-by-tile” digital view of the mural falls short of the work’s larger purpose and metaphor: a visual river of donor names, overlooking the actual Saugatuck River.

For some, standing by the old McManus Room entry and looking back across the gleaming ceramic bas-relief mural tiles, imparted an unforgettable visual experience of strong sun or moonlight shining on the river waves, and all donor tiles merging like water to become one donor community.

Note that an outdoor installation is not a feasible alternative. The clay and grout used require a climate-controlled indoor location.

Yes, the mural is heavy. It was built to last in a ground-floor location. For re-installation, this is a routine engineering issue that architects are trained to accommodate.

Westport Library, we know you’re big on flexible space. Railroad cars move on wheels. So could the heavy mural. It also could be a multi-purpose wall. For example, when needed for a performance, a multi-media screen could descend in front of it.

Bottom line, this is Westport! We believe that the library and its architect can resolve the River of Names mural re-installation in a way that will satisfy everyone. The simple answer:

  • Find or build a flat plane interior wall, illuminated by natural light, in the WPL
  • Mount the mural on it
  • Open champagne.

18 responses to “River Of Names Mural: Artist, Project Chairs Respond

  1. Morley Boyd

    Amen.

  2. Valerie DiPrato

    Agree 100%. It should be saved for our children, returned to the library and made accessible to everyone passing through.
    It is a beautiful piece of ART in a town supported by it’s community of artists. Adding technology to the mix is commendable and welcome but it does not replace the visual, and physical experience of the real mural. I can only imagine the hours spent developing, designing and creating the mural which successfully provided funding for this same library. This piece was a foundation stone for the old library and it deserves a place of honor in the new library.

  3. Jacque O'Brien

    Wonderful! Digital around the world is nice, but hands-on here where it belongs is essential! Thank you ladies!

  4. Jack Whittle

    It seems the main issue with “bending” the tile mural around a corner is there is no perfect vertical seam to work with in the mural. And yet, we are advised that the mural was “removed in sections by fine arts professionals and placed in storage” so it HAS been broken up vertically. It is easy to imagine how a few tiles of the appropriate size and color could be added by the original artist to achieve a clean vertical edge at the corner if reinstalled as suggested.

    • Jonathan McClure

      I agree, but I’m sensing that the artist and original sponsors are not on board with the bending concept. Modifying and adding a few tiles seems, to me, to be a more cost effective solution than re-designing the interior of the library to accommodate the mural in it’s original form. I understand that the original vision and concept of the mural may be compromised by bending and respect the artist’s position in that regard. If bending is out of the question and the Library is unable to come up with a solution that would display the mural in its original form, do we just leave it in storage?

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    C’mon!!!! just find an open area, such as a reception area, erect a partition of appropriate length and height to support the mural and get on with it. You would only need a partition about shoulder height. Think of the upside: You’d gain an entire wall on the other side of the partition to exhibit other important artwork that may arise. Another idea would be to erect an external enclosure that obviously would need to be weatherproof at or near the entrance but would greet all visitors. The “bending idea” is just stonewalling the basic issue of integrity both in terms of maintaining the mural in its original state and honoring the implied commitment to the original patrons. How would you like it if you were one of the original contributors? I know!!!! Let’s put solar panels on the new steeple when we rebuild Notre Dame. It’s not our fault that climate change wasn’t known way back in 1280. Better yet!!! Let’s repaint the Mona Lisa in velvet flock with a bullfighter. Then we could move it into the closest mall. What would Jesus do? It’s a good thing Hillary didn’t have a tile on the mural. Collusion!!!! What did the designers know and when did they know it???

    • Arline Gertzoff

      This commentary makes the most sense If the library truly cannot accommodate it find an appropriate place in town .Digital just does not make it with this work

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

        Arline you’re right as rain……digitization is just a mouse click away from elimination. Imagine what the original patrons would have said back when the exhibit was proposed and created. I doubt anyone would have wasted their thought or their time on it. I also doubt that Maxine Bleiweis would have allowed things to get this far.

  6. Michael Schreder

    We are into serious dithering now….

  7. I always seemed that the original location underwhelmed the art and the important story it tells. And I was stoked to think that the mural would be better displayed, as it seems like a really important and visually stunning piece to “anchor” an area of the “new” library, connecting it with so much of the town’s history.

    I still can’t fathom that it was so ignominiously tossed aside, or that thinking a half a mural would be anything less than half a river. Imagine any view of the Saugatuck that stops halfway, or only showing half the town’s timeline.

    What a shame that the library board went against their word to the donors, only to come back with, “Nothing we can do about it now” while they knew all along they didn’t intend to display it. – Chris Woods

  8. Fred Cantor

    First, thanks to Dan for reaching out to both sides to get clarification of the background that led to this point.

    It is very unfortunate that we had to reach this point given the dedication of individuals on both sides of the issue.

    Having heard all of the backstory, I feel that the library board made a big mistake in not planning at the outset on reinstalling the River of Names as a single straight wall as originally conceived and implemented.

    I understand and appreciate that the board was looking to update the library space to meet what it viewed as the contemplated uses for the upcoming decades. But, still, there is (I hope) recognition that local history and local art will always be an integral part of the Westport Library—and perhaps nothing embodied that combination better than the River of Names, especially because it was ultimately created through financial contributions by a significant number of town residents.

    The library is such a large structure and I would urge the library board to reconsider reinstalling the River of Names as a single straight wall somewhere in the complex. Perhaps the board could use the fresh perspective of suggestions from a member of the Westport Arts Center board or some other qualified individual who could offer a brand-new evaluation of possible placement.

    If there is truly no space in the new library to reinstall the River of Names as originally conceived and executed, I urge Marion, Betty, and Dorothy to reconsider the offer to place it on the walls by the Children’s Library (that is, if it can be done physically).

    I fully appreciate the notion of not modifying an original artistic concept. But this was a commissioned work with, I imagine, some specific directions and limitations imposed when it was originally created and executed.

    In fact, given the way the River of Names was created, I think it raises potentially interesting copyright issues as to who controls the rights to this work. I could even make an argument that the tile donors are among the stakeholders in this artwork.

    Hopefully, the stalemate between the library board and the original creators will be resolved soon.

  9. Jamie Walsh

    What is truly disappointing is such an important piece of local art and history was painstakingly removed, archived, and preserved for a future installation at a new location within the renovated library was but was ignored or at best…a forgotten after thought. The hard work of these 3 women should continued to be honored, respected and visually available in its original form.

  10. Hedi Lieberman

    Betty Lou, Dorothy and Marion worked tirelessly on the tile wall. Change is a constant. Whatever the result, many thanks to these wonderful women still working to make Westport a wonderful town. See you June 23!

  11. Trish Leavitt

    I find it very discouraging that the library did not make a special place for this mural art especially after taking such pains preserving it. When we remodeled our current house, I changed some plans like making a coat closet smaller to lengthen a wall for a piece of our furniture, and eliminating a window to accommodate artwork. I didn’t say -oops it doesn’t fit now- after the fact. It is important to accommodate everything that has importance in the planning, even for my small things that cannot even begin to compare to the tile mural with its beauty, meaning, and importance to the community. I hope people can work together to solve this issue. It is not too late.

  12. William Strittmatter

    As others have noted, it is unfortunate that it has come to this. One would have thought that a single straight solid wall could have been planned to display this art. On the other hand, given what the library’s goal seems to be – open, airy, flexible space – it is also easy to understand why a large fixed wall solely for display of this piece really wasn’t in the cards.

    Perhaps it should have been anyway but, for better or worse, it wasn’t. Designing for one likely preempts the other, at least while trying to stay within a budget. So the library building committee chose to go with what they deemed to be the most appropriate design for their needs resulting in the need to “bend” the river.

    Given where things are, the proposed Children’s library installation seems to be a reasonable proposal. It’s two contiguous pieces, not ten scattered around the building. Standing at the corner and turning one’s head probably gives the same feel as standing in the middle and needing to crane one’s neck to look at it all. You do miss the looking at it all from one end, but I imagine the visual impact will still remain impressive.

    On the other hand, the suggestions of the three organizers seem rather unreasonable at this juncture. I love their “simple answer”. I think they forgot to preface it with “Wave a magic wand and magically….” Sure, just slap up a new wall 8 ft from a wall of windows and disrupt the flexible open space that was the point of the whole remodeling. Yep. Got it. No problem.

    Or the suggestion that rail cars roll so just put it on wheels and roll it around. Perhaps they don’t understand the beating rolling stock takes. Given how fragile this piece seems to be, I can’t imagine it survives even a year of being rolled around. Maybe the magic wand will help with that too.

    Please forgive the sarcasm but the apparent attitude of the three organizers of “our way or no way” irrespective of cost or other design considerations seems rather over the top.

  13. Karen Solicito

    Does it have to be at the library? Can it be installed in another town building like Town Hall or the Historical Society?

  14. Trisha Graves

    When the “River of Names” finds a good home, then what about all the
    Bricks on the outdoor walk way that each were a donation of $50 that eroded and can not be read….both disappointing for lovely projects that should have had a long long life.

  15. What hasn’t been mentioned is that we wouldn’t be having this new Capital Campaign if Dorothy Curran and Betty Lou Cummings hadn’t achieved such amazing financial success in 1997 by enticing almost 2,0000 donors to contribute big bucks to renovate the old library (that had NO windows facing the river!) because they wanted to be part of this amazing River of Names art creation. No River of Names, no library building that grew successfully under Maxine Bleiweis so that now it could be renovated for the future. I’m horrified that the news that the architect hadn’t included a place for the artwork is only now being shared! Please, back to the drawing board to find a location here for what we were assured in 1997 was a “permanent installation”. Otherwise no Library donors will ever trust their word again.