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.