Tag Archives: Betty Lou Cummings

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.

River of Names Mural: The Library Responds

Westporters reacted with fury to yesterday’s announcement that the River of Names mural will not be re-hung in the Westport Library.

Most of the dozens of readers responding to the “06880” story expressed chagrin that the 26-foot long, 6-foot high mural — whose 1,162 tiles represent 350 years of Westport history and memorials to families, and which was commissioned as a 1997 fundraiser — will reappear only in digitized form.

Some commenters asked for their tiles back. Others wondered if the mural — removed during the Transformation Project — was already destroyed.

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

Some readers also wondered why no library representatives stepped forward to respond.

This morning, they did.

Original plans for the transformed library included a spot for the River of Names, say director Bill Hamer and board of trustees president Iain Bruce.

It was to be located on the upper level, outside the children’s library near new meeting rooms. It’s a high-traffic area, just beyond the elevator and at the top of stairs. The mural would be well-lit, visible from the main level — and in an area where new generations of youngsters could learn Westport’s history from it.

Library officials presented the idea to 3 key River of Names stakeholders: Betty Lou Cummings, who conceived the project; Dorothy Curran, who shepherded it through, and Marion Grebow, the artist who created every tile.

They objected adamantly. The reason: It would wrap around a corner, on an “L”-shaped wall. They believed that would destroy the “river” design. They insisted it be remounted on one straight wall.

“We were sensitive to their feelings,” Bruce said. “We did what we had to do all along: We took it down.”

This view from the main floor looks toward the childen’s library above (behind the portholes). Library officials proposed hanging the River of Names nearby. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

The wall on the lower level of the library no longer exists. The mural had to be removed and stored in one piece. Individual tiles cannot be taken apart.

The library hired Crozier Fine Arts, a professional moving and storage company. They carefully took the mural down (including the wall it is permanently part of). They preserved it, and are storing it in Ridgefield under climate-controlled conditions.

The cost to the library is $30,000 so far.

After the 3 originators told the library it could not be rehung on 2 walls, town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz searched for a spot in another building.

However, Harmer says, “it can’t just hang on any wall. It’s very, very heavy.” To accommodate the mural, an existing wall would have to be demolished and rebuilt, or reinforced — at an expense considerably more than it cost to remove it. No town body was willing to pay.

“The library is committed to cooperating with any town agency or other body that wants to install the tile wall on its premises,” Harmer says.

However, an outdoor location like the Levitt will not work. The tiles were not made to withstand New England weather. If they got wet and froze, they would shatter.

The River of Names includes tiles for places like the original Westport Library, and others honoring families, local businesses and historic events.

“It was never our intention to have an irate public,” Bruce says. “A digital version seemed most logical, once we could not hang it in the library, and no one stepped up with an appropriate alternate place.”

“It was not sledgehammered,” he continues. “It is being carefully stored.”

In fact, Harmer says, the wall outside the children’s library was designed — and has been built — with the mural in mind.

“We told Betty Lou and Dorothy yesterday that it could still go there,” the director says. “We’re sorry we came to a crossroads. We’ve invested a lot of money and hours into trying to do the right thing. It’s a question of balancing the wishes of the original sponsors against our desire for an appropriate space.”

Bruce adds, “If they came back tomorrow and said they supported our original proposal, we’d do whatever we could to make it happen.”

Advocates Fear Tide Going Out On “River Of Names”

For 20 years, the River of Names has stood as one of the Westport Library‘most unique, quirky and popular attractions.

Stretching 26 feet long and standing 6 feet high, the mural contains 1,162 tiles. Each was individually created and drawn by artist Marion Grebow. Some portray historical events, like the founding of Westport, onion farming and the arrival of the railroad.

Others feature favorite places around town: the Compo Beach cannons, Minute Man monument and Staples High School. Some cite local organizations and businesses.

Most show the names of nearly 1,000 families. They honor parents, children and pets. They note when the families came to town, and where they lived.

One of the tiles shows Stevan Dohanos’ Saturday Evening Post cover of the World War II memorial outside the old Town Hall. It’s surrounded by tiles honoring familes and civic organizations. (Photo courtesy of fotki.com)

The River of Names was a special fundraiser. Under the direction of former 2nd selectman Betty Lou Cummings and Westport Historical Society/Westport Woman’s Club leader Dorothy Curran, sales of the tiles brought in $300,000 for the library’s capital campaign.

Donors were promised that the mural would exist in perpetuity.

The River of Names draws visitors — some curious, some wanting to find their own tile, all intrigued — to the lower “Riverwalk” level of the library.

Grebow designed her mural to be looked at like the river itself. Taken together, the individual tiles appear to shimmer and move — imitating the Saugatuck River a few yards away.

The River of Names.

But the library has embarked on an exciting 18-month “transformation” project. The downstairs level will be where most books are stored; a new entrance there will open up the river, improving the entire library experience for all.

On Wednesday, the mural will be taken down. A group of Westporters — including Curran, Cummings and arts advocates — fears for what happens next.

They worry that the library has no written plan for removing the mural from the wall. They don’t know where it will be stored, and how the tiles will be labeled so they can be replaced in the precise spots Grebow selected. And they haven’t gotten definite word on where it will be exhibited once the transformation is complete.

I asked library director Bill Harmer about those concerns. He replied: “Yes, it’s safe. It will be safely taken down and safely stored. It will be available for re-hanging when the library renovation project is completed.”

Town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz adds:

The Library has held discussions with Marion  Grebow, individuals involved in the 1998 fundraising project, the original installer, and (as early as 2014) with 3rd-party fine art service firms on how best to de-install, pack, transport and store the wall.

The priority has always been to protect the wall during construction. I am confident it will be professionally handled and stored until it can come back to the library.

Meanwhile, mural advocates produced a video about the River of Names.

At the end, Curran says: “Every day the tide goes in, and the tide goes out. But the river remains.

“I hope that the names will, too.”

(For more information, email save.our.river.of.names@gmail.com)

Town Takes Over Riverwalk Maintenance

In 1992, a volunteer committee led by the indefatigable Betty Lou Cummings created the Library Riverwalk and Gardens.

A 6-month fundraising campaign drew 5,000 contributors, donating cash as well as services.

Together with a 2nd phase 7 years later, the accomplishments are stunning:

  • 11,000 bricks, many of them engraved, in a path 638 feet long
  • 57 benches, 3 picnic tables, 23 pole lights and 2 sculptures
  • 127 shrubs and bushes, plus 19 trees (and a sprinkler system)
  • Stairs from the library to the water, and a boat launch walkway.
A small portion of the library Riverwalk.

A small portion of the library Riverwalk.

After 22 years, the committee has asked the town to take over responsibility for maintanance. They’ve turned over $15,000 in their account to help.

Parks and Rec is happy to accept the responsibility. Over the past several years they’ve taken a more active role in assisting the committee. With the opening of the renovated Levitt Pavilion nearby, the time is ripe for the transfer to happen.

The Riverwalk is one of Westport’s hidden gems.

Okay, it’s not really hidden. Plenty of people enjoy it, at all times of day and throughout the year.

But many others don’t know it exists. And not many know the back story of its creation.

Thanks, Betty Lou and the 5,000 donors who helped make it a reality. More than 2 decades later, your work is greatly appreciated.

And it looks better than ever.

Well, Happy Birthday, Betty Lou!

Betty Lou Cummings turns 80 years old today.

In honor of that milestone, here is an “06880” post from 2011. Nothing says “Betty Lou” better than this.

Generations of Westporters know Betty Lou Cummings as Westport’s #1 cheerleader.

Whether serving as 2nd selectman or leading projects like the Apple Festival, Riverwalk or library’s River of Names, Betty Lou is a big civic booster.

Some Westporters know that Betty Lou’s enthusiasm comes naturally:  She was a cheerleader at Michigan State.

What many don’t know is that she was 1 of the first female cheerleaders there — or in the entire Big 10.

Recently, Betty Lou returned to her native state.  The occasion was bittersweet — she and her husband Tom said goodbye to his mother, who died recently at 103 — but she also stopped by her alma mater’s alumni association.

When they heard her history, they taped her — for their archives, and YouTube.

In 1954, Betty Lou says, 200 students tried out for the cheerleading squad.  Only 6 were chosen.  Four — like her — were blonde.

“We were famous all over Michigan,” she says.  Nearly all cheerleaders at the time were male.

In the video, she talks about her work with Westport’s Senior Center.  Every Super Bowl Sunday, she leads cheers at the annual party — with her green and white Spartans pompoms.

She also says that instead of accompanying the squad to the Rose Bowl, she got married.  Her father objected:  She could get married any time — but there was only one Rose Bowl.

At the end of the video, Betty Lou gives a rousing Michigan State cheer.

She hasn’t lost a beat.

Browsing By The River

Small tents shade artists and artwork, while huge tents welcome book lovers this weekend.

Westport is buzzing with the 40th annual Downtown Merchants Association Art Show in Parker Harding Plaza. Just a few steps across the Post Road, the library sponsors its yearly book sale.

The art show runs until 5 p.m. today. The book sale continues tomorrow; on Tuesday (9 a.m.-1 p.m.), everything is free (though donations would be nice).

Former second selectman Betty Lou Cummings stopped by some striking animal art.

Former 2nd selectman Betty Lou Cummings stops by some striking animal art.

Lou Frederick takes a break from selling handcrafted jewelry.

Lou Frederick takes a break from selling handcrafted jewelry.

"Don't mime me," this guy says.

“Don’t mime me,” this guy says.

The library takes its "big tent" mission literally.

The library takes its “big tent” mission literally.

The Jeff Shoup Walk

Most Westporters know — and love — the Riverwalk, the brick path hugging the Saugatuck from the lower Jesup Green parking lot, past the library, all the way to the Levitt Pavilion.

Most Westporters don’t know, however, that before Betty Lou Cummings fundraised for the Riverwalk, there was a smaller path named for Jeff Shoup. It leads from the library parking lot — near the Levitt entrance — down to the Riverwalk.

The plaque — almost buried by foliage now, honoring a young man who died in the 1970s shortly after graduating from Staples — says “His love for nature will live forever.”

Jeff Shoup Plaque

The other day, a longtime Westporter strolled down Jeff’s Nature Path. He found not beauty and serenity, but a mess of fencing and smashed trash cans.

Shoup 1

Looking closer, he saw what he thinks may be a small amount of oil, leaching into the river from what — back in the day — was once the town dump.

Shoup oil

We probably can’t do much about the oil — after all, the USS Arizona still leaks nearly 72 years after being sunk at Pearl Harbor.

But we can do something about Jeff Shoup’s Path. Perhaps it was overlooked during last month’s town cleanup day. Perhaps the fencing has something to do with the renovation of the Levitt Pavilion.

Perhaps someone — who remembers Jeff, or just wants his path to look nice — will spend an hour or so straightening it up.

Betty Lou Cummings: Still Cheering

Generations of Westporters know Betty Lou Cummings as Westport’s #1 cheerleader.

Whether serving as 2nd selectman or leading projects like the Riverwalk or library’s River of Names, Betty Lou is a big civic booster.

Some Westporters know that Betty Lou’s enthusiasm comes naturally:  She was a cheerleader at Michigan State.

What many don’t know is that she was 1 of the first female cheerleaders there — or in the entire Big 10.

Recently, Betty Lou returned to her native state.  The occasion was bittersweet — she and her husband Tom said goodbye to his mother, who died recently at 103 — but she also stopped by her alma mater’s alumni association.

When they heard her history, they taped her — for their archives, and YouTube.

In 1954, Betty Lou says, 200 students tried out for the cheerleading squad.  Only 6 were chosen.  Four — like her — were blonde.

“We were famous all over Michigan,” she says.  Nearly all cheerleaders at the time were male.

In the video, she talks about her work with Westport’s Senior Center.  Every Super Bowl Sunday, she leads cheers at the annual party — with her green and white Spartans pompoms.

She also says that instead of accompanying the squad to the Rose Bowl, she got married.  Her father objected:  She could get married any time — but there was only one Rose Bowl.

At the end of the video, Betty Lou gives a rousing Michigan State cheer.

She hasn’t lost a beat.

Drunken Destruction

Westport Library Riverwalk destructionIn a feat of drunken driving that defies belief, a local landmark was demolished last night.

A 23-year-old Monroe driver went the wrong way down Main Street; struck a parked car; continued through the Taylor Place parking lot; bounced off the steel book drop at the Westport library’s lower level, then tore through the Riverwalk on the banks of the Saugatuck River.

The driver weaved along the tiles and grass, plowing through a dozen or so heavy stone benches that bore the names of Westport donors.

Westport Library Riverwalk destructionSomehow he kept going, despite mangling bench after bench.  The driver plowed along the unlit strip of park, which grew narrower with each bit of carnage.  Benches flew; the driver kept going, Levitt Pavilion-bound.

Finally — near the end of the Riverwalk — the driver crested the bank, and plunged toward the river.   Ironically, he was saved from possible death by one of those same benches, which caught underneath the car and stopped its descent.

Westport Library Riverwalk destructionThe driver was charged with DUI.  Early this morning, the clean-up began.

Parks and Recreation workers assessed the damage.  A&B Family Memorials in Norwalk — which provided the original benches — is ready to repair or replace them.

Westport Library Riverwalk destructionBetty Lou Cummings — the mastermind behind the Riverwalk, whose 57 benches, thousands of commemorative bricks and beautiful landscaping has provided a tranquil spot for strolling, sitting and smooching for 2 decades — was heartsick this morning.  She’s a dynamo with countless community projects to her credit, but the Riverwalk is her most visible — and perhaps her favorite.

Betty Lou is ready to help rebuild.  And she has no sympathy for the drunken driver.

“Those benches cost more than $2,000 each, and that was years ago,” she said.  “It’s going to cost a lot of money.   I hope he has plenty of insurance.”