Tag Archives: Dorothy Curran

Tile Mural: History, Revisited And Re-Explained

When the Westport Library asked the Westport History for Museum & Culture for advice on the “River of Names” mural, the Museum cited a number of what they called “historical inaccuracies, inaccurate representations, and perhaps most importantly glaring omissions of fact based on idealized Euro-centric views of the past.”

Dorothy Curran disagrees.

She wrote and helped publish an art historical catalogue that accompanied the tile mural, and upon which the Museum based much of its criticism. Offering a fascinating (though of course incomplete) tour of local history, Dorothy writes:

In October 2021, the Westport Library, seeking not to return the “River of Names” historical bas-relief ceramic donor tile mural to the Library interior, asked Ramin Ganeshram, executive director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture, for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion opinion on the mural’s content.

Ramin, along with WMHC colleague Cheryl Bliss, focused not on the mural itself, but on “River of Names: An Historical Tile Mural at the Westport Public Library” — my accompanying art historical catalogue. As a then RTM-appointed Library trustee, I donated my time writing it and raising another $25,000 to pay for photography, graphic design, printing, binding and shipping of 5,000 copies.

The aim was for a portable “art docent tour” of the mural, and a long-term book sale revenue stream for the Library. (If you need last-minute holiday gifts, the beautifully printed and bound volumes still sell, for $5 or less, at the Westport Book Shop. All proceeds benefit the Westport Library.)

Here are my reactions to the DEI report:

Tile #1, 1637 Puritans & Pequots end Swamp War; Puritans plan settlement

The Westport Museum of History & Culture says that

The Pequot War of 1636-1638 began as a colonial Puritan response to the alleged murders of English colonists by Pequots. Rival tribes joined the Puritan initiative, but were horrified by English tactics. Puritans attacked and burned the Pequot village in Mystic, massacring most of the tribe’s women, children and elderly. Surviving Pequots sought to migrate west, but the English followed. The final battle — the Fairfield Swamp Fight in 1637, near what today is I-95 Exit 19 — was devastating. But thanks to intervention by Thomas Stanton, who spoke Algonquian, a massacre was avoided. For a very brief overview of a very complex series of events, here is a link with footnotes and bibliography for deeper study: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pequot_War

Why was this event included in the River of Names? Because following the Pequots across Connecticut was how Roger Ludlowe discovered Fairfield’s lovely salt meadows and decided to move his settlers from Windsor’s flood-prone Connecticut River banks to Fairfield. Westport later formed from parts of Fairfield and Norwalk. Neither the caption nor the catalogue’s summary provide the full story, but together they certainly inspire curiosity.

Tile #2, 1648 Pequannock Tribe agrees to sell “Machamux” to the five “Bankside” farmers

Yes, the concept of “selling” land to the English colonists was alien to migratory Native American tribes, but colonial records do document acceptance of the English purchase offer and remuneration. As for the Native Americans’ skin color, it is darker than the English, but not as deep as exhibit model photographs provided by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. When I first saw this tile, I remarked to artist Marion Grebow; “They look like ghosts.” She smiled, knowingly. Very aware of how local Native Americans were ravaged by European diseases and warfare, she was making an artistic statement.

Tile #7, 1705 John Cable builds tidal mill, produces corn flour for emerging West Indies trade and Tile # 10, 1775 E. (Ebenezer) Coley builds saltbox home, shop and wharf; Tile #13,  1790 E. (Ebenezer) Jesup Builds Wharf on Saugatuck’s east Bank

Under British colonial rule, trade by its American colonies was restricted to England, and exports, to raw materials like lumber, in exchange for English finished goods. But thanks to lax enforcement, many locals became maritime commerce entrepreneurs (aka black-market bootleggers), trading products like corn meal for Caribbean molasses and rum. After 1763, increased enforcement helped precipitate the American Revolution. Yes, there were slaves in Puritan Connecticut, including enslaved Pequot survivors, but what now is Westport never was a hub for the larger transatlantic “triangular trade,” involving larger ships, sailing to Africa.

Tile #11, 1756, 1775, 1780, 1789 George Washington’s diaries record four trips through town, including an overnight stay at Marvin’s Tavern

You complain that in 1789, when Washington stayed overnight at Marvin’s Tavern: “The wall features other details of historical inaccuracy such as… Washington’s visit to Marvin Tavern in 1789… As a point of fact, Washington only rode white horses, however he would have been travelling by carriage during this presidential tour. Further, in 1789 he was President and made a point of wearing civilian clothing—not his Continental Army uniform as portrayed on the tile.”

In my catalogue discussion of Tile #11, I wrote: “By November, 1789, in reality, Washington was the first President of the 13 United States, a national icon, weary of war and no longer in military attire. Literal reality, however, is not Grebow’s primary concern. Instead, by returning Trumbull’s image of Washington, the Yorktown victor, the archetypal American Revolutionary War hero, to Marvin’s Inn in 1789, Grebow expresses completion of a cycle. Among the people who welcomed him back in 1789 were some who first greeted him in 1775, before the war began, some who suffered loss of life and property in 1777 when the war arrived here, and some who witnessed his 1780 meeting here with the French to end the war. While few if any were present at Yorktown when the fulfillment of this vision was realized, his victory there validated the personal and political dreams and values he epitomized and they shared. Grebow’s Washington, by extending a greeting with the same hand he refused to a British general, offers both a politically powerful and profoundly human statement. Grebow’s Washington, like the one we all revere, transcends the limits of space and time.”

P.S. Washington notes in his diary that he was less than pleased with his stay at Marvin’s Inn, which makes his gesture even more gracious.

Tile #17, 1810 Catherine Burr Sherwood, farm wife & mother of ten, including triplet sea captains

Commemorating the birth of the Sherwood triplets during a heavy snowstorm, this tile illuminates the vital, often overlooked impact of women in local colonial history, including building and maintaining families with very little medical assistance. In fact, at about the same time that Catherine Burr Sherwood gave birth to her eighth, ninth and tenth children (the triplets), her sister-in-law died in childbirth, so the family then had 11 to raise. The later maritime careers of the 3 triplets are a topic for separate study.

Tile #19, 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church and Saugatuck Fire Co. established

Well into the 19th century, Puritan governance practices persisted in Connecticut. For example, new towns first needed a new seat of government: a Congregational church, with selectmen presiding. Only after the Saugatuck Church’s 1832 completion could Westport petition the state for a town charter. Likewise, forming the Saugatuck Fire Co. ended emergency dependence on Norwalk and Fairfield. The scope, limits and flaws of the 1818 Connecticut Constitution are topics for separate study.

Tile #18, 1814 Saugatuck Manufacturing Co. makes cotton yarn at Richmondville Ave. site and Tile #20, 1835 R.H. Haight’s tannery, later Kemper Tannery, makes leather hat bands 

British rule forbade American colonial manufacturing, forcing Americans to buy British finished goods, at Britain’s prices. After American manufacturing began, the British War of 1812 coastal shipping blockade caused such severe economic hardship that Connecticut briefly considered secession from the new union. Happily, the war ended.

That era’s Connecticut manufacturers (and families, for supplemental income) relied on labor by children, immigrants, apprentices and indentured servants for success. Most children, like their parents, attained only an elementary education, but received training in other skills needed for farm and household management.

Neither tile can begin to probe the era’s labor practices, but each can inspire curiosity to learn more.

Tile #24, 1852 First Bank

You are correct that: “Descriptions of the building of the Westport Bank by Horace Staples and later refurbishment of the property at large (National Hall) on tile #24 (Curran) fails to indicate that the National Hall portion of the building referred to the 2nd floor where a theater was located. Minstrel shows, caricaturizing African Americans, were a popular attraction at this theater.”

That’s asking a lot of an already crowded 6″x4″ tile.

Tile #25, 1840’s, 1850’s & 1860’s Emerging diversity of religious worship

Though this tile depicts a “diversity of religions,” groups assessing the River of Names say that it presents a very Christian-centric view of Westport’s history. There are no tiles for other religions.

In mid-19th century Westport, where the 1832 Saugatuck Congregational Church was the seat of government, one way to observe emerging diversity was construction of churches by other denominations: Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic. Yes, other religious congregations existed then, but were not in construction mode. A 6″x8″tile can only prompt curiosity to learn more.

Tile #35, 1899 First autos on Post Road

Your complaint: “The tile #35 (Curran) referring to the first automobiles in the town misses the opportunity to talk about the Toquet Motor Company here in Westport which produce a motor car earlier than Ford.”

As my catalogue states, #35 depicts an eyewitness account by local historian Edward Coley Birge, astonished at being passed on the Post Road by a “self-propelled open buggy,” likely a Stanley Steamer. Discussing Toquet Motor Company was not a fit for this tile. That does not make it historically inaccurate, Euro-centric or exclusive.

Tile #49, 1947 Lucille Lortel founds the White Barn Theatre

Yes, Lucille (not “Louise”) Lortel protected, nurtured and paid talented actors, writers, composers and designers. Agreed that not much can be said on a 6″x8″ tile about the “the opportunity she gave to the Black performers in the era of segregation.” Likewise, not much could be said here about her equally important role in continuing to employ “unemployable” McCarthy-era black-listed writers and actors. But naming her and the White Barn on a tile is a start.

Tile #68, 1980 Westport Historical Society, established 1889, acquires its home, Wheeler House, built 1795

Your complaint: “The information about Westport Museum (Westport Historical Society) on tiles #68 (Curran) is inaccurate. The original building on this site was a 2nd period colonial style, like the building currently across the street. The ocular windows in the current structure are not unique as stated—two other Italianate houses on Main Street feature them.”

In fact, the 12″x12″ River of Names tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does refer to the original structure (still inside the Bradley-Wheeler house) as probably a saltbox. Agreed that ocular windows per se are not a unique feature of Italianate architecture.

P.S. What does this discussion of architectural detail have to do with diversity, equity and inclusion?

Tile #79, 1996 Bradley-Wheeler Museum restored

You complain that: “The tile referring to the Bradley Wheeler barn refers to the statues on our property as sculptures—they are, in fact, miniature golf statues, made for use on a private miniature golf course. They are not sculptures.”

Tile #79 makes no such statement. My catalogue does call them sculptures, mostly because they are free-standing folk art created by famous, fun-loving Westport artists, whose major commissions included work at Disney World. The Einsel valentines to each other were remarkable.

Re: your comment that “The description refers to the towns “diverse cultural heritage” although there is virtually no representation of non-Europeans on the picture tiles of the River of Names Wall.”

The mural’s 84 picture tiles, ranging in size from 6″x4″ to 12″x12,” and covering over 350 years, offer only a glimpse of our history. My catalogue merely enriches that glimpse. In no way does that mean that this peek at our history is, in your language, “whitewashed.”

Diverse cultural heritage means many things. New England’s Puritan colonists were British subjects. Many River of Names tiles depict no people at all; instead, they show architecture and boats extending British tradition. Collectively, that makes our depiction of New England colonial history not so much “Euro-centric” as Anglo-centric. Over time, our town, state and country have grown and evolved. Today, looking back at the long, imperfect arc of our dynamic cumulative history, warts and all, I think most Westporters simply would call it “American.”

Library Trustees Issue “River Of Names” Statement

The Westport Library board of trustees has issued a statement regarding the River of Names mural. They say:

In recent days, we have listened to, heard, and read the comments from some members of the community regarding the decision of The Westport Library Board of Trustees to not reinstall the River of Names tile wall at The Westport Library.

To address the concerns raised and to avoid any misunderstandings, below is a timeline of the River of Names project:

  • The River of Names was a fundraising effort for a Library Capital Renovation project in the late 1990s (1997-98). Contributions ranging from $100 to $1,500 were sought. Former Second Selectwoman Betty Lou Cummings and Dorothy Curran, a trustee of the Library Board at that time, co-chaired and graciously led the effort.
  • Marion Grebow of Grebow Tile Fundraising Murals was contracted to create the tiles, which were installed onto a reinforced, interior wall on the Library’s Riverwalk Level. Thus, due to how they were adhered, tiles cannot be separated without causing damage. The entire wall is approximately 26 feet long and 6 feet tall and weighs nearly 6,000 pounds.

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

  • Plans for the Library’s 2017-19 Transformation Project called for the removal of the interior wall that held the River of Names and other walls on the Riverwalk Level to create a more open, light-filled enclosure that allowed for greater use of the space and views of the Saugatuck River. A space on the second floor was designated in the plans for the tile wall.
  • Prior to start of construction, the Library hired Crozier Fine Arts, a leading art storage and logistics firm, to remove the River of Names tile wall. The wall was professionally disassembled into sections, at considerable expense to the Library, in order to remove it safely.
  • Prior to removal, the tile wall and the individual tiles were each professionally and meticulously photographed for posterity and preservation.
  • Since the transformation build started, the River of Names has been in climate-controlled storage at the Crozier facility, at the Library’s expense.
  • To make sure future generations are aware of the project, the Library created a dynamic River of Names digital platform that showcases the tile wall in its entirety. It is available on the Library’s homepage.
  • As part of the original design for the Transformation Project, the tile wall was to be reinstalled in the renovated space on the upper level, outside the Children’s Library. It would have been mounted and wrapped around a corner, where patrons could see it and enjoy it for many years. This location was unequivocally rejected by the individuals involved in the original development of the tile wall because it wrapped around a corner.

(From left): Former 2nd Selectwoman Betty Lou Cummings, tile artist Marion Grebow and historian Dorothy Curran. All were involved in the River of Names project.

  • Upon the rejection of the proposed location, the builder, along with the trustees, re-analyzed the design and determined that there was no other suitable location in the building to re-hang the tile wall, according to the requirements provided by the individuals involved in the River of Names original development.
  • At that time, and for several years afterward, we explored, in earnest, both public and private locations in town to re-hang the River of Names on a reinforced wall. While one location was potentially identified, the funding to prep the space and reinstall did not exist.
  • The Library honors the donors whose names were recorded on the tile wall. Their names are listed on the new donor wall located at the main entrance that was designed as part of the recent Transformation Project.
  • In September 2019, the Library Board met and decided unanimously to keep the tile wall in storage, and cover the storage fees, hoping another location could be found. The Board informally discussed that paying to store the wall for an additional three years was reasonable.

The Westport Library (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

  • In October 2021, as the town was reviewing its public art collection, the Board asked the Library staff to contact community partners to obtain their points of view on the River of Names. The staff reached out to representatives of the Town’s Art Advisory Council, TEAM Westport, and the Westport Museum for History and Culture. These organizations independently expressed concerns about historical inaccuracies and the lack of representation of diverse people who played a significant role in Westport’s history. These opinions have been shared publicly.
  • The Library’s Board of Trustees confirmed the decision to not reinstall the River of Names. The decision was made after years of thoughtful discussions, looking at multiple points of view and consideration of numerous factors.
  • In April 2022, members of the Board met with Dorothy Curran and Betty Lou Cummings and informed them that there was no place to reinstall the wall at the Library and reminded them that they were welcome to have it. The Library offered to pay storage through the end of the year, or longer, if they needed additional time.
  • The Library has offered and remains open to transfer ownership of the River of Names to any responsible party who demonstrates a reasonable interest.

The decision not to reinstall the tile wall was one made by the Library’s Board of Trustees and the Board alone. We appreciate that not everyone agrees with the board’s conclusion, and we understood that it might not be universally popular, but it was made in good faith based on the mission and values of the Library.

We love Westport for many reasons, and one of the things we cherish most is that Westporters are passionate and engaged. We believe that reasonable people can disagree, at times strongly, on an issue, and we support that conversation. In fact, it aligns with the Library’s stated commitment to empower the individual and strengthen the community through dynamic interaction and the lively exchange of ideas.

The Board advocates for civil conversations that are respectful and topical, not derogatory, or personal. We ask that varying points of view be shared respectfully and for the ongoing discussion to be one of learning, sharing, decency, courtesy, and growth.

We are grateful for our continued partnerships with the Town’s Art Advisory Council, TEAM Westport, and the Westport Museum for History and Culture. The Westport Library looks forward to continuing to work on our shared interests with the goals of enriching the lives of the residents of Westport and beyond. It is unfortunate that through this recent discourse, these organizations are being attacked for a decision the Library’s Board of Trustees made regarding the tile wall.

The motto of the Library is “open to all” — and we truly see it that way. That is not only those who agree with this decision or those who will disagree with a future decision. The Library is for everyone, a gathering space and a community resource. We are thankful to all who have reached out to share their thoughts constructively. Please know we have listened and regarded every opinion. And we look forward to sharing this community space — in the days, weeks, and years to come.

Sincerely,
Westport Library Board of Trustees

Library Won’t Re-Hang Tile Mural; Westporter Responds

In 1998, amid great fanfare, the Westport Library unveiled the River of Names. It quickly became a beloved attraction, on the lower level.

To help with its renovation, nearly 2,000 donors had contributed $350,000. Award-winning artist and sculptor Marion Grebow created a 6 foot-by-26 ceramic mural.

Eighty-four tiles depicted important events in Westport history. Over 1,000 more bore the names of individuals, families and organizations who also helped fund the Library expansion.

The River of Names. Picture tiles depict historic Westport events. Other tiles include family and organization names. For smaller donations, names were engraved on the “books” at the top and bottom.

In 2017, preparing for a new “transformation” project, the River of Names was professionally removed, and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse. Library officials worked with Grebow and others to find a new spot for the mural.

But the artist did not want it to “bend” on 2 walls. No suitable site could be found that was long enough, and able to support its weight.

Each piece was digitized. The mural is now available online, with accompanying narratives. (Click here to see.)

In addition, each donor’s name was put on a plaque. It hangs on the main floor.

In the quarter century since the River of Names was commissioned, Americans have looked at our history through a new lens — one that seeks to acknowledge formerly overlooked groups, and right past wrongs.

And in just the 5 years since the mural was stored, statues and monuments have been removed. Buildings and foundations have been renamed.

In accordance with its motto — “Open to All” — the Library consulted with 3 groups: the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, Westport Museum for History & Culture, and TEAM Westport.

All found significant issues with the River of Names’ depiction of town history. (The WAAC’s Diversity Task Force report appears at the end of this story.)

The Westport Museum of History & Culture says that this tile about the Swamp War is inaccurate and misleading; it was actually a “slaughter.” In addition, “the flimsy explanation that native men are depicted as white because they are ‘ghosts’ is a paltry excuse for lack of care inthe depiction of non-white individuals.”

Major events, like the presence of hundreds of enslaved people, the existence of a Black neighborhood at 12 1/2 Main Street — and the never-explained fire that destroyed it — were not included.

The history of Indigenous people was portrayed inaccurately — including, significantly, the massacre that ended the Great Swamp War, and the “sale” of Machamux by the Pequannock tribe to the Bank-side Farmers. Native Americans were portrayed as white.

There was no acknowledgement of the presence and achievements of non-Christian communities (or earlier restrictive covenants). No tile depicted Rev. Martin Luther King’s appearance at Temple Israel, and the congregation’s strong support of the civil rights movement.

Eight months ago, Library officials offered to work with Dorothy Curran — a longtime local volunteer with a passion for history, who had been a driving force behind the River of Names project — and others.

The goal was to gift it to someone, or some group, willing to find a new home for the mural, or continue paying for its storage. The Library has been responsible for those fees since 2017.

A deadline of this month was set.

Library trustee Scott Bennewitz, who serves as vice president, says there has been “very limited response,” and no offers to house the mural, or pay for storage.

Recently, the 19-member board of trustees voted unanimously to terminate the storage contract. The mural may be disposed of by January 15.

Though this tile depicts a “diversity” of religions, groups assessing the River of Names say it presents a very Christian-centric view of Westport’s history. There are no tiles for other religions.

“This decision was not made in a vacuum,” says Library director Bill Harmer. “A great deal of research and discussion went into it.

“The bottom line is, the mural is no longer appropriate. It is exclusive, obsolete and offensive, in ways no one could conceive of in the 1990s. It does not represent the inclusive Westport of 2022.”

Donors contributed with “good will,” he notes. “Everyone who participated had good intentions. We are grateful for their generosity. and acknowledge all of them, on a plaque in a very prominent place.”

“The Library is not a town organization, but we do receive substantial funding from it,” Bennewitz adds.

“We should align ourselves with the town’s values. There’s a new plaque behind Town Hall, and others downtown, that depict a better view of our history than before. The Arts Advisory Committee has a DEI statement that we align with also.”

“We think this is a reasonable path forward. We still hope we can work with Dorothy, or any other reasonable party, toward funding.”

Individuals or groups interested in the River of Names should contact Library board of trustees president Jeremy Price: price.jeremy@gmail.com.

Dorothy Curran disagrees strongly with the Library decision. She writes:

Most Westport Library users remember the River of Names historical bas-relief ceramic donor tile mural.

Until the Library’s 2019-20 renovation, it graced the Riverwalk level hallway. Admirers included nearly 2,000 donors, who in 1997-98 contributed $350,000 to commission award-winning artist and sculptor Marion Grebow to create the work, along with the tens of thousands who visited each year, often accompanied by awed children or grandchildren, or envious out-of-town visitors.

The 84 “picture tiles” and their brief captions offered a glimpse at 4 centuries of local history. If one stood close to the mural at the far end, looking west across the surface toward the Saugatuck, the light shimmered on the gleaming white bas-relief wave tiles, just like moonlight on the river.

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

With patience and trust, since 2019 — when the Library hired a fine arts firm to remove the River of Names to safe, temporary storage to facilitate a new round of construction — these admirers have awaited its return.

After all, isn’t this work a Library-owned asset? Doesn’t the Library receive 75% of its annual budget from town taxpayers, and do right by its donors and patrons?

However, in a letter last week to Stephen Nevas (attorney for mural artist Marion Grebow) attorney Alan Neigher (on behalf of Jeremy Price, president of the Westport Library Association board of trustees) conveyed that the Library was terminating its River of Names storage contract and ordering that the popular work of public art — a 6’2″ x 26’4″ historical ceramic donor tile mural with 1,927 donor surfaces on 1,162 separate tiles — be “disposed of,” no later than January 15, 2023.

One of the 1,162 River of Names tiles.

Isn’t this the same River of Names ceramic bas-relief mural that the Library paid a fine arts firm to remove in 2019 and store temporarily, in a fine arts storage facility, until library renovation and construction were complete?

Isn’t this the mural with 84 bas-relief historical picture tiles depicting 4 centuries of iconic moments, architecture and themes from the history of what today is Westport? The one with 50 rows and 29 columns of 2′ x 6″ gleaming white “wave” tiles (993 in all)? And 85 5″ x 12″ bookshelf tiles, each with 10 book spines, bearing donor names?

Yes.

One of the tiles shows Stevan Dohanos’ Saturday Evening Post cover of the World War II memorial outside the old Town Hall.

But this also is the same mural that the Library executive director and board then said could never return to the renovated building, because their plan never asked for a single flat wall for it.

Instead, near the children’s section, as consolation they offered a digital database flat screen display of the individual River of Names tiles so that young patrons could search for tile photos by donor name or subject. It now is dark.

And then — after construction was complete, and immediately following town approval on October 13, 2021 of a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy — the Library sought to banish its return on the grounds of DEI content failure, with correspondence solicited from the Westport Museum of History & Culture, TEAM Westport and the Westport Arts Advisory Council.

In general, these organizations noted that 84 briefly captioned images were not a comprehensive, inclusive history of Westport. Of course, they never were meant to be. And the tiles depicting Native Americans relied on photographic source material from exhibit curators at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, before it even opened to the public.

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

Then, on the Library website, the text reference for Marion Grebow’s 3-dimensional ceramic donor tile mural initially became “the tile wall,” with no artist credit. Now it is “River of Names Interactive.” What does that mean? Where is the artist credit, or the history or meaning of this work’s creation?

According to Marion Grebow’s attorney, he “has been warned that unless her family agrees to pay for storage or immediately takes custody of the 26 foot ceramic wall, it will be destroyed no later than January 15, 2023.”

What would Marion Grebow think?

In 1997-98, former Second Selectman Betty Lou Cummings and I, as an RTM-appointed Westport Library trustee, were volunteer co-chairs of the River of Names Community Capital Campaign. We worked very closely with Marion Grebow on every detail of every one of the mural’s sculptural images and 1,927 donor spaces.

(From left): Betty Lou Cummings, Marion Grebow and Dorothy Curran.

In 2019, despite her concerns for the mural’s structural fragility, it was cut by experts into 6 pieces and removed to storage, as the library renovation commenced.

Meanwhile, Marion was battling terminal cancer. Knowing that her end was approaching, she planned her own graveside service. In February 2020, a few weeks before the COVID lockdown, Betty Lou Cummings and I stood on the peaceful frozen hillside of Umpawaug Cemetery in Redding as a lone soloist rose to sing one song in the frigid air. Apparently it was Marion’s favorite: “Moon River.”

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In November 2021, the Westport Arts Advisory Committee Diversity Task Force presented this report to the Library:

River of Names is a tile wall created in 1996 in the context of fundraising for the Westport Library. While the piece aims to tell the chronology of our town, factual historical events and the diverse populations of Westport that played a significant role in the story of our town were omitted. We highlight these omissions because the commission claims to have weaved our town history into the piece, yet it is incomplete.

Also of concern is that at least one tile depicts the face of a white patron inappropriately overlaid in scenes of indigenous people. The importance of historical storytelling grounded in fact is vital to our growing efforts to come together as a society and embrace diversity and inclusion. As River of Names is not an accurate depiction of Westport’s history, it is inappropriate to be displayed in 2021 Westport.

Yet this tile wall provides a learning opportunity. We believe the digital file should remain on the Westport Library website as a tool to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives and how the perception of history over the past 25 years has evolved.

We suggest that the River of Names web display include an addendum, written by a town historian, to add historical omissions and to explain the context of the time in which the wall was created. This would be a responsible and thoughtful approach to embracing this well-intentioned, yet anachronistic work.

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Remembering Marion Grebow

Marion Grebow — the artist whose ceramic “River of Names” mural delighted Westport Library visitors for 2 decades — died on Thursday. She was 66 years old.

The “River of Names” was a special fundraising project. Co-chairs Betty Lou Cummings and Dorothy Curran invited Grebow — a Stamford native who worked in sculpture, drawing, calligraphy, porcelain and, ultimately, ceramic tiles, and who was related to the Nevas family, longtime Westport philanthropists — to propose a design.

Marion Grebow (center), flanked by Betty Lou Cummings and Dorothy Curran.

Her plan grew to include 1,162 bas-relief tiles, tracing 350 years of town history. Residents present and past, non-profit organizations and local businesses contributed funds. Grebow then crafted individual tiles for each.

Some portrayed events like the founding of Westport and onion farming; others showed scenes like National Hall and Compo Beach, or noted the dates and names of families living in town.

Grebow envisioned the mural as a true “river” — not just of history, but as a metaphor. “If one stood at the far end of the mural and looked back across the surface pattern of the tiles, the dancing light looked like moonlight on flowing water,” Curran says.

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

After the River of Names was hung in the library’s lower level, Curran published a book about the mural. It included information about each tile, and serves as an additional resource for Grebow’s remarkable work.

When the library undertook its transformation project, no room could be found for the mural. It is now in storage, and lives on in digital form.

Grebow also produced works for New York’s 92nd Street Y and Temple Emanu-El, the Connecticut Audubon Society in Fairfield, and many others.

She is survived by her husband Gustav Olsen, and their sons Sam and Harald.

A graveside memorial service will be held tomorrow (Sunday, February 23, 11;30 a.m., Umpawaug Cemetery, 149 Umpawaug Road, Redding). A memorial service follows at her West Redding studio.

A few of the 1,162 River of Names tiles.

[OPINION] Dorothy Curran: Westport History Museum Broke Faith

Dorothy E. Curran has lived in Westport since 1977. She has served on the boards of the Westport Library (trustee; co-chair, River of Names community capital campaign) and Westport Woman’s Club (past president, chair/co-chair, many Yankee Doodle Fairs).

Dorothy Curran

She is also — most importantly for this story — a Westport Historical Society past president, chair or co-chair of 5 Holiday House Tours, and co-curator of multiple exhibits, including the original “Cover Story: The New Yorker in Westport.”

This morning, Dorothy reacts to the news that the Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — changed the name of its main gallery. It previously honored the Sheffer Family, for their contributions of funds and time. It is now named for a new donor, Daniel Offutt. Dorothy writes:

No one needs to be a member of a historical society, pay annual dues, contribute to annual giving, volunteer to support its educational work, catalog its collections, staff its fundraisers, buy tickets to those same fundraisers, or then buy back donated auction items.

Yet in Westport for more than a century, many have done just that, and some have done even more: leaving substantial bequests to the Westport Historical Society’s modest endowment in their wills or contributing major capital to the campaigns that purchased the historic Bradley-Wheeler property, restored the rare heptagonal cobblestone barn, refurbished (what used to be) the period rooms, built the underground climate-controlled archive and constructed the exhibit gallery addition.

The Westport Historical Society was a people-friendly place with a devoted shoestring staff and intelligent, enthusiastic members and volunteers who contained the costs and raised the funds to keep it going. Most of them grew up somewhere else, but after moving here (Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman among them) were drawn to the WHS by the energy, camaraderie and front-row seats to the remarkable story of how this amazing little (population 25,000) coastal 06880 Zip Code came to be.

The Westport Museum for History & Culture — formerly the Westport Historical Society — on Avery Place.

How was it that Westport grew from the Pre-Contact era through the Puritan Colonial era, the farming, fishing and maritime commerce eras, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 embargo, the rise of small manufacturing, the market boat (local produce to NYC) era, the 1835 formation of the town, the building of the Maine to Georgia (and, in particular, the last piece: New York to New Haven) railroad, the onion (supplying Grant’s troops during the Civil War) and apple farming eras, the 20th century arrival of the nation’s leading artists, illustrators, writers, actors and performing artists, the 20th century leadership in breaking “the gentleman’s agreement” and other discriminatory practices, the building of Westport’s link in I-95 (Maine to Florida), the welcoming of the (United Nations) world through “jUNe Day,” ground-breaking models (like Save the Children and Newman’s Own) for social entrepreneurship, and now, in the 21st century, to providing a base for everyone from hedge fund managers to a burgeoning farmer’s market, from a humongous annual Maker Faire to Interfaith Housing and Homes With Hope, from the Westport Country Playhouse to pop-up art shows, from early adopters of front-line climate change resistance technology to the vigilant volunteers who staff the Historic District Commission?

It’s an amazing saga for a small, but nationally and globally influential town, and the primary place for the public to access this story, told in “chapters,” through exhibits and programs, has long been the Sheffer Gallery of the Westport Historical Society. When the WHS membership purchased the Italianate (built over the original saltbox) Bradley-Wheeler House, it had very limited exhibit and gathering space, and the financial burden of acquiring and refurbishing the antique home for WHS use had left many wallets thin.

The Sheffer family was in a position to help with a major, restricted gift: If the WHS accepts our capital, the new construction will be named, in perpetuity, “The Sheffer Gallery.”

An action that relies on a promise is a contract.

The Westport Historical Society gratefully agreed.

The organization’s recent name change does not give it license to break faith with its past contracts, nor would that be a wise choice for an institution committed, through the benevolence of donors, to preserving the memory of how today’s Westport came to be.

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.”

Library’s “River Of Names”: 21st-Century Update

The Westport Library’s Transformation Project is exciting and dynamic. When the official opening takes place June 23, users will enjoy an entirely new experience. Space, usage, programs — all have been reimagined.

But the 2-year renovation has brought changes to some old favorites. More than 150 works of art were removed, reappraised, cleaned, photographed and stored professionally. Some will be back on the “new” library walls.

Others found homes in various town buildings. For example, Robert Lambdin’s 1935 WPA mural “Pageant of History” was relocated to Staples High School.

But what about the River of Names?

That was the 26-foot long, 6-foot high tile work that hung on the lower level, just outside the McManus meeting room.

The River of Names, in the lower level of the Westport Library.

Conceived by Betty Lou Cummings, shepherded along by Dorothy Curran, and commissioned in 1997 as part of a capital campaign, it raised $300,000. All 1,162 tiles were 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.

Tile donors were promised the River of Names would exist in perpetuity.

Yet finding a new home in the transformed library was difficult.

Fortunately, the library has a 21st-century solution.

An interactive River of Names will be an innovative feature of the new building.

A 43-inch touch-screen digital mural will be on view — and very accessible — on the upper level.

The new River of Names will link historic depictions in the mural to additional information about Westport’s 350-year past.

Another tile shows the YMCA’s Bedford building, constructed in 1923. It’s now the site of Bedford Square.

Iain Bruce — president of the library’s board of trustees — acknowledges the challenge of finding an appropriate location for the mural in the renovated space.

However, he says, the mural — and the entire Transformation Project — has forced the library to reassess how to make its collections and materials more accessible and engaging for everyone.

The new digital mural offers “maximum accessibility, interactivity, and continuity for our community today and for generations to come.” It includes descriptions, narratives, maps and photos. Audio and video clips will be added in the future.

Before the original mural was taken down, Miggs Burroughs photographed and documented each tile. It was removed and stored by a specialized company.

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

Ann Sheffer — chair of the River of Names Task Force Committee — says she is “thrilled that all this will be available to many more generations of Westport.” She calls digitization “a truly 21st-century demonstration of the role of libraries in preserving our heritage while charting our future.”

The River of Names will be accessible not only to library patrons, teachers and students, but everyone  around the globe, adds Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, Westport’s arts curator who consulted on this project.

Like the original mural River of Names, the digital version is ultimately a home-town product.

Square Squared — a Westport company — was the developer. The firm provides creative solutions for print and digital designs, and audio and video production.

Michael Bud — a Square Squared partner — was introduced to the Westport Library years ago, by his mother, a Coleytown Elementary School teacher. He enjoyed story hour and picture books; later, he researched science fair and other projects there.

He was in high school when the River of Names project was installed, and remembers the buzz. Now his 2 children are frequent library visitors.

Soon — thank to Dad — they’ll be able to access the River of Names, digitally.

Along with the rest of Westport.

And the world.

… as well the current library, opened in 1986, and soon to be “transformed.” (Tile photos courtesy of Fotki.com)

“River Of Names”: The Sequel

Dorothy Curran — a co-organizer of the “River of Names” fundraiser that helped bring a 26-foot long, 6-foot high mural to the lower level of the Westport Library — has been following the artwork’s future during the library’s transformation project with interest. She reports:

I spoke directly to Kurt Derner, who installed the mural (we worked together on installation logistics). He is being hired to de-install it as well.

No one is more aware than he of the many risks and loose ends attendant to the project. Happily, he is a very intelligent guy and we had a good talk.

Among other things, he plans to cut down the wall in panels which will keep entire sections intact. However, as he cuts, the margins of the affected tiles are very much at risk. Also, his work ends with the wrapping and labeling of each section. He and Marion Grebow (the tile artist) are very concerned about what plans the library has for then safely packaging, transferring and storing the work.

For the record, the only conversations that those of us who were involved in the logistics of mural installation have had with the library pertain to the wisdom (or lack thereof) of taking the mural down and its planned destination 2 years hence. We were not invited to participate in discussion of the removal, transfer, storage and re-installation logistics.

The River of Names, in the lower level of the Westport Library.

However, happily, thanks to Marion, Kurt and I now are in touch and I will try and provide some quiet coding and logistical help for him. To start, in the River of Names book, on the pullout page the coding system that we used to guide tile placement is on display.

Remarkably, though the print is fine, every name and every word on the mural pullout is legible. The tiles that Kurt believes are most at risk are the bookshelf tiles. Anything that is broken will have to be re-made, but there is no plan or budget in place for that and no agreement with Marion.

Kurt also has told the library that the panels must be stored vertically. As far as we know, they will be placed in what now is the McManus Room: exactly the same floor where the jackhammering will be going on that supposedly necessitates removal of the mural from its existing location for its “safety.” He has no idea how they plan to create or box the panels for storage. Therefore, there may be a change in condition between the time that he removes the panels and the time that they are ready for reinstallation.

The only hopeful news is that, while Kurt indeed is coming to the library on Wednesday, it is “only” for a meeting. No date has yet been finalized for the beginning of his takedown. He is anticipating September.

The library says that the mural will be removed safely, stored carefully, and reinstalled appropriately.

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)