Tag Archives: Marion Grebow

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)