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.
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.”
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)
I never thought the original Staples High School building on Riverside Avenue looked like the original Town Hall on the Post Road (now Jesup Hall restaurant).
Or like Greens Farms Elementary School. Or the original YMCA (now Bedford Square).
But some readers did.
Many more, however, knew that last week’s photo challenge showed our first high school. Built in 1884 and razed in 1967, it sat where the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium is now.
Lynn U. Miller’s photo was a close-up of one of the many tiles that form the River of Names, on the lower level of the Westport Library.
At least, that fascinating mural is there now. After the library’s transformation project, it will be relocated elsewhere.
Just like Staples High School eventually was.
Fifteen alert “06880” readers got either or both parts of the challenge — Staples and the library — correct. Congratulations to Bobbie Herman, Ana Johnson, Fred Cantor, Michael Calise, Seth Schachter, Rosalie Kaye, Philip Millstein, Cathy Romano, Linda Amos, Leslie Flinn, Linda Gramatky Smith, Barbara Railton-Jones, Amee Borys, Dan Beddingfield and Mousumi Ghosh. (To see the photo and read all the comments, click here.)
Here’s this week’s photo challenge. If you think you know where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.
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