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: email@example.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?
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.”
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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