Art Notes: As two murals are finished, two communities come together

  • Shannon Paiva, left, Angie Doiron, middle, and Jane Chartier, right, pass the newly installed recreation of the Main Street Heritage Mural in Newport, N.H., after their volunteer shift at the non-profit Aurora Bakery on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. The 36-panel mural was unveiled early in October and replaces the original 1997 painting that had suffered damage from years of exposure to the weather. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Jennifer Le, middle left, and Phuong Nguyen, middle right, of San Francisco, have patries from the Aurora Bakery under the Main Street Heritage Mural in Newport while visiting New Hampshire for foliage season with Jennifer Le, left, and Paul Yee, right, also of San Francisco, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. The newly recreated mural was unveiled early in October. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2022 10:07:39 PM
Modified: 10/19/2022 10:07:37 PM

It’s always interesting to me when events happen in pairs. Earlier this month, two public art projects came to a successful conclusion on opposite sides of the Upper Valley.

Newport’s Library Arts Center coordinated a remaking of the Newport Heritage Mural, a 48-by-12-foot painting that looks back at the 1871 arrival of the railroad in town. The arts center threw a party Oct. 8 to celebrate.

And around that date, a trio of artists put the finishing touches on Passage, a new installation of public art on a World War I-era railroad underpass in South Royalton.

I wrote about both projects when they were in the fundraising stages, so I wanted to see the finished results and whether there were any intersections between them, aside from their relationship to railroads. If there’s a single takeaway, it’s that public art can be a catalyst for community action.

“Our biggest goal with the mural was community engagement,” Kate Luppold, director of the Library Arts Center, said Wednesday. More than 100 people donated and another 100 or so, including 40 artists, volunteered to remake the original 1997 mural. Donors gave $40,000 to fund the project, including a $15,000 matching grant from Geraldine and Harold LaValley

The massive painting, rendered on 4-foot-square panels, has had the desired effect. People who gave their time and money want to know what the next project is.

“It’s so great,” Luppold said. “All these artists are excited to talk about what we’ll do next.”

In working on an arts atlas of southwestern New Hampshire, Luppold and others were surprised to see how little public art there is in Newport and other Sullivan County towns. The Library Arts Center has hired Heidi Lorenz, the artist who shepherded the murals back to life, as a community arts engagement facilitator. Her job is to build community and economy through public acts of creativity.

Creating public art as a community exercise isn’t discussed much in the Upper Valley, in part because the major organs of visual art view public works as the province of major artists.

The Dartmouth Panels, five rectangular lozenges of color attached to the backside of the Hopkins Center for the Arts, are a good example. Installed a decade ago, the panels are the work of Ellsworth Kelly, a titan of American art. Suffice it to say that the community wasn’t involved. Dartmouth has never released what it paid for the panels, other than to say it was part of hedge-fund titan Leon Black’s $48 million donation to establish the Black Family Visual Arts Center, which faces the panels across a courtyard.

The panels are interesting, in a “Hey, these things really tie the room together” sort of way, to borrow a line from The Big Lebowski. And they are an expression of community values, in the same way that Newport’s mural is. Dartmouth values money and prestige (Hanover, too, I suppose), and Newport values its history and the era that gave rise to its stately brick architecture.

As art, the Newport mural is no more thrilling than Kelly’s slabs of color. But there is some narrative drive in the movement of skiers, moviegoers and other people making their way around a town newly open to rail travel, and therefore to the world.

Passage, the installation on the South Royalton underpass by artists Elizabeth Billings, Evie Lovett and Andrea Wasserman, on the other hand, is a little art-bomb that has completely rearranged a piece of the landscape.

On one side of the blighted underpass is a series of panels that suggest, without depicting, the changing of the seasons. On the opposite side is a chain of mirrored hemispheres.

I live down the street from the underpass and go through it at least a couple of times a day. The more I encounter Passage, the more I enjoy it. At night, lights behind the mirrored hemispheres make the underpass safer for pedestrians, and also enhance the grittiness of the crumbling infrastructure to which they’re mounted.

The installation has rubbed some of my fellow townspeople the wrong way. They thought the worn, rough concrete would be smoothed out before the art was installed, and early renderings of the project showed a cleaned-up underpass.

But the railroad that owns the underpass instead just sprayed a dark gray coating over it to hold the concrete together. I can see where this might be a let-down, but to my eye, the art looks even more powerful next to the decaying infrastructure, like an object from the future that’s illuminating the past.

The total cost of the project was around $76,000, according to an accounting provided by Town Administrator Victoria Paquin. All of that funding came from grants and donations, including more than $9,000 from individual donors, and a matching grant from the state’s Better Places program, which funds community projects. The project also received funding from AARP, the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Law School.

I was struck by the higher cost of the Royalton project. Some of that was attributable to paying a trio of professional artists to gather the materials and do all the work, where the Newport project deployed a small army of volunteers. And some of it was attributable to the railroad, which required the project to buy insurance and made the artists hire flaggers to direct traffic while they worked. All told, the railroad’s requirements cost $20,000.

The project wasn’t cheap, but I’d bet it cost a lot less than the Dartmouth Panels.

What Passage makes me think about is not my own response to it, but to how it might influence the neighborhood kids, including my own, who walk by it and see a piece of their world reshaped by creativity and hard work.

The big difference between the Royalton and Newport projects was community effort. Newport has some arts infrastructure, in the form of the Library Arts Center, that Royalton and other towns in the White River Valley do not. Robust community programs, backed up by constant advocacy, are what’s needed to make sure a community is invested in the arts. Maybe Passage will be a catalyst for such an effort.

Kyiv, by way of Cali

Artist Katya Roberts, who moved from Kyiv, Ukraine, to California at age 12, talks about her work at 5:30 p.m. Friday at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon. An exhibition of her work, “Reclamation: Through the Woods,” is on view through Nov. 12.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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