New Norwalk artwork panned by some

"Gateway to Norwalk" is installed on May 22 on the West Avenue retaining wall. (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)
“Gateway to Norwalk” is installed on May 22 on the West Avenue retaining wall. (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)

NORWALK, Conn. – An eye catching “vine” is being installed on West Avenue, twisting pieces of glittering gold metal, with an expected completion in June.

The public art project, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” program, with matching funds from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the city, had a budget of $100,000, RDA Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer said in 2014. Sweitzer said last week that there is much community engagement in the sculpture created by Suikang Zhao – therefore much support – but it’s not getting a rave review in other quarters.

“It looks exactly like someone spilled a pot of boiling spaghetti on the wall,” said a commenter in the Facebook group, “We are from Norwalk CT.”

Zhao was one of 144 artists to submit proposals and was selected by a panel that included Julyen Norman, former director of the Center for Contemporary Printmaking, as a consultant, and Sophia Gevas, a Norwalk resident and member of the Arts Commission, who works at the Silvermine Arts Center, according to Susan Wallerstein.

Wallerstein is chairwoman of the Arts Commission, which, she said, was not involved in the artwork.

People are assuming that the Arts Commission was involved, Commissioner Jeffrey Price said Tuesday, calling that “very frustrating.”

“We had no input whatsoever in the selection,” Price said. “… I think it speaks very badly for getting the state and nation involved in artwork.”

“I think people are just very intrigued by it. It has an incredible story,” Sweitzer said last week.

“In appearance the twisted metal elements resemble a tangle of vines and roots, but are in fact words and phrases in multiple languages, distorted, overlaid and intertwined,” a press release stated.

Artist Suikang Zhao meets with children at the South Norwalk Community Center. (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)
Artist Suikang Zhao meets with children at the South Norwalk Community Center. (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)

Zhao, a native of China who has lived in New York City for more than 30 years, met with community and youth groups intensively over the course of a year, Sweitzer said. That included groups from Norwalk Community College and the Norwalk Housing Authority, she said.

“He kind of collected this assemblage of language. That is what he has created there. When he is done, we will have a mapping of it. You will be able to go there and understand where the pieces are,” Sweitzer said. “His intent is to have created an amalgam of these languages in this sculptural ‘vine.’”

The work is intended to be a reflection of the many cultural communities that make up Norwalk, the press release stated.

Zhao “has created similar works throughout the country and abroad,” the release stated. “He works with language in an abstract manner and visited Norwalk over several months to conduct informal gatherings with a wide range of community groups, gathering source materials in the many languages spoken in the local area – English, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Hungarian, Chinese, Pashto, Korean, Italian, Polish, and Haitian – to name just a few.”

Zhao is quoted as saying, “Vertically the designed artwork integrates the trees and foliage from the top of the wall, while horizontally it connects two parts of the town (SONO and Downtown Norwalk). I want to use the image of roots as a symbol of linkage among the many different cultures of the city. The written elements function as a hidden detail about past and future, a kind of code detailing the tapestry of the community.”

“As a community creative project, it’s amazingly unusual,” Sweitzer said. “… He took in, and then he put it out. I think in the end there’s going to be a lot of ownership there, when the groups that he had convened to do this begin to understand, what they told you is out on that wall. The mapping will be important.”

The 700-foot sculpture is expected to be done by the end of June, but may move along faster with good weather, she said.

All done without any input from the Arts Commission, Price said.

Artist Suikang Zhao instructs assistant Lili Shi as they work on "Gateway to Norwalk." (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)
Artist Suikang Zhao instructs assistant Lili Shi as they work on “Gateway to Norwalk.” (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)

“Although there was some positive feedback, I think it is an embarrassment to the city, I think it is an embarrassment to the Arts Council because it has become associated with it, and I think it’s an atrocious waste of funds that has produced something so cryptic that it looks more like some sort of mesh infrastructure fell on the wall than anything that was designed artistically with an intent,” said Price, the owner of The Artist Market on Main Street. “I understand the artist’s intent, I have read the explanation of it. But I don’t think it will make sense to anyone looking at it. It just makes the arts – to me, this is my personal opinion – look like a waste of time and money that produces things that have very little aesthetic enjoyment for very many people. I think it just shot completely over the head of the audience. It’s a great shame that the Arts Commission was not involved but it was brought to us as a fait accompli. There was nothing we could do about it except try to be good and promote the arts in Norwalk, which is part of the task of the Norwalk Arts Commission.

“To me it’s complete nonsense,” he continued. “If you are trying to please the public or educate the public or, an homage to something or another, to me, that does none of those things and to the contrary, would make many people point and laugh instead of enjoy it. What a shame that is when there are so many good artists and artworks around. I think the artist is well-intentioned, he had a very lofty goal of assimilating and mixing up different languages and so forth, but nobody who drives by will get that. Maybe if you read an explanatory text and even I have some background in calligraphy. I think it is too far removed from the message to make sense to the audience.”

Zhao did not return a Tuesday evening phone call.

Norman, in a Tuesday email, said Zhao’s “artwork is not intended to be ‘got’ literally as it is an abstract work of art, b) however there will be a plaque bearing all the words embedded in the sculpture, a kind of puzzle for people to work on for the future. Always some who like and some who don’t, nature of public art forever.”

One of the Facebook commenters said something similar: “Bach’s music was not accepted at his time. We are still enjoying it 300 years later!”

Opinions ran the gamut.

“Wait til the vandals hang sneakers from it!” another commenter said.

“I’m all for art,” said another. “It is an opinion. We all are created to be creative in some way. Yes it probably is a good message in there somewhere!!! … however — the location!!
“I don’t know about you … but I’m driving and making sure I’m in the correct lane at that part of the avenue!!!”

Zhao – or any artist the group could have selected – was saddled with the drab gray blocks of the West Avenue retaining wall as the backdrop for his work.

“They’re blocks. We weren’t allowed to fool around with those. They belong to DOT,” Sweitzer said, referring to the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

“They don’t like you bolting into their property, they don’t like you monkeying around with their stuff. Quite frankly, personally, I credit (former Department of Public Works Director) Hal Alvord for making a lot of that happen. He got us that permit and I don’t think by myself I could have gotten it,” Sweitzer said.

Zhao “was selected for his ability to integrate community content into his work,” Sweitzer said. “We didn’t just hire someone to do a sculpture and go put it in a park. The community content part is a major component of why he was selected.”

Artist Suikang Zhao welds pieces of "Gateway to Norwalk" (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)
Artist Suikang Zhao welds pieces of “Gateway to Norwalk” (Photo contributed by Julyen Norman)


20 responses to “New Norwalk artwork panned by some”

  1. JM

    Again, more poor judgement from the Norwalk powers that be….

  2. The Other Shoe

    I try not to judge artwork too harshly but in this case I have to say that this has been a poorly conceived waste of taxpayer funds. When I first saw the installation, I thought a roll of crime scene tape had gotten tangled up in the bushes above the wall. The publicity for this, as usual, has been nonexistent. Public input: non existent.

    While a thoughtful concept, the site is poorly chosen and reflects RDA’s longstanding obsession to do something with this “dead zone” that nobody in their right mind would spend any time trying to get to on foot. The massive concrete wall completely overwhelms the sculpture, making it look puny and intangible.

    Part of the problem is the Redevelopment Agency and the continual circle jerk that it engages with itself when meaningless pronouncements are made about the benefits that it brings to Norwalk. Bureaucrats spending public funds for a project that nobody gets, except the artist and the decision makers who got sold this bill of goods.

    The Arts Commission should be the choice to investigate public art for Norwalk. NOT Redevelopment. NOT Recreation & Parks (witness the Eye of Mordor at Calf Pasture).

    Time for RDA to go away. It’s been a failure at its mission – all you have to do is look at the history of the Wall Street area over the past 60 years.

  3. Sara Sikes

    I agree that the Arts Commission should be in change of placing public art, otherwise, what is its purpose? I kind of like this particular piece, although it is not a good location for it. In any case, it is less of an eyesore than the big yellow “O” marring the view of the beach that looks like it was commissioned by Fred Flintstone.

  4. Andrew

    How long is this piece going to be up for?

  5. Rob

    We thought perhaps some debris had blow over there from the Route 7 Connector or i95. Thanks for clarifying –

  6. Maribeth Becker

    I actually think the Flinstone sculpture goes nicely with the matching Bedrock benches (that were supposedly indestructible but are now mostly missing their decorative boulder posts).

  7. James Cahn

    I’ll leave the judgement of quality to the actual art critics, here. That’s certainly not my area of specialty by any measure but it is suggested that the purpose of art is to evoke a reaction and it’s tough to argue that this hasn’t.

    But HOW is the Arts Commission left completely out of the loop on this one? It never occurred to anyone to involve The Arts Commission at any stage of this? Even as a courtesy? I’m frankly surprised that it’s even possible to do a public art installation without the blessing of the Arts Commission.

    Oversights like this are murder to organizational morale. You’ve got resumes on the Arts Commission that could privately charge real money for the expertise that they offer to the City of Norwalk as a matter of public service. This can’t make them feel valued.

  8. jlightfield

    Don’t we have more important issues to worry about than public artwork installed in an area that most people drive through? The Redevelopment Agency does many good things supporting the arts. They have supported many things, from festivals, art inventories, artworks, and performances. They have supported a diverse range of music styles, visual artists, and events. So too, has the Parks and Recreational Department, and many private non-profit organizations. The diversity of support for the arts is a good thing.

    Art is subjective, and while anyone can have an opinion about the type any performance or artwork, it does not negate the value in supporting art even when we neither understand it, nor like it.

    There is plenty of uninspired artwork installed throughout this city, and yes that is my opinion (and a professional one at that,) however, Norwalk is a richer community because of it. Having a broad range of public art installations is something we should be proud of, and encourage more works installed in more public spaces.

    I am dismayed that anyone purporting to be a patron of the arts, would share some of the comments that have appeared in the article above. These come on the heel of the other arts “controversy” concerning the lack of diversity in artworks hung in City Hall. The Norwalk arts community is diverse not only in talent but types of art created. There should be space for all.

  9. Gordon Tully

    The following statement is factually incorrect: “It looks exactly like someone spilled a pot of boiling spaghetti on the wall,” said a commenter in the Facebook group, “We are from Norwalk CT.”

    For example, a pot of boiling spaghetti would not be 70 feet long, gold in color, and adhering to a vertical wall.

    The following statement is factually correct: “In appearance the twisted metal elements resemble a tangle of vines and roots, but are in fact words and phrases in multiple languages, distorted, overlaid and intertwined.”

  10. Larry

    I drove past this project for the first time earlier today. Since I’d not heard or read anything about the project before my drive-by, my reaction to it was quite visceral and was not influenced by the opinions of any of its apparent critics or proponents…And frankly, I LOVED it. At this point in its installation, at least, I found it to be striking, energetic, dynamic and visually engaging. And now that I know more about its inspiration and underlying meaning, I like it even moreso…I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves and develops in the coming weeks.

    I understand full well that people can get incredibly bent out of shape when a “process” that they believe should have been followed, has not been followed…Or when they believe that they should have been consulted, but weren’t…And this type of reaction may well be justified in this instance. However, my fervent hope is that these reactions not taint the way we all respond to the art itself – irrespective of whether that response is positive, or negative.

  11. Tish Gibbs

    I’m with Larry. I liked the first section that was installed a while ago, but thought it was a little slight. With the addition of the second section it improved considerably and it’s great to know it’s not finished.

    It’s a shame the Arts Council wasn’t consulted or at least in the loop. I’m a great fan of Jeff Price and Artists’ Market, but feel he’s underestimating the public’s ability to appreciate interesting art.

    Can’t wait to see the final installation

  12. Dawn

    I wonder why they outsourced. Why not find a talented local artist. There are soooo many.

  13. Susan Wallerstein

    Even though the Arts Commission wasn’t directly involved in the selection of this piece, the process used generally followed a new Public Art Policy which many City departments are voluntarily using. At the end of the day, regardless of process, our reactions to art are personal and subjective. Aren’t we lucky to have such a large and diverse collection in Norwalk – from Traffic Graphic boxes to WPA murals? Check out the upcoming public art walking tour and stay tuned for details about a new mobile app featuring many of Norwalk’s cultural assets.

  14. RayJ

    The location is great tying the 2 Norwalks together. It will see a lot more traffic very soon as the sidewalk opposite is a good wide walkway with green space . I hope for an interesting finale filling that large space. An alternative of murals would have been a good choice also. I’m glad that the arts got there before graffiti vandals.

  15. Casey Smith

    @ Shoe – Good to know I wasn’t the only one that thought about crime scene tape!

    At one point I thought I saw something resembling a word, but I’m usually driving past and focused on the lanes and the lights.

  16. Ken

    Just me but murals depicting Norwalks heritage and culture are more appropriate. We have a very rich history that seems to be forgotten in our scramble for an appearance of tolerance and unity. Our heritage, culture and customs are exactly why so many various peoples from various cultures have been coming here forever. It’s why we fixed the issues as they cropped up, to the extent of fighting the Civil war, to get where we are today. A nation, legally anyway, of equals, men, women, black, white, gay whatever. That’s a heck of an achievement and our American culture is why it hapenned. Not just here either but in Europe and most of the free world things would be different if the United States hadn’t set the bar for a society guaranteed the right to ” life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
    That’s something to celebrate, something to plaster on the walls to remember that this country is great. We have plaques on heritage wall celebrating and commemorating the places our various immigrants came from.
    I’m sure the artist means well but I think we, as a society focus too much on multiculturalism and not enough on patriotism. We all came from someplace to a better one, I’m proud of my Italian roots, but I’m an American and would rather our money be spent on art celebrating this culture than all cultures.

  17. Lisa Grant

    I think the priority should be to paint or replace the Welcome to Norwalk Center sign that is so sadly displayed in a dilapidated state on Wall St – it’s at least one we understand what it is supposed to say in our country’s language.

  18. MsB

    The work fails on two fronts. First, it should be located in a park space where people choose to visit to contemplate the promised “mapping” without which the project is visual jibberish—rather than its current placement in what is essentially a tunnel that drivers use to get somewhere else. Nobody walks in that area along West Ave by choice.
    Second, “diversity” is a generic, all-purpose theme that applies to just about every urban environment in America these days. There is absolutely nothing particular to Norwalk in the theme. The powers that be supplied a sculpture so generic that it pretty much states that really there is nothing much about Norwalk that the artist could bother to capture—this is simply what he does, wherever. The spectacle of meeting with children in the community is just a show meant to give narrative weight to a rote, nonspecific product.

  19. MsB

    Further to my previous, of all the colors in the rainbow, how on earth did we end up with Crime Scene Tape Yellow?

  20. “Bach’s music was not accepted at his time”

    Just when you thought that Facebook comments couldn’t get any dumber …

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