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‘The Vines’ Sculpture, Facing Eviction, May Move to Maritime Garage

The “Gateway to Norwalk” sculpture, nicknamed The Vines, undulates along West Avenue. The city’s Redevelopment Agency plans to replace the piece with a mural. (Photo by Kelly Prinz)

Anyone who has driven, walked, or taken a bus along West Avenue in Norwalk has seen the undulating artwork called “Gateway to Norwalk,” popularly known as The Vines. The 700- to 800-foot sculpture hangs along the concrete retaining walls, and is made up of twisted metal meant to evoke vines that spell out words and phrases in multiple languages

But now the Redevelopment Agency has made plans to evict The Vines in favor of using that space for a new mural. It handed the Norwalk Arts and Cultural Commission the task of recommending a new location for the sculpture.

On March 5, the commission voted unanimously to recommend moving The Vines to the side of the Maritime Aquarium Garage. The recommendation now goes back to the Redevelopment Agency for approval.

Brian Kaspr, the commission’s chair, said the new location “seems to be the best possible from a variety of different standpoints.”

“One, visibility; two, it’s a preferred location in that the experience of someone viewing this artwork on the side of the Maritime Garage—it’s a better viewing experience,” he said.

Now, with people traveling down West Avenue at 35 miles per hour, no one is stopping to take in what the sculpture means, or recognize that it’s made up of words, Kaspr said. 

“Putting it on the side of the Maritime Garage gives people a moment to linger and really look at it,” he said. “And the intention, our suggestion, is that the plaque is going to be expanded to say a little bit more about what this project is.”

The commission is hoping this location will help members of the public see it in a more meaningful way.  

The History of The Vines

The sculpture was commissioned in 2014 for about $100,000 through a grant with the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” program, as well as matching funds from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and the city.

In 2016, artist Suikang Zhao installed the sculpture, which encompasses words such as “welcome” in multiple languages. 

But the installation has met with mixed reviews over time. When it was initially installed, some residents said it looked “exactly like someone spilled a pot of boiling spaghetti on the wall.” 

“I know there are a lot of people who are passionately anti-vine people,” said Marc Alan, a member of the Arts Commission. “I’ve met people who hate it.”

While some members of the commission, including Alan, have said they like the piece, many acknowledged that in its current location, the artwork is hard to understand. 

“I think there is a mild lesson to be learned here,” Kaspr said at the commission’s November 2023 meeting. “I think a lot of people just don’t know what it is, and unfortunately, without the wall text, you won’t know what that thing is.” 

New Art for West Avenue

In March, Kaspr said the Redevelopment Agency wanted to move The Vines to make way for a new mural in the area.

“This is where our big West Avenue mural  is going to go, so we need to get that moving,” Kaspr said.

The commission had selected two artists in January 2023—Ernesto Manaje and Sonny Behan—to create a mural along the wall, which runs from across Mathews Park to just before the SoNo Collection, as well as the underpasses in that area. Kaspr noted in February 2024 that no contract had been signed yet, as they had to figure out what to do with The Vines first. The budget for this project is about $200,000.

“I am skeptical that we’ll be able to [have a mural up] by this year, although I really, really, really would like to by fall, but I’m being realistic in terms of thinking about what this would take,” Kaspr said. 

Redevelopment is “handling this in whatever capacity it needs to be handled. They are spending their money on this,” Kaspr said earlier this month. 

The recommendation will now be sent to the Redevelopment Agency. Sabrina Godeski, the city’s director of business and tourism, said that if the agency for whatever reason didn’t agree with the recommendation, it would have to come back before the Arts and Cultural Commission to suggest another location.

Once the location is finalized, Kaspr said, they want to reach out to artist Suikang Zhao to get him “involved in the process in some way.” 

Because the commission is just voting to move it at this point, members don’t have to worry about decommissioning it or taking it down, a question that came up earlier in the process. 

“Art being so subjective, we do a mural somewhere, some people might love it, some people might hate it—I like The Vines personally, I know other people who passionately don’t like it,” Alan said. “But my only objection to taking it down is, I don’t think we’ve ever voted to decommission it as art in the City of Norwalk.”

Alan said he believed they should establish a process in the future for decommissioning art. 

What Would ‘Decommissioning’ a Piece of Art Look LIke?

“I think that it’s an interesting case,” Alan said at the November 2023 meeting. “The processes by which things get created but also how pieces get decommissioned—this is an interesting one, because technically, we [the Arts Commission] didn’t commission it. Redevelopment [Agency] commissioned it, but it is part of the city’s public arts collection.”

Kaspr agreed, noting that the commission should set a high bar in establishing a precedent for decommissioning a piece, something others agreed with. 

“I think it’s important to come up with some sort of standards and procedures for decommissioning artwork,” Council member Heather Dunn told the commission in February.  

However, Kaspr noted it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be taking down a piece of art, just that there should be a process laid out. 

“There is something about an ebb and flow, and having this kind of system with art in, art out—it isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he said.

Alan said that by just moving the piece, “it gives us a chance to say to the artist we are not decommissioning this, we are not destroying this piece, we have simply voted to move it.”

This piece includes previous reporting from Coastal Connecticut Times.

Comments

6 responses to “‘The Vines’ Sculpture, Facing Eviction, May Move to Maritime Garage”

  1. Susan Wallerstein

    Expect there are some still around who know that additional detail about this sculpture available on Norwalk’s mobile app Otocast and on interpretive marker across the street. Reminder that the decommissioning issue surfaced previously with need to remove City funded mural installations under the I-95 bridge and the SoNo RR trestle. Should be an ordinance or policy developed at the time with law dept. which references the Federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). Recent history and reminders aside, relocation plan sounds good.

  2. Susan Wallerstein

    PS And don’t forget the poem “Gateway to Norwalk” written by Laurel Peterson, then Poet Laureate, also available on mobile app. Relocating public art presents an opportunity to revisit, remember and celebrate.

  3. OWEN CALLAHAN

    That’s a sculpture? I always assumed it was the remnants of a devastating motor vehicle accident. Perhaps we can relocate this ‘sculpture’ to LaJoie’s and repurpose the money gained from its worth in metal to something that actually makes sense.

  4. Kelly Wheeler

    I have NEVER been a fan of the vines personally. I always thought it was random trash or something until a year after it was installed, word got out it was art. Then a year after that, I found out apparently it says words and phrases in different languages. It still shocks me that that piece of art was $100,000 that no one bothered to know or understand and simply just looked at it like ” what is that?”
    Since this is a gateway to Norwalk in a sense coming off 95 and the connector as well as the newly developed apartment buildings that are populating West Ave and the Norwalk River Trail close by as well, I would hope that what ever art is put there it shows the history & transformation of Norwalk through the years and especially since it is close to the Lockwood-Matthews Mansion, what that family meant to the area as well. The revolutionary history to Norwalk & SoNo’s fishing history & also shows the diversity of Norwalk’s cultures today. I’m sure it would be much more pleasing to the eye if it were like a long drawn out mural. Crossing finger the $200,000 goes a long way to something more aesthetically pleasing.

  5. Susan Wallerstein

    FYI Kelly the artist & Redevelopment worked with the Norwalk Housing Authority after school program students and other community groups to generate the words that informed the sculpture. Not saying it’s everyone’s idea of art but there was community engagement – AND – the Arts Commission and the City supported the creation of the mobile app so folks could learn more about art and history around town. Not that many years ago there were free public art walking tours led by students and even a bicycle tour in partnership with Pedego. Oh well…

  6. Art should be a conversation starter, emotionally and thought provocative; But it is always Subjective – where one person finds beauty, another cannot, and others refuse to try. All of this is ok. When it ceases to be provocative, that is when Art becomes simply decoration.

    So I personally like the Vines. I love that there are words gathered through community engagement, that the artist worked into the piece, obscurely, giving the piece an almost hidden meaning. I love that the piece seems organic, as if it is growing on the wall. In its own style, it’s a very original piece of sculpture.

    The Vines remind me of a sound wave – which as an audio engineer always appealed to me. It makes sense that it was created by a prominent sculpting and “sound artist,” and was one of the last major installations done in an illustrious career. His name is Suikang Zhao, and I’ve become a fan.

    If I have one problem with it, it’s that it was allowed to be overgrown with actual shrubbery from above. This is a problem we have addressed within the Arts and Cultural Commission, which is a need for our city’s Public Art to be more maintained. Valuing anything means taking care of it.

    (I also believe if the Wall itself had been power washed more regularly, the entire installation would have been more visually appealing. This has been one of my pet peeves, in general – one of things that bothers me about Heritage Park as well.)

    Something I wish had been done was to install a more substantial plaque explaining all of this to the interested viewer. A plaque with a QR code, for example. I would like to see this done for each piece on display from our extensive Public Art Collection.

    But lest I sound like a glass half empty, let me say that I’m at least thankful to live in a city that invests in Public Art, and celebrating Art, and the Arts, as part of our diverse and colorful culture. When I moved to Norwalk from NYC over a decade ago, this is what attracted me, and what still excites me to this day!

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