By Don Wilkinson
July 30. 2015 2:00AM
It grew out of a conversation between Jeffrey Stieb, former port director and executive director of the Harbor Development Commission, and Emily Johns, a retired schoolteacher, volunteer landscaper and head of the Friends of the New Bedford Waterfront Gardens. Sculpture throughout the Seaport Cultural District, an art walk … and then they tapped Jessica Bregoli, herself a volunteer gardener and a recent graduate of the sculpture department at UMD.
And then Bregoli had a title: administrative coordinator and curator, and a mission: Make it happen. The Seaport Art Walk Committee was formed and includes the City of New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell, the Harbor Development Commission, Seastreak, the Port of New Bedford, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Working Waterfront Festival, the Department of Marketing and Tourism, New Bedford Beautiful. Funding for the project came from Baycoast Bank, Mitchell, the HDC, Fiber Optics, the College of Visual and Performing Arts at UMD, and the New Bedford Police Department Union, among others.
It should be noted that one of the ugly little secrets of the “creative economy” is that there is much creative output and little economic benefit, at least for the artists. Painters, sculptors, and graphic designers are very often asked to donate works of art, time, labor and materials to various organizations, most often without compensation and the overrated promise of “exposure.”
This project is different. The cost of materials was covered by the organizers and the selected participating artists were paid a stipend for their efforts. To use an overwrought cliché, it’s a win-win. The artists are rewarded for their time and talents and the community is enhanced by some striking work.
There is a connective tissue that ties all the sculptures together, albeit not always an obvious one. “New Bedford Works,” heavy on wordplay, refers to the city’s collective labor force, to the idea that New Bedford “works” as a city itself, and self-referentially, to the sculptures themselves.
Eric Lintala’s “Shadow Moments of a Time Gone Past” is a tall, stark white obelisk, topped by the black iron silhouette of a harpoon-wielding, peglegged Captain Ahab, gesturing south to the sea. The Pequod is mounted below, and the viewer is left to decide if the work references the bloody labor of long gone whalers or the literary genius of Melville.
“Oarlock” by Mark Phelan is a massive object, weathered and cracked and distressed. A wooden ring, Frankensteined together with rusting sheet metal, is mounted to a paint-faded post, and it sits in a bed of flowers.
Three crudely-fashioned life-size human figures, made of plaster or something like it, arise from another garden, tugging at a rope tied to a nearby tree as they emerge from the dirt. “Progress” — a collaborative work by Michelle Borges and Jessica DeMedeiros — nods to the difficulty of the reality of upward mobility.
Marcus Cusick’s “Hook and Barrel” is a hole-riddled rusty brown drum, without a top or bottom. It hangs high from a lamppost and rocks in the seaborne wind. What it once contained is not known but certainly a substance that kept men working … grain, oil, rum …
Bregoli’s “Emily’s Flowers” is a giant gathering of tulips, hypernaturally green and yellow, and it is her tribute to Emily Johns, who has worked relentlessly for decades to keep the waterfront gardens flourishing.
“Journey Home” by Joe Reis is playful, simple and straightforward. Dozens of silvery fish, cut from aluminum and mounted between small springs, swim in unison when the breeze whispers. An acknowledgement of the staying power of the fishing industry, it is appropriate that the sculpture is mounted only yards away from an AFL-CIO brass plaque, “Commonwealth of Toil,” that extols the contributions of longshoremen and dockworkers.
The Seaport Art Walk also features work by Jacqui Luca, Donna Dodson, Alanna Schull and John Magnan, and will be on display through October at the Seaport Cultural District. It is a shining example of what can work when public, civic, private and creative forces work together.
Don Wilkinson is a painter and art critic who lives in New Bedford. Contact him at Don.Wilkinson@gmail.com