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In this illustration from the proposal for From the River, to the River, “close-up video footage of the ever-moving Connecticut River” will be projected onto the west wall of the former Sanel Auto Parts building at 47 Flat St.

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Art will explore a town and its river

Three artists selected for federal arts project will explore the history and nature of the community’s relationship with the Connecticut River at multiple sites using a variety of media

BRATTLEBORO—Three artists will look to reconnect the community with the Connecticut River through a multimedia place-making project.

From the River, to the River was selected as one of 13 projects considered by a six-member committee as part of the town’s National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant application process.

The three artists — Andrea Wasserman, Elizabeth Billings, and Evie Lovett — will have access to $56,000 for the project with $50,000 from the NEA and the remainder from additional donations.

The Selection Committee had whittled the list of semifinalists down from approximately 30, and the Selectboard formally approved the project at its Tuesday meeting.

Brattleboro’s forebears built the town with its back to the Connecticut — perhaps, according to many local residents, because they wished to ignore a river that probably moved as much trash and sewage as water.

While environmental regulations, better municipal wastewater systems, and other changes in the community have cleared up the Connecticut River, the downtown has yet to fully reconnect with one of its prominent natural assets.

From the River, to the River will use sculpture, photographs, video projections, public events, and social media to re-establish a relationship between the community and the Connecticut.

The project also aims to energize two downtown locations: the Transportation Center on Flat Street, and the Archery Building, which overlooks the river.

The project includes short and long-term installations. At the Transportation Center, the artists propose installing a “river wall” on the building’s east and south walls. This installation will consist of small multi-colored disks on wire mesh that mimic the patterns and reflections of flowing water.

At the Archery Building, the project calls for a series of five to seven granite benches so people can sit, visit, and focus on the river.

The artists will also create a large photograph of community members’ silhouettes overlaid on a image of the river’s surface. This piece will be installed on the north side of the building.

Finally, the artists call for community activities like a symposium and volunteer efforts to clear the river’s bank of brush to open the view near the Archery Building.

‘A seed being planted’

On Sept. 29, the six-member Selection Committee formally recommended River to the board.

“The committee’s decision was largely based on how broadly the people of Brattleboro will be engaged in this lively new art project,” said committee spokesperson Gordon Hayward.

“The committee saw this proposal as being the expression of three highly experienced artists who have worked throughout Vermont on similar community-building projects; they complete projects well,” he continued.

He described River as “a seed being planted,” one that has the potential to change how the community and its visitors regard and interact with the Connecticut.

“It is a project that may well become the first step toward defining a whole new area of town and the community’s engagement with that area,” he said.

The proposals needed to conform to the town’s public art policy. They also needed to meet the grant’s goals to inspire the community to engage with the arts in its daily life.

In addition, the proposals were evaluated on their response to Brattleboro’s natural landscape, built environment, cultural and community assets, opportunities for public expression, and capacity to provide community members with a sense of ownership.

Work to begin in January

According to the artists’ proposal, project research and design will start in January. Community events and installations will take place over the summer. The formal opening is slated for the September Gallery Walk. The community water symposium is scheduled for summer 2017.

Lovett, Billings, and Wasserman live in Putney, Tunbridge, and Vershire, respectively.

Lovett’s most recent solo work includes the photography exhibit “Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co.,” which has been shown around Vermont as well as in shows across the country.

Billings and Wasserman have collaborated on a number of public art projects, including at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Texas Tech University in El Paso, Texas, and Horace Mann Elementary School in Washington D.C.

The project received a round of applause from members of the public and Selectboard.

Selectboard chair David Gartenstein said, “I think it’s a great proposal; I’m really glad you’re here.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #326 (Wednesday, October 7, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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