WESTBROOK — It didn’t grow overnight or sprout from a magic seed, but the Warren Memorial Sculpture Garden is a miracle nonetheless. The ambitious public art project happened quickly and with minimal controversy.
The garden, with sculpture by five Maine artists, recently opened in downtown Westbrook in what had been a neglected city park. The sculpture is permanent and spread out in a wheelchair-accessible green space just off Main Street, alongside the “Greetings from Westbrook” mural. Westbrook Arts & Culture, a local arts nonprofit, organized and executed both the mural, which was painted in 2016, and the sculpture garden, which opened in October.
In between, in October 2018, it also commissioned and placed the granite sculpture “Cascade” by Miles Chapin for the plaza at the Bridge Street pedestrian bridge. The sculpture garden evolved from those previous projects.
“It was complicated, but not hard,” said Caren-Marie Michel, a Westbrook artist and treasurer of Westbrook Arts & Culture. “This is a small town. We know how to do get things done, and we have a generous funder.”
The funder is the Warren Memorial Foundation, which invested close to $200,000 in the sculpture garden. It also paid for the mural and Chapin’s granite piece. The organization has given more than $1 million in arts grants across Greater Portland in the past four years, utilizing money from the sale of the Warren Memorial Library building after the library closed in 2009.
The foundation originally granted Westbrook Arts & Culture $30,000 over three years to buy and place one piece of sculpture along the Riverwalk each year, to complement Chapin’s “Cascade.”
“But then we thought, why not put them all together for the most impact?” Michel said. “So we went back to the foundation and asked if we could have the money altogether at once, and they said yes.”
By the time the garden opened in October, the budget had grown to about $200,000, all paid for by the foundation. After the city signed off on revitalizing the downtown park, Michel and Andy Curran, president of Westbrook Arts & Culture, went shopping for sculpture. They picked many pieces to share with members of a subcommittee, which ultimately decided what to buy. Landscape architect Peter Burke designed the garden.
The garden includes “Pinecones” by Patrick Plourde, a trio of pinecones made with rusted old shovels and situated near Main Street; “Stellae 2/North Woods Water,” a printed aluminum piece by Meg Brown Payson; “Totem” and “Crocodile” in granite by Hugh Lassen; “Seeking” in granite by Mark Herrington; and the stone carving “Angel” by Lise Becu.
Jamie Grant, who chaired the subcommittee that curated the sculpture, said the project grew out of a desire to beautify downtown Westbrook, create a public space and spark conversations about art. That’s why Westbrook Arts & Culture commissioned the “Westbrook” mural three years ago.
“The mural was our first large-scale public art project, and it got us thinking about that area,” Grant said. “The space had been empty for a while. It had been city-owned land for a long time and a very under-utilized green space. That’s where we started. It was a prime location by Main Street that wasn’t being used. We thought, ‘What can we do with this green space?’ ”
Burke designed a steel wall at the back of the park, which steeply slopes to a parking lot below and the river beyond. The wall, made with slats of Cor-ten steel, looks like a piece of sculpture and was designed as both a retaining wall and a visual shield, so visitors’ eyes and attention are not distracted by the parking lot. It’s tall enough to block the blacktop from view and leaves intact sight lines to the river. There are three antique tractor seats, newly painted, to provide a place of rest. “It’s something we are really proud of,” Grant said. “We could not be happier with the way it came out.”
Curran said the mission of Westbrook Arts & Culture overlaps with the mission of the Warren Memorial Foundation, so they make good partners. It’s easier to accomplish something when missions align, he said, noting that both organizations promote art and arts education.
He praised his fellow Westbrook residents and councilors for making public art relatively easy. The city councilors accepted the gift of art unanimously in July. Crews broke ground later that month and the park opened in October.
“We like to show up with a wrapped package with a bow on it. We anticipated any issues, talked through the complications and tried our best – and we continue to try our best – to make a very complete gift when we give public art,” Curran said. “Public art can be very difficult. You can’t please everyone. But our negative responses have been practically nil. The community has been very accepting.”