Art Jams develop at Riverside Park

The Riverside Park program involves a variety of creative activities for kids.
The Riverside Park program involves a variety of creative activities for kids.

After being a relatively overlooked site for so long, Riverside Park was suddenly pushed into the spotlight last year. The Coast Guard Academy wanted to buy 9.14 acres of the New London site along the Thames River, but city voters rejected the proposal.

So, with that decided, what exactly should the park be?

New London Landmarks is delving into that issue, along with studying how to improve the neighborhoods around the park and Hodges Square in east New London.

Landmarks is administering a $100,000 state grant awarded earlier this year and aimed at revitalizing that area. It's a one-year "Creative Placemaking" grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, the Office of the Arts.

Sandra Kersten Chalk, executive director of New London Landmarks, says, "The Creative Placemaking concepts are that you have to get to know the neighbors who live in an area you want to revitalize. You can't just impose ideas on them. You have to really get to know them and find out what they need in their neighborhood."

In the case of Riverside Park, for instance, what do the neighbors want to see there long-term? How should the park be used? What activities should be there?

One of the programs created to encourage that kind of thinking is the Art Jams. Each Saturday during the summer, artists lead a day of activities in Riverside Park.

The first Art Jam featured Flock Theatre's Derron Wood leading activities, followed the second week by L'Ana Burton, director of Creative Dance Continuum.

This Saturday, Elizabeth Tyler will lead programs on sculpture and working in three-dimensions.

On Aug. 4, with Mark Patnode the featured artist, kids will create murals. They will look around the park and then express what they see by painting on canvas. On another week, the plan was to do scavenger hunts where kids would collect different leaves and plants from around the park and then create a collage with them.

"Each week is a different way of looking and exploring and experiencing the park through different kinds of art," Chalk says.

It's worth noting that New London Landmarks' interest in Riverside Park pre-dated the Coast-Guard-sale controversy. In 2010, Landmarks linked with the Universitiy of Connecticut and Connecticut College and did a Reconnect New London study and charettes. The focus was the east New London community that had been cut off from the city center by bridges and the highway.

"We really have been concerned about this area of town for a while because it's a really interesting historic neighborhood as well as a beautiful park," Chalk says.

Landmarks will use landcape artists, park designers and business surveys over the course of the year as it works to establish the best uses for the park.

This winter, it will organize a series of meetings with neighbors and hold charettes on what should happen in the park - what kind of thing should be there, where would it go, how would it fit in with the whole park?

One thing to consider is: Riverside is not a typical park, as Chalk notes. It's not a playground, and it's not like Ocean Beach. It won't make for a perfect spot for playing fields.

"So what do you do with this really beautiful location on a steep hillside, (with) great granite outcrops, to really make it something that the neighborhood will make full use of?" Chalk says.

Art Jams, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 18, Riverside Park, Adelaide Street and Crystal Avenue, New London; includes sculptor Elizabeth Tyler this Sat.; Mark Patnode's "Moving Murals & Banners" Aug. 4; Roger Tremblay and learning about repeating patterns Aug. 11; and The Big Bang Aug. 18; free; (860) 442-0003, NLRiversideArt.org, newlondonlandmarks.org.

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