Published August 30. 2004 4:00AM Updated December 18. 2009 3:12PM
Westerly — Durable and permanent, Westerly granite for more than a century provided the foundation for grand public buildings and the local economy. Now, in the hands of a sculptor, those same blocks have been reassembled and reimagined to represent a new era in Westerly's history.
Members of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Joint Development Task Force this month installed at the Amtrak station a 7,000-pound, 9-foot-tall abstract sculpture by Westerly artist Kam Ghaffari. Composed of three granite stones piled vertically and encircled by bronzed fish, “Misquamicut” is inspired by the “three fish” town seal and was commissioned as a “gateway” to the Ocean State. It now rises prominently in Rooney Park at the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Canal Street.
But the modernist work, constructed of three different shades of Westerly granite, symbolizes more than Westerly's past. It links generations, as the spirit, innovation and craftmanship that once propelled the granite industry now fosters a revitalized downtown and arts community.
“Sometimes people refer to Westerly at the SoHo of South County, or Rhode Island, and this enhances that image of a thriving place for the arts,” said Kathryn Taylor, director of the Westerly Public Library and a task force member who recently helped prepare the sculpture site. “We have always had a wonderful tradition of art in granite and this continues that into the future.”
Ghaffari's sculpture comes to Westerly through Rhode Island's Public Art Law, under which the Department of Transportation and Arts Council set aside 1 percent of the cost of a new or renovated state facility to acquire public art. In 1999, the task force convened a committee to solicit ideas for a piece of public artwork in conjunction with renovation of the Amtrak Station.
At first the committee believed it would have $5,000 for the project. In 2001, however, through the efforts of state Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, and state Rep. Peter Lewiss, D-Westerly, outgoing task force president, it obtained $50,000: a $25,000 donation from the DOT, a $12,500 donation from the Arts Council and a $12,500 matching grant from the task force.
Ghaffari (which rhymes with “safari,”) has a studio in Hope Valley, R.I., and has been active in local and regional organizations, including the Artists Coop Gallery, Westerly Arts Network and Arts Consortium. He was selected for the train station project in January 2001. Nationally, he has exhibited in public and private collections, producing, for example, furniture for the Blue Note Lounge, which Capitol Records commissioned for the 60th annivesary of Blue Note Records inside a Tower Records in Boston, and metal mobiles in Go Fish restaurant in Mystic Village.
After his proposal was accepted, some local stonecutters objected to an abstract work, believing a traditional obelisk would be more fitting. But Ghaffari's supporters said the town would be best served by a public artwork, not a monument. Randall Rosenbaum, of the Arts Council, said “public art is often challenging and frequently controversial,” but believed Ghaffari's work would create a “more human environment: one of distinction, enjoyment and pride for all citizens.”
Cherenzia Excavation donated granite for the project, providing a pink, red and blue stone to represent the three main types of local granite. When Ghaffari first received the stones in 2002, they weighed 17,000 pounds in their raw state. To sculpt them, he transported them to Johnson Atelier, a masonry, foundry and studio in Mercerville, N.J., with the capability to cut such blocks.
Working from digital images and models, Ghaffari and staff there fashioned the stones and cast the bronze fish. Stainless steel rods hold the stones together.
The sculpture was completed in 2002, but was then placed in storage with Mariano Brothers Inc., a moving and storage company in Danbury that specializes in art works, including those for New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The installation was delayed two years because of the complex procedure required for the town to receive a license from the DOT, which leases the property to Amtrak. Area contractors Cherenzia, John Strafach and Paul Lynch donated labor and materials for the installation.
“Without their effort, it still wouldn't be in the ground,” said task force vice-president and Stonington First Selectman William Brown, who arranged for their involvement.
Ghaffari said he can now see his sculpture with “fresh eyes” after its long hibernation in Danbury. He believes he achieved his goal to create a “simple, elegant” work that would be publicly accessible while serving the town's objectives to use the work as a “gateway to the Ocean State.”
Ghaffari views the sculpture as a “contemporary continuation of the Westerly tradition of collaboration between sculptor and carver.” The stones in some places have been smoothed and polished.
other places they have been left rough, offering different textures, highlighting the grains and natural lines that give the granite character. These contrasts represent the link between the “rough-hewn” early days of the granite industry and the finished products that eventually resulted.
The differing surfaces also help to keep the sculpture in dynamic motion as the shape, light and form can change depending on a person's position or the sunlight. The sculpture will be further illuminated and defined when lighting and a granite disk are installed around it.