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The art of City Hall

By Stephen Chupaska

Publication: The Day

Published June 23. 2012 4:00AM   Updated June 23. 2012 5:28PM

This isn't the most shocking of confessions, but during my stint as a reporter covering municipal meetings, there were times when I would become bored and space out with a focus that recalled my high school algebra classes.

Undoubtedly my favorite place in the region to be miles away was the New London City Council chamber on the third floor of City Hall.

It's a splendid room, decked out in sumptuous dark wood furniture and gold accent paint on blue walls.

Two of the walls list the names of all the mayors of the city going back to 1784. Sometimes, during particularly riveting city council meetings, I would mix up the names of the mayors to create fictional mayors, such as Coddington Cavanagh or Noyes Strafaci. I'm sure you have your own methods of amusement, too.

Until last week, I hadn't been to City Hall, the current iteration of which will turn 100 years old next year, in a while, and I would imagine most you haven't either. For all its Beaux Arts beauty, it's a functional place. It's where you pay your taxes, get marriage licenses and redress your grievances, should you have any.

But this year, it's also become the most public of public art galleries.

In February, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio appointed local artist Lorain Ohio Simister to the voluntary post of curator of City Hall.

Simister then set about returning and revamping artwork to the walls lining the stairwells and walls on the second and third floors of the building.

Each exhibition takes Simister between 12 and 20 hours to hang, and she's often done it by herself.

"It's a task," Simister told me over the phone last week.

And while the building features several appropriate commemorations of city leaders as well as a poignant memorial to New London men and women who served in the military and medical corps during World War I, Simister wanted the artwork to be fresh, modern and reflective of the city.

"We didn't want to have grumpy looking guys and pictures of mayors from 75 years ago," Simister said.

Simister wants to use the City Hall walls to give exposure to artists that may have not have exhibited all that often. Plus, practically speaking, the building is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., much longer than most art galleries.

The displays began in February with a continuation of Hygienic Art's Young Artist show with work from city elementary and middle school students.

Other artists, such as Adam Campos and Ted Woodworth had their work hang for a month or so.

On display now are about 30 impressionistic, hallucinogenic abstract paintings from Elisha Shauer, who is also taking part in the downtown mural project.

"I like the flow of art as you walk up the steps," Simister told me. "I think the smack of color stops you from being angry."

Next month will see works based on rubbings of city manhole covers by John Balchunas and nature scenes by Kathy Vega.

Work from city artists also adorn the walls of the city clerk's room as well the renovated offices that are home to the mayor and his administration.

From where Finizio sits at his desk, he looks every day at a painting from his personal collection, one that has a particular resonance for him.

It's a piece by the late New London artist Robert Hauschild of the famous statue of the Bethesda angel in New York's Central Park.

The statue also is a central image in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," his "gay fantasia on national themes," which at the time included most prominently the early years of the AIDS crisis.

Finizio, who, like me, is a great admirer of the play told me, told me the painting of Bethesda serves to remind him of the "causes and issues that are greater and grander than the everyday political battles."

"Angels in America" with its images of migration and leaving is also about the necessity to keep moving forward, to deny the dangers of stasis.

After my brief chat with the mayor, I returned to the council chamber for a visit. This time I found myself looking at the back wall at a rather ordinary painting of ship at sea, in seemingly rough waters but with blue skies above.

Its sails were unfurled; it was moving.

Stephen Chupaska is a writer who lives in downtown New London. Email him at schupaska@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @schupaska.

Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version.

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