Sculptor envisions twin statues at mouth of Thames River
New London — The Connecticut sculptor who created the widely praised statue of the goddess Athena standing watch in downtown New London is contemplating a much larger project — one that spans the Thames River.
Killingworth sculptor Renée Rhodes excitedly uses phrases like “iconic landmark,” when describing the concept of the Thames River Twin Gateway Sculptures — 30-foot-tall, bronze statues of female figures that would adorn the opposite banks of the river in Groton and New London.
The idea is still in its infancy, and Rhodes admits it would be a monumental project with challenges, not the least of which would be the cost. But the idea of a public art project on this scale has already captivated the imagination of many, such as Hygienic Art President A. Vincent Scarano, who said the project brings to mind the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, Denmark, a tourist attraction and one of the most photographed statues in the world.
Rhodes crafted the 11-foot Gaia sculpture at Hygienic Art Park.
Rhodes’ proposed “Guardians of Infinity” — she has already sculpted the design — are female figures, about 15 feet tall, leaning back and holding an infinity loop. The loops, which extend another 15 feet above the statue, could be lit at night and give the impression they are floating, Rhodes suggested.
Rhodes’ early design was of a nude female, but later designs show clothed figures. She said the statues fit the dynamic of the Thames River with its constant flow of boats, ferries and submarines.
“It’s alive, almost overwhelming,” she said of the river.
The statues, Rhodes said, “tell a story beyond words. They’re meant to inspire and create awe. They represent a striving and power and beauty and energy and grace.”
If the project ever came to fruition, the statue in Groton would likely be situated on public land, Rhodes said.
The idea of situating a statue at Eastern Point Beach was presented to the Groton City Council in the fall. The council liked the idea, but it received a chilly reception on some social media posts in Groton. Comments ranged from “totally out of place,” to “waste of our money.”
City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said no decision has been made regarding the statue, including the location. He explained there would be a process to bring the concept to residents and a series of approvals would be needed.
Hedrick said no city funds have been authorized for the statue and the city is still in the “fact finding stages.” He has asked the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition to come up with conceptual plans to bring to a public information session. He said the city has a process, and he trusts the "process will yield the results that give us the right answer.”
In New London, the statue would be situated on what she called Quinnipeag Island off Pequot Avenue, owned by New London attorney Linda Mariani. Maps refer to it as Quinnipeag Rocks.
Mariani is an admirer of Rhodes, owns several of her sculptures and planted the seed for the Gateway project.
“We thought it would be really beautiful to have one of her sculptures on the island,” Mariani said. “(Rhodes) was excited about the idea of doing it. As we discussed it, it just blossomed. Think about all the people who would see this. It would be such a welcoming thing to see coming into the river.”
The idea matured into the concept of a public art project. Mariani even suggested that if plans take shape, she could donate her island into a trust for public ownership.
Funding for the project has not yet started, but Rhodes said she would welcome private, local, state or federal funding. Cost estimates are fluid, she said.
Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, said the coalition would like to act as the “wind in the sails” for the ambitious project and sees an economic benefit for the region.
Bury said the project for twin sculptures on either side of the river aligns with the Thames River Heritage Park, the growing relationship between Groton and New London, the Thames River Innovation Place and the Thames River water taxi.
“This will further connect the cities, provide benefit to the entire region and serve as a gateway to the Thames River and primarily serve the maritime traffic,” Bury said.
The sculptures, which would mark the entrance to the Thames River, would “create an iconic sense of place and destination.”
“It would form the gateway to the cities and the entire region,” she said.
Bury called the project a "symbol of collaboration and partnership between the cities” but one that would add value for the 1 million visitors who travel along the Thames River every year.
New London Mayor Michael Passero said he loves the idea and, being a boater, can envision the concept of statues welcoming visitors coming in from the water.
He said the city has not been asked or pledged any funding for the project. He said he thinks city residents would welcome such a project.
“The city has a reputation for its public art, and I think this is just another example of that, but on a really large scale,” Passero said. “I think it would be something we leave for posterity. Think about what the arts have done for us. The murals, the statue in the municipal parking lot … these are things the people remember the city for.”