By Kevin Coughlin
America’s bruising presidential election sometimes made it hard to remember: We are a nation of immigrants.
But a pair of powerful reminders rose in Morristown this week.
Visitors to the Early Street Community Garden now are welcomed by stone totems with carved symbols that honor waves of immigrants who settled here over the last century.
“To take a project like this and honor the multicultural history in Morristown, in this political climate, is the best action we could take at this time,” Tom Werder, executive director of Morris Arts, said at Thursday’s dedication.
The $125,000 Gateway Totem Project started with $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mill Creek Residential, developer of the neighboring Modera 44 apartment complex, kicked in $50,000 as the first participant in Mayor Tim Dougherty’s “Percent for Art” program, which asks builders to contribute one percent of their total outlay for public art. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and individual donations paid the rest.
HOPE AND UNITY
The words Hope, Unity, Equality and Freedom top the pillars. Residents, librarians, churches, cultural organizations and Morristown High School students suggested emblems that fill 16 panels.
A bald eagle and the Tree of Life are universal. Grapes represent Italians, the Irish get a shamrock. A menorah honors the nearby Morristown Jewish Center. For Africa, there is a Sankofa bird; for Colombia, a coffee bean. And so forth.
“As an immigrant myself, I’m very honored to be part of this really important project, that I could lend my hammer and chisel to pay homage to immigration,” said Gabriele Hiltl-Cohen, who was chosen from nine artists who applied to create the monuments.
“I wish that this sculpture will bring joy, hope and reflection to all.”
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
The German stone-carver, whose works include gargoyles at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, hammered away all summer at Drew University, where she is an operations manager. She thanked several student assistants for helping her meet a tight deadline.
Some 32 pieces, each weighing about 50 pounds, are attached to steel structures. Each totem rests on a granite base. The plaques are Indiana limestone. Green- and white marble and red sandstone are parts of the mix.
“They will weather nicely,” said Hiltl-Cohen, predicting a patina.
Werder ranked Thursday among the proudest moments of his career, and praised Morris Arts staff member Kadie Dempsey for conceiving the venture two years ago.
“This project is near and dear to me,” Dempsey said, recalling how her grandparents came from Ireland a century ago to perform gardening and maid chores for wealthy Morristown residents.
She said the totems especially would have pleased her late mother, who believed social justice meant “to stand up, and to stand proud, for those who do not have a voice of their own.”
‘ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE’
Dozens turned out for cocktails and speeches at Modera 44, followed by a brief ceremony at the totems on a seasonably chilly November evening.
The sculptures resonated for many in attendance.
“It’s something that’s really needed in this time. This is a reflection of this town, made up of all kinds of nationalities, and all kinds of people,” said Esperanza Porras-Field of the Morris County Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce.
Councilwoman Michelle Dupree Harris grew up in the neighborhood, and summarized the pillars in a word: “Home.”
Council President Stefan Armington, whose Third Ward includes the community garden, marveled at a design he deems both simple and intricate.
For more than a century, the Neighborhood House–known locally as the Nabe –has helped struggling newcomers, from Italian and Irish laborers to African American families and now, increasingly, Hispanic immigrants. The nonprofit’s name is etched into the base of one of the pillars.
So is Grow It Green Morristown. A few years ago three local women started the organization and the community garden, which is expanding to accommodate more gardeners.
The totems are focal points of a new parklet in front of the garden. They turned out “even better than I expected,” said Carolle Huber, Grow It Green co-founder and an old friend of sculptor Hiltl-Cohen.
“We’re not developing a building,” Murphy said. “We want to develop a neighborhood.”
If all goes according to plan, the totems should become magnets for neighborhood activities.
“We’re going to program the hell out of this place,” Dempsey promised.