A blank canvas presents an artist with either inspiration or intimidation. For Christine Knowlton, the canvas that captured her imagination is 21 feet in height and offered a challenge rather than intimidation. The ‘canvas’ is a concrete retaining wall, designed as five arches on South Street at the corner of Requa ranging from 14 feet to 21 feet.
Every time she drove by them she wondered “Why is this not done, something should be there.” Those musings led her to research, investigate and eventually find a partner, Candace Winter, with whom to collaborate on the Five Elements Mural, a public art initiative.
Peekskill is no stranger to the community having a hand in creating a public mural. The Meeting and the Marketplace painted in 1996 on the side of the Paramount East (facing the parking lot between Park and Brown Streets) is an example. Participants who created the Meeting and Marketplace mural climbed on scaffolding wielding paint brushes.
The Five Elements public art project Knowlton and Winter are creating involves residents painting on paper and creating various textures through stamping or stenciling and then cutting shapes that will end up in a collage. Thousands of pieces of paper, all created by the hands of children and adults over the past six months, will be arranged by Knowlton and Winter to evoke characteristics of the Zen elements of nature: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
Each element is represented by a shape or symbol: wood is spring or a leaf, fire is summer and a flame, earth is an elongated narrow leaf which symbolizes fall, metal is late summer with a triangle shape while water, representing winter, is a stylized fish shape.
“They are the Zen based five elements and there is a universality in these concepts,” said Knowlton. We are surrounded by nature and it’s accessible and relatable to everyone, she explained.
Knowlton, 65, had an idea of what she wanted the panels to look like – but didn’t want to undertake the project alone. In 2019, at a Peekskill Arts Alliance (PAA) panel, Knowlton met teaching artist Candace Winter, 51, who has extensive experience in creating murals in Westchester schools. Winter also was versed in collage work, a foundational aspect of Knowlton’s idea for the five arches.
An open call for artists later that year, prompted them to write a proposal that was awarded funding as part of the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, under the umbrella known as Enlighten Peekskill Public Art. There are three components to Enlighten Peekskill: The Five Elements mural Knowlton and Winter are spearheading; the Making Connections mural and banner project coordinated by PAA; and the Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art Lighted Sculpture Trail called Illuminate Peekskill.
The Five Arches Mural project is truly a collaborative effort involving many aspects of the Peekskill community including every child at Peekskill Middle School, and all the art students at Peekskill High School. Members of the Peekskill Seniors Club contributed, as well as people who stopped by the Five Arches table at the Farmer’s Market and the Downtown Music Festival on July 23.
In the classrooms at Peekskill Middle and High Schools, Winter explained to students that this project wasn’t about making a picture, it was about creating textures that had an evocative feel of the elements of nature. “Collaboration was a very important aspect. It wasn’t ‘I made this’ – but rather working independently and then collaboratively,” said Knowlton.
Anyone interested in having a hand in the project can email Knowlton at [email protected].
Once all the painted, textured papers have been cut into the symbols of leaves, triangle, fish and flame, the two artists will print words relating to the concepts of the elements and then paint a pale tonal wash over the printed words to be collaged creating a rhythmic visual vocabulary. “The papers created by the community become our palette,” said Knowlton.
The two artists will then arrange and glue the symbols and words onto three feet by five feet wooden panels donated by Dain’s Lumber. They are aiming to create a composition that flows throughout the five arches. Once the design is set on the wooden panels the images will be scanned and digitally increased to two and a half times their size so they can be printed on vinyl by a graphic house in Elmsford. After they’re printed on the vinyl, the panels will be shaped, sewn and grommeted – similar to the LIFE series on the panels behind the municipal commuter lot next to the Peekskill Brewery.
Once the panels are installed, the most expensive – and at this point, the most difficult – part of the project needs to be completed: the lighting. Exterior, downlight LEDs will be installed, courtesy of Kugler Ning, an architectural lighting design firm. One of the firm’s principles, Jerry Kugler of Croton, is offering his services, pro bono, for the project.
The undertaking of such a massive project involves keeping track of many moving parts, from coordinating community involvement, to administrative costs in securing bids for hardware, since the project is partially funded by state dollars. A requirement of any state project mandates three bids for every aspect of what’s purchased. Administrative costs are considered ‘soft’ costs, so no awarded money is allowed to be spent on that aspect of the project – which means Knowlton and Winter will be fundraising to fill the gap in expenses.
Knowlton is well versed in juggling multiple aspects of a project, having been an independent documentary filmmaker. In this Five Elements mural project she’s combining her experience as a textile designer and a fine artist, as well as her planning skills as a filmmaker in pulling disparate threads together to create a tapestry – in this case a 21 foot high mural.
The art component of the $10 million DRI grant is $500,000, which will be covering hard costs only for the three components of Enlighten Peekskill. Winter and Knowlton will need to raise some $9,000 for the remaining costs their project. They expect to have a GoFundMe campaign open in the fall.