By LAUREN FLYNN KELLY — As you’re strolling, biking or jogging around Hyattsville this month and taking in the scents and sights of spring’s renewal, you’re likely to notice some new outdoor sculptures near the city’s border with Riverdale Park. One is Matt Duffy’s shining three-dimensional heart, which was just placed near Chambers Funeral Home on Cleveland Avenue. Another is a prominent accordion-like arch in Beale Circle, just east of the heavily traveled intersection of Route 1 and East-West Highway. The piece, “Era Gate” by George Sabra, was constructed out of 26 reclaimed oil barrels and is intended to provoke conversation about pollution and the burning of fossil fuels. If you stop to look closer, you’ll see it’s covered in numbers that represent pollution-related deaths.
“Era Gate,” was recently moved from its original site at Riverdale Community Park on Haig Road to allow for more visibility. And it is part of a rotating collection of the Riverdale Park Public Art Initiative, which kicked off in October 2017 with the permanent installation of “Great Blue Herons” by late artist Joanna Campbell Blake. The initiative also includes an outdoor gallery featuring five sculptures sited around Riverdale Park. These will all be installed in time for a spring walking tour that is currently in the works, according to Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (HyCDC), a local nonprofit organization.
The Riverdale initiative is just one of many projects and programs currently being managed by the HyCDC, which is also partly responsible for the recent traffic box “wraps” designed by local artists. The nonprofit frequently collaborates with other organizations to ensure that “the goals and plans of the Gateway Arts & Entertainment District are tied to the development that’s happening,” according to Eisenberg. Public art fits into development “because it’s a manifestation and an expression of a community’s values,” he said.
The HyCDC conceived the Riverdale project at the behest of a former Riverdale town council member. The organization builds and maintains the footers on which the art is mounted, provides all program management and oversight, conducts the annual, juried Call for Artists, and oversees the installations and marketing. The latest group of sculptures is the third generation of the initiative, which has featured local artists such as Hyattsville’s Forty Third Place and Paul Steinkoenig, and out-of-state sculptors such as Austin-based Sabra and Florida’s Craig Berube-Gray, whose memorable oversized “Sweet-Hearts” was previously at the site of “Era Gate.”
Not all of the pieces selected for installation are brand-new, explained Eisenberg, and at least three of the five pieces currently on display are made in part from repurposed materials. “It’s an ethos we share appreciation for: the recycling or conversion of discarded items or blighted infrastructure into art,” he said. All pieces are available for purchase at the end of their tenure.
According to Steinkoenig, he has been working on “Lightness of Being,” which is making its debut in Riverdale Community Park, for more than seven years. The sculpture features many recycled materials, including 100-year-old lumber from a renovation project, steel rebar from a junkyard and copper pipes, and represents spirituality and personal growth. “Incorporating these recycled materials gives the sculpture a sense that life goes on and on. We get to make and remake ourselves as we see fit and as our life circumstances require or invite,” said Steinkoenig.
Steinkoenig had already completed his second piece in this year’s rotation, “Sanctuary,” when he answered the most recent Call for Artists, and he’d even installed it on his own lawn! Now located in Riverdale’s Riverside Neighborhood Park, the sculpture features a high steel arch from which two salvaged industrial gas cylinders hang to create a sort of life-sized wind chime. “I wanted the message of the two bells to be about how we each create our own place of safety and our own definition of who we are and what is important to us,” explained Steinkoenig.
The bells are tuned to each other and project what Steinkoenig described as a “soft ring.” He likened it to him and his wife “ringing out our truth in the lives we live together.” On a larger level, “Sanctuary” symbolizes the creation of a “community sanctuary — a safe place for us all to be,” he said.
Speaking of safe places, a smaller scale piece at the 6100 block of Rhode Island Avenue, near the Trolley Trail, was created by artist Leila Holtsman as “an attempt to create a safe space for women in the context of abuse,” Eisenberg explained. I find this appropriate given that only a few years ago, women were afraid to use that path because of repeat assaults occurring there (the trail has had no reports of violence since the attacker was apprehended). Now when I take my morning jog, I can give a knowing nod to the spiraling metal structure known as “Scoured” and feel comforted.
And what you see in Riverdale is far from all that the HyCDC has in store. Eisenberg said to stay tuned for more public art appearing in Hyattsville.
Visit hycdc.org/the-arts/riverdale-park-public-art-initiative for more information about the Riverdale initiative.