WINSTED, Conn. (AP) — For two decades, Sharon artist Ellen Griesedeck has had a dream to create a mural honoring working men and women, five stories high and 120 feet wide, inside an abandoned mill. She knew from the start it was a crazy passion.
The dream is well on its way. A mill in Winsted was bought 13 years ago and is being renovated. The mural panels are painted but must be installed; no easy feat considering the panels’ size and the mural’s height. A second building is awaiting its own renovation into a visitor’s center.
Griesedeck, 71, is a survivor of cancer. She knows that no one is guaranteed a long life. So her urgency to complete the American Mural Project is understandable.
“I know things can happen and everything could be brought to a halt. That’s the reason I keep pushing everybody. You’re not going to keep on going forever even if you’re the luckiest person in the world,” Griesedeck says. “The things you most intend to have happen, you don’t want them not to happen.”
It may take many more years, but Griesedeck is determined. Griesedeck has plenty of energy: She runs regularly and jumps nimbly around the building’s construction areas. She is a tornado of enthusiasm and cherishes her maquette of how the mural will look when it is completed.
“I made the study in 1999 and 2000 and when I was done I said, this is so good, I have to do this,” Griesedeck says. “A lot of people said, ‘Good luck with that’.”
She has had good luck to push forward her hard work. Her supporters are both famous – her friends Frank Stella and the late Paul Newman – and non-famous. Grants from corporations, foundations and the state have powered the project, whose total price tag could reach $13 million. More than $6 million has already been spent.
“People are coming in to witness the process of a once-in-a-lifetime thing going on, ” says Amy Wynn, the executive director of the project.
Griesedeck, the daughter of a Falstaff Beer mogul who grew up in St. Louis, has worked as a photographer for Sports Illustrated and the NFL. She also was a graphic designer. She designed the original label for Newman’s Own salad dressing. She knew Newman through her husband, architect Sam Posey, who raced cars with the film legend.
On the side, Griesedeck was always painting. In the early ’90s, Stella, her friend, invited her to visit a foundry where he made his metal pieces. Griesedeck became fascinated by Stella’s three studio assistants.
“I said, I’ve got to make a painting of these guys,” she says. “Frank says, this is what you should be doing.” So she did.
In 1999, during a visit to a Boeing plant, she saw the massive operation first-hand. She envisioned an enormous artwork honoring working men, like the aviation employees, like Stella’s assistants.
After that, she created her maquette: a collection of images of working men and women, each panel representing a different profession. She envisioned the completed work to be in a variety of media: acrylic-on-aluminum, ceramic, marble, Fiberglas, blown glass, wood, plaster, spackle, fabric, etc.
She originally wanted an outdoor mural. Stella advised against it. “He says don’t put it outside. You have to enclose it so it overpowers you,” she says. So she set her sight on putting it in a mill.
Then Griesedeck began choosing professions to depict. NYPD Officer Edwin Raymond caught Griesedeck’s eye when he was on the cover of New York Times Magazine. She got to know him and made him one of the centerpieces of her mural. The painting of Raymond, 16 feet tall, leans against the catwalk in the mill. A few tweaks and it will be ready to install.
“Edwin is a true role model for any kid interested in public service, the way we remember it used to be, helping people,” Griesedeck says.
Already installed are Manley, Pete and Jeff, three men on a fishing boat. Griesedeck spent the day with them on their boat, soaking in the atmosphere and taking photographs.
Stitch and Steve, two auto mechanics, are installed next to Manley’s fishing boat. Over their heads is a cardio thoracic surgeon. On the top level is Melissa, a firefighter and a panel depicting a group of schoolchildren, the focus of Griesedeck’s ambitions.
Out of 50 panels Griesedeck has created, six have been installed. Other professions to come are farmers, iron workers, linemen, food service workers, athletes, photographers, airplane fabricators, composers, directors, writers, teachers and other jobs.
“If you visit the American Mural Project, you should find yourself in there somewhere, either literally or symbolically,” Griesedeck says.
The installation and positioning of the pieces is a logistical challenge. Wynn called it “like a giant vertical puzzle in 3D that you have to carefully place so it won’t fall down on you.”
Griesedeck must bring the pieces from her studio in Sharon, which is much smaller than the mill, and do finishing touches onsite. Then forklifts are brought in to put the panels in place.
The positioning also is an artistic challenge. Griesedeck says her inspiration for the presentation was Jackson Pollock’s 1952 painting “Blue Poles,” on which eight poles in various diagonal degrees shoot through Pollock’s signature drips, creating a row of vertical units.
“If you establish rhythms, the eye will move across the artwork in verticals and diagonals,” she says.
There will be open space between many panels. On the wall behind the mural, artwork by children from all over the country will be hung.
From the late 19th century until just after World War II, Whiting Mills, on Whiting Street, made men’s socks. The building in which Griesedeck is constructing the mural was a storage facility for the hosiery.
Converting a mill, not constructing a new building, was as important to Griesedeck as the mural itself.
“Old mills are America’s cathedrals. We aren’t an old country. We don’t have a Cathedral of Rouen. They are precious. When we lose one it’s a tragedy,” she says. “Mills are about American craftsmen, doing work that we never see. The building is a tribute to working Americans and so is the mural.”
Before the American Mural Project bought the buildings and their surroundings in 2006 for $700,000, it was decrepit inside.
“The basement was black and dark and had water in it,” Griesedeck says. “We would use our cellphones down there to pick our way around old muddy pipes on the floor.”
Still, Griesedeck saw promise. That grimy basement now has a smooth concrete floor. On what was once the first floor is a catwalk circling the interior of the building. Once a railing is installed, the catwalk will be used to view the mural from a central vantage point. As construction progresses, the catwalk will be extended.
Griesedeck added an extension to double the height of the building, to fit the artwork. A steel framework for the installed pieces has been built and awaits the artworks’ arrival.
Griesedeck left exposed a lot of ductwork and electrical apparatuses, again to shine a light on what Americans do at their jobs. This includes the men and women who are renovating the building.
After a second building is renovated as a visitor’s center, Griesedeck plans to attach the buildings with two glass arcades, one on ground level, the other a bridge.
“When you walk in through the arcade and are confronted with the mural, the first reaction will be, ‘Oh my god,” she says.
Wynn says fundraising for Phase I of the project totaled $6,284,445.41, which was spent on the property purchase, renovation, mural installation and operations. Phase II, which will involve the renovation of the second building and its connector to the first building, will be around $6 to $7 million, Griesedeck guessed. Phase III will involve outdoor additions such as fountains and an amphitheater. Griesedeck says it is too early to estimate the cost of that.
Among funders are the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Newman’s Own Foundation, Connecticut Community Foundation, Eversource, Community Foundation of Northwest Connecticut, Aetna Foundation and scores of individuals and other corporations and foundations.
The DECD has granted $1 million to Griesedeck’s project. Liz Shapiro, the state’s director of Arts, Historic Preservation and Museums whose office is part of DECD, says she admires the project’s goals.
“It takes historical preservation and meshes it with the wonderful artwork, joining and commingling those in an incredibly creative and novel way,” she says.
The Westport-based Newman’s Own Foundation has granted the project around $1.5 million since 2007, according to Kelly Giordano, the managing director. She called Griesedeck “like a dog with a bone, an artist with this vision.
“It’s a beautiful project, her wanting to honor people who built the fabric of this country,” Giordano said. “She knows these people. These are real people with real names and real jobs.”
“It really comes down to kids who gave us $6 because that was all they had. We thought, people are really starting to believe in this,” she says.
He and Stella were her two biggest supporters. “People were saying it couldn’t be done except for Paul and Frank, who, if you think about it, have done equally crazy things and weren’t even fazed,” she says. “If these guys think this is possible, why isn’t it?”
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