ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – In a 5-2 vote Monday evening, the Elmira City Council approved a new sculpture for Mark Twain Riverfront Park, after an initial vote two weeks ago failed to pass. The sculpture would be located on the corner of North Main and Water Street. Artist Derek Chalfant, a professor at Elmira College, says his design is inspired by Mark Twain’s Quarry Farm, where the author summered for more than 20 years with his wife Olivia Langdon Clemens and her family, and wrote some of his most famous works. The stainless-steel sculpture will also feature trees up to 15 feet tall with books on the branches.
“I wanted to have something to look up to celebrate literacy,” Chalfant said. “A lot of themes that I deal with have to do with food, clothing and shelter.” Mr. Chalfant also designed carvings just feet away from the proposed site of the sculpture. He also designed the carvings at the roundabout on North Main Street. “A lot of people come to this area to see Mark Twain’s study on the campus of Elmira College,” said Chalfant. “But not many people drive up to Quarry Farm, even though it is relatively close. So, the idea, in part, behind this is to bring a part, a hint, a glimpse of Quarry Farm to our metropolitan area.”
The design was approved by the Elmira Public Art Commission, which is made up of artists, after two previous proposals, first for a splash pad and then an artistic fountain, did not work out. The Public Arts Commission told council members a community survey was not conducted before approving the design. The City set aside up to $25,000 dollars for the project. The money is coming from funds awarded by the New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
Mayor Dan Mandell voted in favor, along with council members Joseph H. Duffy, Mark Franchi, Tory Kitching, and Nanette Moss. Council members Corey Cooke and Nick Grasso voted no. Council members Franchi and Moss changed their votes to yes, after voting against the design at the previous City Council meeting on Sept. 11. The initial vote failed to pass 3-2 because at least 4 “aye” votes were needed. Mayor Mandell said he was absent at the Sept. 11 meeting because he was ill. Mr. Grasso said he was absent due to a work obligation out of town. In a phone call, Mr. Grasso told 18 News why he voted “nay” at Monday night’s second vote, which was put up again by Mayor Mandell.
“The constituents in my district didn’t like the design. People who operate businesses in my district didn’t like the design,” said Mr. Grasso. “They would like to see a much better use for that land, such as more parking. Art should be connective and representative for all Elmirans. Residents should not need an explanation from the artist for it to be relatable.”
18 News also reached out to council member Corey Cooke. We have not heard back as of this publication, but Mr. Cooke made his feelings known at a workshop meeting last Thursday. Mr. Cooke initially voted yes on Sept. 11, but changed his vote to “nay” on Sept. 25.
“The constituents in my area are not impressed with the renderings, I’m just being totally honest with you. I voted in favor of it. But I also agree,” councilman Cooke told artist Derek Chalfant at Thursday’s meeting. Mr. Chalfant was presenting his vision to the council members after the initial vote failed. “To the average eye, they need to see something tangible enough that will persuade them. Master fabricator, fabricate something they can tangibly see other than the drawing that we see on the page, that would be my suggestion. A model, a fabricated model.”
“What you’re recommending I think is just going to prolong this,” said Elmira City Manager Michael Collins. “We have DRI (downtown revitalization initiative) money that we have to spend by a certain period of time. If we don’t spend it, that money has to go back to the state. I think one thing that we have to keep in mind is that we do have an arts commission. It was presented. That’s why we have a commission to approve this. Art is very subjective, whether we like it or not. If the arts commission is recommending this to us, very similar to planning committee, zoning, we have people with a background in stuff such as art. We approved something in the late spring and that fell through, and now we have this. It’s priority that we appreciate what the art commission approves or disapproves. I think we can vote however we want on Monday night, but I don’t think we should prolong this any further.”
Before changing her vote to “aye”, 6th district council member Nanette Moss questioned the artist at Thursday’s workshop meeting.
“Will people recognize it as Quarry Farm?” Moss asked Chalfant.
“Sure, but at the same time they could recognize it as a place where people dwell into because so many people we know, one of the highest price things that we put money into is a home,” said Chalfant. “It’s one of those things we strive to attain. That’s why I put the books at a higher place because that knowledge allows us to afford a house like that.”
“Do they (the Elmira Public Art Commission) also look at, if this is something the public will appreciate?” asked Moss.
“Community context is something we look at, said Lynne Rusinko, Chair of the Elmira Public Art Commission. “But do we conduct a survey of the community? No. That’s not within our guidelines and bylaws as a commission. So, we ourselves consider the community impact.”
In a phone call, councilwoman Moss told 18 News she changed her “nay” to “aye” after witnessing Mr. Chalfant’s presentation on Thursday. “I was able to get more detail and information about the project, and what it would look like. I agree with Mark (Franchi) that adding Mark Twain book titles could be helpful for people. I also suggested the possibility of adding a plaque.”
Before changing his vote to “aye” council member Mark Franchi told 18 News he initially voted no because the sculpture “just doesn’t look like Quarry Farm, it just doesn’t look like Elmira.” 18 News reached out to Mr. Franchi to ask why he changed his vote. “I spoke with the artist for 45 minutes to an hour. I told him I used to hunt near Quarry Farm and I just didn’t think the sculpture looked like Quarry Farm. However, the artist told me he is open to different things. One thing I suggested was adding titles or quotes from Mark Twain’s books.”
In a phone call, artist Derek Chalfant told 18 News “I feel honored and excited to get going on this project. Ultimately, this is a community project. It’s for us, it’s for the community. It’s a reflection of the past and where we are at the present. I also believe it reflects the future. I see this as a possible gathering place for readings to promote literacy. I am very interested in seeing how the public will receive it. I am ready to get started. I would like to thank the EPAC (Elmira Public Art Commission) and members of the city council who voted in support of this community public art project.””
Now that the project is approved, Mr. Chalfant says the goal is to complete the sculpture before December 31st.
You can watch the full sculpture presentation by artist Derek Chalfant below: