The My Windham art exhibition took place from April 25th to June 6th throughout Windham. It used the arts as a way to spark revitalization. The exhibition brought together thirty artists and twenty venues to explore different visions of Windham. Dr. Gail Gelburd, professor of art at ECSU, was the driving force behind My Windham. The exhibition ran in a variety of alternative art spaces from local shops to parks to abandoned gas stations.
Inspired by the outcomes of an in-class project, Dr. Gelburd wanted to change the conversation around Windham. “At the end of class, I have my students organize an exhibition and come up with ideas that are socially engaged. We talked about doing an exhibition about the homeless in Willimantic,” said Dr. Gelburd. Eventually, the class decided to give disposable cameras to homeless residents. “They came up with these fantastic images. When we thought of our town we didn’t necessarily see the Victorian homes and the river parks. We take it for granted. So I started thinking of how different people see our town,” she said.
From this Dr. Gelburd had the idea to revitalize Windham through the arts. “Different research has shown that the arts can help to revitalize a community. Part of doing that is to give it a real sense of identity. In a sense, it’s almost branding the town as an arts center,” she said. This process is referred to in the art world as “placemaking.” Dr. Gelburd and other volunteers decided to use existing spaces, including the outdoors, to promote creative endeavors that projected a positive image of Windham.
Dr. Gelburd pointed out there is already a precedent for this kind of work in Windham. In 2001, there was a different placemaking art event. And there is also Willimantic’s signature piece of public art – The Frog Bridge. The bridge features four frogs sitting atop spools of thread. The thread references the town’s history as a center of thread and textile manufacturing. The frogs are from something…a little more unusual. In 1754 Windham was the site of “The Battle of the Frogs.” One night during the height of the French and Indian War a terrible racket woke Windham residents. They assumed it was an attack by enemy forces and fired wildly into the dark. When morning came, the combatants were revealed to be humble frogs, fighting between themselves for an unknown reason. “That kind of gave our town an identity,” said Dr. Gelburd.
Every artist had a unique take on Windham. “A couple of artists wanted to bring attention to the river. It’s not very accessible; people drive over and don’t notice the river,” said Dr. Gelburd. One river-based project consisted of a wire mesh fish hanging from the Garden on the Bridge footbridge. The fish was hung so it looked like it was swimming right above the river. For her contribution, Dr. Gelburd covered an abandoned gas station in a sixty-foot mural of the river. Another artist found old photos of the town and printed them on Plexiglas, after first taking away what is no longer there. “So you can look through the Plexiglas and see what the streets looked like before and what they look like now,” said Dr. Gelburd.
My Windham was a resounding success. “My favorite thing was just going downtown, where very often you see practically no one on the street and there were just crowds of people walking around looking at [the art],” said Dr. Gelburd. Hundreds attended the opening reception and some of the spaces were so crowded people couldn’t even get in. “A big part of the project is changing the perception of Willimantic. I feel like I’m doing something for the town and for the university,” she said.