In between Church and Orange Street on lower Chapel, something new interrupts the familiar New Haven scenery of parking meters and people waiting for the city bus.
The Lot, an outdoor art space with its first installation sculpture, “Tree Dome,” by Christopher Fernell, offers art in a non-traditional location.
Backsides of buildings frame three sides of the sculpture in an open gravel plaza and the bus stop on lower Chapel encloses the space. The Lot — completed last summer by Artspace, Greater New Haven Transit District, the Town Green Special Services District and the city of New Haven — is a vacant space that was redeveloped as a place for bus riders, pedestrians and residents to gather together and improve the neighborhood through art. Christopher Fernell’s “Tree Dome” is the first of four installation sculptures selected by a Review Committee for display in 2005-2007.
The simple, almost utilitarian, gazebo shape of “Tree Dome,” by Christopher Fernell, is embellished by personal moments of detail created by the once broken and discarded pieces of wood now reassembled to make a sculpture in an unlikely location. “Tree Dome,” has four square columns supporting a lattice dome of recycled wood found throughout New Haven. The dome is about 10 feet off the ground creating a large open space beneath the canopy and between the four columns. The wood is light in color bleached by prolonged time in the sun or stained years ago.
“Tree Dome,” set back from Chapel Street in the Lot, seems peaceful in comparison to the commotion of New Haveners waiting for the bus. Most of the people face the street with their backs turned to the sculpture, but a gravel path through the Lot invites pedestrians to take a closer look at “Tree Dome.” When asked about the sculpture, most passers-by seemed to be considering it for the first time. But one elderly woman said that she was excited by the prospect of art being displaying in the once abandoned lot. Jasmine Armfield, 14, and Ivory Alexander, 15, were full of comments on how they would improve the wooden gazebo.
“A whole bunch of wood isn’t really art,” Armfield said.
At first glance, while waiting for the bus or passing in a car, one might jump to a similar conclusion, but on closer examination beauty is found in the details of the piece. The columns are striped by the cross-sections of doors with different eroding finishes. Doorknobs, latches and hinges are dispersed throughout the structure. These moments allude to the past uses of the materials that now make up the “Tree Dome,” and how, like the display space, they were abandoned and rediscover as something else.
The gazebo-like nature of the structure entices the viewer to step inside the piece, but looking up at the dome from within Fernell’s sculpture, the interior wood appears more utilitarian and lacks the personal detail of the outside wood. The lack of interesting material is mitigated by the view from within the sculpture, which features a manhole-sized opening at the dome’s top. Through this hole and the latticework of the dome, the viewer can see the blue winter sky — a unique sight for most city-dwellers.
The walls of brick, exposed cinderblock and eroding plaster that surround the Lot create a backdrop for sculptures that is not unlike contemporary art gallery walls of cement and plaster. But these walls, like the wood of Christopher Fernell’s “Tree Dome,” have an inherent history that adds intimacy to the space and the sculpture. As people walk through the lot or meet under the gazebo they add to this history with their own stories.
For viewers like Armfield, who do not find “Tree Dome” visually pleasing, the Lot will display new sculptures throughout the year. At the end of February a sculpture by DeWitt Godfrey ’82 will be installed. The Lot is also available for performance pieces. The current sculpture lends itself to a performance space with its pavilion structure.
Waiting for the bus on lower Chapel has added amusement if you take the time to turn away from the street and walk around the Lot and through Fernell’s “Tree Dome.” In doing so you too are contributing to the installation and performance piece that is ever continuing to evolve.
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