) In its not too distant past, Roosevelt Island - the location for New York City's insane asylum, a prison, a smallpox hospital and almshouses - was known as the place for the unfortunate and impaired.
In its not too distant future, a group of dedicated culture activists - in partnership with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) – intend for this place to be an Island of Art.
Helping curate, market and or publicize existing mixed-media art, music and poetry programs, public paintings, sculptures, galleries, and the FDR Four Freedoms Park, the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association (RIVAA), with RIOC’s financial and logistical help, is creating a
two-mile-long “art trail” from the north to the south of the 157-acre Island for both residents and visitors to enjoy.
The newest stop along that trail – the Good Shepherd Plaza Sculpture Plinth – will be unveiled Wednesday, June 6 at 11:30 a.m. at 543 Main Street near the center of Roosevelt Island’s main town plaza.
Based on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, the Island’s Plinth is part of a streetscape project that began in 2010 to renovate the plaza and its surrounding areas. Several community engagement sessions were led by RIOC to gather input from active community stakeholders. Those discussions help refine the project’s vision and included plans for a steel pedestal, or plinth, that would showcase sculptures from local artists on a revolving biennial schedule.
The plinth is a six-foot-tall carbon-steel column that can secure large sculptures up to one ton. It was built by Sultz Fabrication, a New York City boutique fabrication firm and foundry, at a cost of $24,700.
The first piece to be displayed is a welded steel sculpture called “Saecula Saeculorum" (Latin for "Without End") by Long Island City artist Michael Poast. Several of his other public art sculptures that are displayed across New York, New Jersey, Texas and Ohio.
“We want to bring many outdoor sculptures to Roosevelt Island,” said Susan Rosenthal, CEO and President of RIOC which maintains the Island’s public art spaces, Public Safety Department, parks, facilities, roads and transportation, including the iconic red Tram, for its residents and hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.
In fact, there are now six outdoor public art sculptures, three art galleries, a major Fall for Arts Festival and a permanent exhibition of WPA art murals at Cornell Tech, the Island’s new graduate technology school campus. “With these art locations added to our existing restored historical landmarks – which include the Blackwell House, the Smallpox Hospital, the Octagon dome, Good Shepherd Chapel, the Lighthouse and the Strecker Laboratory – we are livening the community, attracting visitors and possibly catching the attention of the larger arts community,” Rosenthal said.
“It is momentum,” said RIVAA president Tad Sudol, who played an integral role in the plinth project’s inception to its completion. “We have that now. This is the moment when we can make the existing pieces (on Roosevelt Island) triple,” he said.
Other stops on the Island of Art include:
FDR Four Freedoms Park - Located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, the park was designed by famed architect Louis
Kahn in 1973 as a memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was completed in 2012 and is a stunning park of white marble, light-bending columns, landscape architecture and visual illusions.
The Blue Dragon sculpture Cornell Tech WPA Murals - The 10-foot-long, 4,400-pound climbable dragon, installed in 2016, is an abstract depiction of a mystic sea creature who’s taken the shape of dark smooth waves. It was cut from a Swedish quarry and created by artists Ulla and Gustav Kraitz.
Cornell Tech WPA Murals
From 1939 to 2014, the art deco Goldwater Hospital was located on the current Cornell Tech campus site. As with many public buildings constructed during the Great Depression, artists commissioned by the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Art Project, created large murals.
Several abstract artists of that time - Ilya Bolotowsky, Albert Swinden, Joseph Rugolo and Riccardo Dane Chanase - painted murals, some of the first ever during the program, on canvas that were later installed in four of the hospital’s circular-shaped rooms. When the hospital was slated for demolition, Cornell decided to preserve the murals. They are now on display on the campus in the Bloomberg Center and the Tata Innovation Center.
Gallery RIVAA – Located on RI’s Main Street, the 17-year-old gallery hosts up to 10 events per year by members, visiting artists and organizations including recent shows from China, Romania and New Zealand.
Motorgate Gallery – Mural paintings, made each year by artists painting panels at the Island’s Fall for Arts Festival, are hung in the atrium and various floors of the Motorgate parking garage.
Tall Grasses – Located near the car exit side of the Motorgate garage and installed in 1988, this wire rope sculpture of tall flowing grass that seemingly sways and dances in the breeze, was created by the famed African-American sculptor and professor Maren Hassinger.
The Octagon Gallery – Another gallery space curated by RIVAA in the lobby of the Octagon building and hosts of up to 10 shows per year.
The Marriage of Money and Real Estate – Three bronze sculptures, created by Brooklyn artist Tom Otterness, poke up out of the East River near Octagon Field; one is a coin being attacked by a money bag coming out of the mouth of a man in a top hat, one of a house being attacked by a lobster with a dollar sign on its face and the third of a happily married house and coin.
Sabrina – This bronze sculpture is located at Octagon Park in the northern half of the Island.
It is a replica of the original 300-pound bronze statue that is owned by and is the patron goddess of Amherst College, a private liberal arts college located in Amherst, Massachusetts. Since it was donated to the College in 1857 and located by the Octagon building there, the statue has been the subject of numerous pranks and has changed hands between the college administration and various student groups many times. The Roosevelt Island Sabrina was installed by the Octagon building architect Bruce Becker, who is also an Amherst College alum. It has been temporarily moved due to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection nearby road construction.
The Prow boat – Located in Octagon Park, the Prow is art as an observation platform where rusty plates of steel conjoined over a concrete floor protrude 50-feet out toward the East River like a ship’s prow.