[Editor’s Note — Since this article was published in our February 2023 print edition, the Five Elements Arches project has been awarded a $2,500 ArtsWestchester Arts Alive Artist Grant, made possible with funds from the Statewide Community Regrants Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts, with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, and administered by ArtsWestchester.]
If you were to pass the west side of the Route 9 overpass near the intersection of South and Requa Streets in Peekskill, you will see that the arches along the retaining wall are currently concrete filled and colorless. The task to breathe life into those arches is in the hands of Peekskill artists Christine Knowlton and Candace Winter, who are working together to create a large public art installation titled Five Elements Arches Murals.
Knowlton has extensive project development and management experience in a first career as a textile designer and later in video and film. She produced, directed, fundraised for a 2017 self-distributed documentary film, Sense the Wind, about blind sailors who race across open water, that premiered at Jacob Burns Film Center.
She had long dreamed of doing a large art installation and often walked past the unfinished arches and brainstormed ideas. When the 2019 Open Call invited project proposals for funding as part of New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) that awarded Peekskill $10 million for a range of civic improvements, Knowlton saw the potential to make her vision of the Five Elements of Nature murals a reality. She invited local artist Candace Winter to be a creative project partner, to help visually illustrate and execute the concept. Their goal with the murals is to beautify this important corridor while helping grow Peekskill’s identity as a Hudson Valley River Town committed to public art.
In returning to fine art, Christine has since shown her mixed media and photography work in many regional galleries, including two solo shows in 2022. Candace Winter has a long career as a teaching artist (in part through ArtsWestchester) in Westchester and Putnam County schools. She also holds workshops for all ages with at the Garrison Art Center and other venues. She guides students in paper painting, collage, and mixed media techniques. “Candace has created large-scale murals in Westchester, working closely with the community,” said Knowlton. “Alongside teaching, she is a fine artist exhibiting in regional galleries, as well as a successful craftsperson selling in shows and on Etsy. Her dedication to art, craft, murals and community involvement in the art process is critical to our projects success.”
“The Five Elements — Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water — are believed by ancient Chinese to be the essence of everything comprising all of life and the universe; elements that move in a cycle of life and the seasons, seeking balance. Each element has associated characteristics, colors and types of energy,” said Knowlton. The artistic design for the arched murals follows a distinct flow that evokes the elemental cycle.
While Knowlton and Winter are the principal artists creating the mural art, they are collaborating closely with the surrounding community, including students from Hillcrest Elementary School and Peekskill Middle School. “When presenting the Five Elements concepts in workshops to the Peekskill school children, at the Field Library, Peekskill Coffee House, and at art, craft and music events, the theme of the project has always engaged people and been enthusiastically embraced,” said Knowlton. “Over the past year, we held 11 Peekskill workshops, involving around 1,600 individuals. It is important that the community feel part of this public art piece and that their hands helped create it.”
“Rather than paint on the immense arches, the mural art is collage-based, with cut papers layered and glued onto 3’-x-5’ wood boards to then be digitally scanned, scaled, printed and coated on vinyl, and installed into the retaining-wall arches, as is the Life series on Water Street,” said Knowlton. “Our art process is based on unique, hand-painted papers and hand-cut shapes that express each of the five elements.”
“ ‘Be a pART’ painted stickers were given to every contributor who cut their chosen color paper into an element shape – Wood as green leaves; Fire, a range of wavy reds and oranges; Earth, as gold strands and flowers; Metal, as diamonds and triangles; and Water, as blue fish, all in varied sizes and tones. The background areas are made up of printed words that name and describe each element. Each art board is a visual expression of that element and moves from one arch to the next in an organic, abstract design.”
The two artists have been working on the project since the 2019 proposal. It is part of a co-operative effort called Enlighten Peekskill with Public Art, in conjunction with projects by Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art (HVMOCA) and Peekskill Arts Alliance (PAA). After being stalled by Covid for almost two years, Knowlton and Winter were able to resume work on the mural in 2021, when community workshops began.
A November project presentation to the City of Peekskill Common Council was met with enthusiasm and support. Final approval steps include New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) Permit applications, which are expected to be submitted by early February. “With the wonderful assistance of City of Peekskill DRI Planner Peter Erwin as the direct conduit to the NYSDOT regional permit engineer, the permit approval should be relatively fast and the installation goal met,” said Knowlton.
Fundraising is essential for every DRI granted project because New York State does not pay 100% of any approved project, and costs have gone up since 2019 budgets were proposed. The initial project budget was $33,000 but only $24,000 was allotted by the state. “Over the years, the cost for lighting has doubled. We need to raise $25,000 (or less if electrical installation is supplied in-kind by a developer) to complete the mural project as envisioned,” said Knowlton.
The Peekskill Rotary Club recently contributed $1,000. Dain’s Lumber donated materials for the art panels. Donations can be made through a GoFundMe online campaign — titled Bring the Five Elements Arches Murals to Light: A Peekskill Public Arts Project – while an Enlighten Peekskill fundraising event is scheduled for late April or early May.
“When the lighting is installed, marking the final completion of our project, a public ceremony will take place at Peekskill Brewery,” said Knowlton. “However, once the five art panels are installed on March 28, to mark the Spring Solstice and the beginning of a new elemental cycle, we will do added promotion to further boost critical fundraising efforts for the lighting. The vision of the Five Elements Arches murals will become a beautiful reality!”
Michael Colotti is a writer who lives in Rye Brook.