Neon Artist Has Bright Idea for Bridge of Flowers

Greenfield Recorder - Virginia Ray

SHELBURNE FALLS - Whether or not the Bridge of Flowers will be the site of a temporary art installation in neon may be left to voters of the Shelburne Falls Fire/Water District to decide in April.

Colrain neon artist Pacifico "Tony" Palumbo has proposed highlighting the five arches of the bridge and the Deerfield River it spans in neon light for 13 months.

He has received support from the Shelburne Falls Woman's Club's Bridge of Flowers Committee, the Art Bank, Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Shelburne Falls Area Business Association and the museum of contemporary art known as MASS MoCA in North Adams.

But the two current water/fire district commissioners, who represent the district which owns the bridge, have voted 2-0 against the plan.

"I guess our biggest fear is the precedent we would be setting if we allowed Tony to put his lights up - which I personally think, and so does Frank, would be beautiful - but if you let one person do something you have to let everyone, and that could be a little scary," said Commissioner Alice Connelley, who voted with colleague Frank Field. A third member, Ken Hoeppner, stepped down from the panel Feb. 3 and the commission is awaiting the district's annual meeting to fill his seat.

Some were surprised by the decision, although there is talk about a citizens' petition article, which would be included on the warrant if 10 registered voters sign it.

"I'm surprised the commissioners didn't bring it before the district meeting if they thought it was controversial," said John Thylor, business association member and project supporter. He is also the captain of the Shelburne Falls Fire Department.

The $70,000 project would not cost the taxpayers any money. It would be paid for entirely with grants and private donations from those who have already expressed an interest in the project in the six months, said Palumbo. He had hoped to start a first phase of electrical installation this spring, has been working on it. His hope is to start the display, visible at night, in September and remove it at the end of October 2002.

The effect of outlining the arches on one side in red neon and those on the opposite side in blue neon would be to create a wash of purple color in the water.

"I'm interested in this bridge because of its unique design with particular emphasis on its Romanesque arches, which lends itself so well to the effect I know it will achieve" said Palumbo, whose work has been featured in numerous publications. "What happens is you get a reflection in the water and a purple aura all around, and you don't know where it comes from; it's very mystical and in good taste.

"This is meant to be a special art-based project intended for the pleasure of residents of this community, but it would help the bed and breakfast industry, the restaurant industry, the shopping. Everyone would benefit. And with MASS MoCA being so close, it can't help but bring people here."

Palumbo has worked out the details of the plan with engineer Robert Mellstrom so that no holes will be made in the structure, but rather the neon will be in a tubing system hung over the sides.

Palumbo said he feels he's done what he can in presenting the idea to the various groups, and will do whatever is decided. He said he thinks any decisions about other installations on the bridge should be made on a case-by-case basis.

"I don't see the precedent" he said. "People always seek beauty and gravitate to beautiful ideas. Any idea that would be considered would have to be unique. And, you know, I'm sure some people thought it was a whacko idea to put flowers on the bridge way back when, and look at now how much everyone loves it.

"My project may seem odd again, but people gravitate to beauty. And we as creative people are always seeking new ways to express it."

Business association Director Andrew Baker agreed:

"I would say precedent was set back in 1923 when a public garden was created there, changing its use to something more than a conduit for water pipes," he said, adding that the project will bring another dimension to the bridge by highlighting its architecture at night.

The other group that, without all members present, voted 5-4 against the plan is Bridge of Flowers Preservation Inc., the nonprofit, independent corporation that was formed in 1983 to raise money for a major structural restoration of the span. That group is still in charge of major maintenance projects, such as painting or applying a protective coating to the bridge when needed.

President Trudy Finck said she voted against it because she "couldn't figure out putting it there!'

"It seemed to me it might take away from the bridge instead of add to it," said Finck. "It was just the idea of putting something else on the bridge besides flowers."

Her colleague on the board, Michael McCusker, said the idea took a little getting used to for him, but now he supports it.

"The truth is, at first, I thought it was preposterous" McCusker said. "But then when I knew more and saw the computer-generated photos Tony had, it's really a very delicate application of light, and I think it would be great." He also supports the community having a say.

"It's my belief that the committee - my opinion - that the committee doesn't want to be the group to block this happening if the rest of the community is for it," said McCusker, who will take over as president next year when Finck steps down.

"If the community did have an opportunity for input, and was favorable toward the project, then I believe Bridge of Flowers Preservation Inc. would revisit the question."

You can reach Virginia Ray at gray@recorder.com

Photo caption: This photograph of the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls was digitally altered to represent neon artist Pacifico, "Tony" Palumbo's proposal to temporarily install neon lighting under the bridge's arches.