Home Arts & Leisure Public art reaches new heights in Stamford

Public art reaches new heights in Stamford

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Stamford residents have long grown accustomed to cranes in the air and men in hard hats putting up office buildings, hotels and condos.

But on June 4, when Frank Compo & Sons set up their crane on the edge of the triangular-shaped grassy oasis known as Latham Park across from the Avon Theatre, office workers and passersby stopped to watch what was to unfold.

A sculpture of Marilyn Monroe by Seward Johnson rose above onlookers on June 4 as she was installed in Latham Park across from the First Congregational Church in downtown Stamford. Photo by Bob Rozycki.

Three large pieces made of painted stainless steel and aluminum sat on the ground on the north side of the park next to Walton Place. A pair of shapely female legs topped with lacy underwear were already set in place via a pair of open-toed, white high-heel shoes.

If you couldn’t tell by the legs, maybe it was the uplifted skirt and the smiling face of Marilyn Monroe off to the side that set the iconic scene from “The Seven Year Itch” when The Girl stood over a subway grate and cooed, “Oh, do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?” To which Tom Ewell’s character Richard Sherman lecherously eyed her long legs and replied, “Sort of cools the ankles, doesn’t it.”

And in regard to feet, Sandy Goldstein, president of the Stamford Business Improvement District, is counting on more foot traffic that she hopes this colossal sculpture — as well as 35 other life-size sculptures dotting the downtown — will bring to retailers and restaurants. The sculptural event, “Timeless, the Works of Seward Johnson,” will run through the end of August and is presented by UC Funds, a Boston-based specialty finance firm.

“We will measure (the attraction of) Marilyn by the foot traffic,” Goldstein said. “We installed foot traffic sensors around the park.” The counters will  indicate success or at least benchmark how many people will visit as a result of the attractions.

Goldstein said it’s the mission of the BID to create the environment that brings business, restaurants and people downtown.

“Sculpture and outdoor art creates the most extraordinary sense of place. So then you have to have an iconic exhibit. And for the last 26 years we have done that. But nothing is as spectacular as this 26-foot high, 24,000-pound Marilyn Monroe phenomenal work of art by Seward Johnson,” Goldstein said. “His works are in every major museum. We’re the fifth city in the world to have a colossal Marilyn Monroe exhibit. She’s been in Palm Springs, Chicago, Asia and now downtown Stamford.”

As the specialized construction workers from Seward Johnson Atelier were busy rigging and ratcheting the cables and ties to the sculpture, Goldstein’s enthusiasm grew.

“We think it’s great for business, it creates the most extraordinary sense of place here in our city. And we expect thousands upon thousands of tourists to come visit us.”

Sandy Goldstein beside the bust of the Marilyn Monroe sculpture. Photo by Bob Rozycki.

The 88-year-old Johnson started out as a painter but then turned to creating sculpture. According to his website, more than 450 of his life-size cast bronze figures have been featured in private collections and museums in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, “as well as prominent places in the public realm such as Times Square and Rockefeller Center in New York City, Pacific Place of Hong Kong, Les Halles in Paris, and Via Condotti in Rome.” 

Paula Stoeke, curator for the Seward Johnson Atelier, matches the sculptures to the setting and selects the works that will be in the exhibitions.

The California resident gets to travel to wherever the sculptures are installed or exhibited.  

“One of my favorite things is thinking about the people who have seen ‘the  Marilyn’ transported from, say Palm Springs, all the way to the East Coast.”

She explained that sculptures that are of monumental scale such as Marilyn Monroe or Abraham Lincoln ride in an open-air flatbed truck.

“Everyone is seeing Marilyn and her torso and her face as they cruise along the highway at 65, 70 miles per hour. That’s my favorite; all the oohs and ahhs, and the hand clapping and the yelling and the selfies going on.”

And once the sculptures arrive at their destination, Stoeke said they act like catalysts in the community.

“The sculptures tend to bring a lot of people together in one point and one place having conversations. And that’s one of the jobs of public art is to actually get strangers talking to strangers, maybe seeing a part of town that they haven’t been in recently,” she said. 

As for Marilyn, “Seward Johnson is very crazy about this girl. …He also really loves his ‘Embracing Peace’ and it’s in the same series of Icons Revisited, which is the sailor and nurse hugging at the end of World War II in Times Square.”

“Seward Johnson has said to me so often that he’s thrilled he gets to do something with his life’s energy and vigor that brings other people happiness,” Stoeke said. “And he says for him, it’s plain fun.”

The Marilyn Monroe sculpture started out its life as a maquette. It became life size in 1996, Stoeke said, and became monumental in scale in 2011. 

For anyone interested in permanently installing the sculpture on their property, Stoeke said Marilyn is available for $1.8 million.

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