Saturday, September 14, 2013

Street Magic: Public Art on Columbia Street Sidewalks

Photo by Rafi Magnes
One evening in late April 2012, on my walk home, I noticed dozens of chalk arrows under my feet, in a rainbow of colors, pointing ahead. As I followed the arrows, the words "street magic" appeared repeating in different colors and configurations. Later I learned that a local young person had put on a sidewalk magic show that afternoon. The next morning I returned to photograph the arrows, but where the arrows had been a perfect square of sidewalk had been removed and the gap was ringed by construction tape. The next day a new square of slate-blue sidewalk magically appeared. Carved into it was a perfect silhouette of the tree growing next to it. This was one of six sites in a public art project by Nobuho Nagasawa, titled Timecast.

You have probably walked over these works hundreds of times over the past year and a half. There are six of them scattered throughout the Columbia Waterfront District, four of them on Columbia Street, one on Van Brunt at Degraw, and one on Hamilton Avenue outside the Backyard Garden.

Nagasawa's press materials describe the work and her process:
The shadow of newly-planted native New York trees was precisely traced at a certain time of the day on the bluestone sidewalk, and became visible as permanent silhouettes on the sidewalk. These tree silhouettes are sandblasted in the bluestone, which is not only quarried in New York, but has been used historically as a paving stone in this neighborhood, as well as in landmarked locations, such as around the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. I want the shadows to be literally 'set in stone,' and to appear as 'jewels' set in time, and to give the impression of time frozen, which is a historical record.

Photo by Rafi Magnes

Photo by Rafi Magnes

I wanted to know more about these tree shadows and how our quiet neighborhood had come to be the home for these works. I was able to reach Ms. Nagasawa by phone and she explained that "in 2004 this neighborhood was the site of a competition to design a work of public art." She won the commission, awarded by 1% for Art. The work of choosing sites and planting trees began, and in 2007 Nagasawa was awarded an Excellence in Design Award, an annual prize given by the City of New York Art Commission Award since 1982.

"It took a long time, the project was delayed because of unanticipated subsurface conditions, poor soil conditions under the ground." They also had to wait until street construction projects were completed before they could move ahead. In 2008, she and Signe Nielsen, the Columbia Street Project Landscape Architect and Vice President of the City of New York Design Commission handpicked the trees from Gowanus Nursery (formerly on Summit St, now on Van Brunt Street) and chose the sites.

"The site at Columbia and Baltic is first one - we call it 'Site One.' The next site is the one I spotted first, at Columbia and Sackett. The third one is by Union Street."

Site 6, at Van Brunt St and Degraw, is different than the others. It is closer to the waterfront. "People should slow down, pause. You can see Governor's Island and Statue of Liberty." But the other striking difference is that here there is no longer a tree, just the carving of its shadow "in memoriam." Nagasawa says, "At Site 6 we planted a Red Oak tree, and somebody came and cut the tree down; it was not an accident. We called the police and investigated." The act of vandalism was tough on Nagasawa. "It is like a little baby for me, tracing the shadow like making a cast of a baby's feet when it is born." The loss of the tree made Site 6 more of a political piece for her. "It brings attention to the fragile ecology. These trees are vulnerable."

Also part of the project are two time capsules, one at Site 5 (Hamilton and Van Brunt) and Site 6 (Van Brunt and Degraw), each in a bottle. "During the installation of the stone, one of the branches of the King Maple it was accidentally broken off. So I placed the tree branch and an artwork of mine, a glass nail I made, and an original site plan in that bottle." In Site 6's time capsule there is also a photograph of the installation.

I told the artist that I noticed rainwater pooling in the tree shapes, glistening. Did she imagine that happening? "I did, and I imagined in the wintertime, water getting in and freezing. i think it will be really beautiful, a frozen tree shadow."

What does she think it will mean for the neighborhood? "I want people who live there and walk there every day, a baby in stroller growing up into a teenager and seeing how it has changed. Since the trees will not continue to cast the same shadows as they grow taller, the shadows will become fixed markers by which the effects of time on the streetscape become apparent as the years pass."

Nagasawa spent the eight years visiting our neighborhood to plan and execute the project. I asked about her favorite place here. "I love the fact that there are so many little community gardens. That's what I noticed. I was really surprised about that. A lot of people have a green thumb here! I enjoyed talking to locals and actually became friends with some, exchanged emails. It was nice to meet the Columbia Street community. They seem really appreciative of the art. I hope they embrace it."

Read more about Nobuho Nagasawa at

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