Art Takes Flight in Westfield

Read this Article as it originally appeared in TAPintoWestfield. 
Op-Ed Westfield

Art Takes Flight in Westfield. And so Does Hope, Light and Love.

As the Town Council liaison to the newly formed Westfield Public Arts Commission, I was thrilled to participate in the decision to commission 30 butterfly sculptures as our first public art exhibit, a decision made in advance of the global pandemic. It was serendipitous that we chose “butterflies” as our subject, not knowing that we would eventually all be cocooning. Painted by local artists, each three-foot butterfly sculpture represented a decade of Westfield’s 300 years as a gift to the community on our 300th anniversary.

As the reality of the pandemic settled in, the PAC contemplated postponing until 2021 to complete the project as many hurdles ensued, including supply disruptions and labor shortages. But recognizing that the community could benefit from a safe, joyful, outdoor experience, and that artists, in particular, were suffering hardship, we forged ahead. The collaboration between the PAC, artists, and the town resulted in outstanding and unique works of art scattered throughout our downtown and Mindowaskin Park.

The exhibit enchanted residents, brought visitors from neighboring towns and sparked outreach by other municipalities who wished to replicate our success. But I’d like to share the experience of one particular resident which best captures the spirit of the exhibit and this community.

Soon after the launch, I answered a call from an unknown number and a man’s voice introduced himself as Rob, a former resident, now living in Scotch Plains. Fully expecting a constituent concern, I took out my pen prepared to help. But instead, Rob shared that he was the father of a non-verbal, special needs adult and wanted us to know she had responded wonderfully to the butterflies which then became a frequent destination on their summer walks.

RELATED: Public Art: Fiberglass Butterflies Land in Westfield, Celebrating 300th Anniversary

“Art is so important,” he said, “especially right now,” and then asked if they would be for sale, so I informed him of the impending auction. Rob kept in touch and shared photos of Caroline with her favorite butterfly, Flutter Vision, painted by 14-year-old Clara Owens. He gave me permission to share our conversation with the Commission, so they could know how their work had deeply touched this family. There were other similar stories from residents, including one whose butterfly expressed the remembrance of a loved one, and another woman who wanted a specific butterfly as a tribute to her sister for her upcoming memorial.

With the auction approaching, my last call with Rob included his private admission that he was about to have “a very big surgery in January” and he really wanted Caroline to have a butterfly she could touch and remember him by, “just in case.” For most of the week, there were only two bids, one of which was his. The night of the auction I was on a text chain with volunteers watching the bid activity spike on all 17 butterflies. It was very exciting to know that the sculptures were so valued and well-received, and that we would be able to fund more public art projects as a result of the more than $25,000 raised by the auction.

Unfortunately, Rob was quickly outbid on Caroline’s favorite butterfly, and I realized his months- long wish was fading. Someone questioned another volunteer and said, “Did you bid on Flutter Vision? You’re the winner.” And she replied, “Yes. I’m going to give it to the dad with the special needs daughter.”

This year has been a rough one. Our community, along with the world, has suffered incredible loss. But, as this story reveals, the Christmas spirit is alive and well in Westfield.

With glee, I called Rob the next morning. He was speechless for a long time. “Is this real?” he asked. “Did someone who doesn’t even know us choose to show us love?” Indeed, they had.

He explained that he really wanted his daughter to have the butterfly, but as the cost crept up, he had to choose between that gift and the therapy she needed. “I knew I had to be responsible,” he said and paused again. “This has turned my whole year around.” Then he cried. And I cried. (And maybe now you are, too?)

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy holidays! And especially, Happy and Healthy New Year. And may you continue to bring light and love to those around you.