Block Renaissance: Newport Artists Create Murals On Fencing Around Stalled Project

Sep 16, 2016

When the Northeast Kingdom EB-5 projects came to a halt in light of fraud allegations last spring, Newport was left with an eyesore in the heart of its downtown – where a hotel was supposed to go. But some local artists are changing that eyesore into an attraction.

There is a beautiful boardwalk where the shore of Lake Memphremagog meets downtown Newport. Not far from the waterfront is a granite sculpture of a fish, which has become something of a mascot for the small city on the international border.

Just a block down Main Street, a mural of that fish is being woven into a chain-link fence.

“This is actually the fish that’s down the road, a sculpture, which people love, apparently," explains local artists Victoria Mathiesen. "And this morning I learned they even put a hat and a scarf on it in the winter.”

The fish is one of nine weavings Mathiesen has designed for the fence. Nine also happens to be the number of buildings that were demolished on the other side of that fence.

Using money from immigrant investors, EB-5 developers Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros demolished the city block of run-down buildings and planned to put up a hotel, apartments and new retail spaces.

It was called the Renaissance Block Redevelopment Project. But as City Manager Laura Dolgin explains, federal investigators halted the project after the demolition phase.

An entire city block was demolished in Newport before the Northeast Kingdom EB-5 projects came to a halt. Now the block is surrounded by chain-link fencing. The back side of the murals can be seen on the far fence.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

“The previous developer was able to take the buildings down and dispose of any asbestos," she says. "They put the chain-link fence up to protect people from entering that area."

Dolgin adds, "There’s a lot of exposed rebar, there’s some broken glass ... It needed to be controlled, because we couldn’t have people getting injured down there.”

With the investigation ongoing and the property in federal receivership, no one can say how long the block of partial foundations will be there. As Dolgin explains, it’s anything but inconspicuous.

“It comprises our main city block in our downtown designation area," she says. "When we found out that the project was no longer going to happen, I stood here and saw a vacant, empty fence and felt there was a need to change the impression the fence gave. We wanted to give the impression that something was actually happening in Newport.”

And that’s where local theater company founder Lynn Leimer enters the scene. Leimer had bolts of weather-resistant fabric she got from Newport ski-wear manufacturer Bogner before it went out of business. She says the idea for the fence art installation came to her in a dream featuring Bill Stenger.

Victoria Mathiesen, foreground, and Lynn Leimer weave a section of the fish mural.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

“And I thought, in my lifetime I’ll never be able to use all of this fabric. And this fence was really bothering me," she says. "So I had this dream that Bill came to me and said, ‘You gotta do something about that fence.’ That was how it all started, oddly enough.”

Leimer punctuates that thought by belting, "I had a dream!" It's a line from the musical Gypsy.

Some fence panels will be left mostly open, so passersby can still see what's on the other side.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Leimer said she brought her idea to the Memphremagog Arts Collaborative and to Newport’s City Council.

Leimer had the fabric and a dream. And Arts Collaborative member Victoria Mathiesen got to work on the designs.

“The fabric appeared, and I started painting and drawing, and I did all the designs," says Mathiesen. "But what happened was that, as we did the first three designs, which were just kind of generic, if you like, groups came forward and said, ‘Would you do a design for us?’”

One Memphremagag Arts Collaborative member added a boat he made to the mural, which got people thinking about what else they could attach to the fence. Soon multiple materials were incorporated into the designs.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Soon, sections of fence were covered with murals representing local organizations. And other recycled materials became incorporated into the fence.

A group of local cyclers called Kingdom VELO has a mural with an actual bicycle embarking on a mountain trail made of plastic bags.

This design, featuring a donated bicycle, is inspired by the Kingdom VELO cycling group.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

A lake scene with a loon is the logo of the Memphremagog Watershed Association.

Each organization brought its own volunteers to help weavers Mathiesen and Pam Ladds with the murals.

City Manager Dolgin says she’s pleased with how the project is coming along, and the effect it’s had on the Newport community.

The best views of the murals are from the other side of Main Street, according to designer Victoria Mathiesen.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

She says, “It’s been a wonderful project that has served to pull the community together in a variety of ways, because when we first heard the news there was a strong emotional reaction of disappointment. Having the arts installation happen has really helped to cure the community in immeasurable ways.”

So while the Renaissance Block Redevelopment Project has come to a halt in Newport, local artists are making their own kind of renaissance instead.