By Dedra Cordle
There were weeks to go before the annual music and arts festival at Westgate Park took place and yet the members of the board who organized the event were already thinking ahead to next year.
“It takes us a very long time to come up with all of this stuff,” said Patti Von Niessen, the executive director of Summer Jam West, with a laugh.
The theme for the festival, she went on to explain, sets the tone for the activities, the informational booths and the commissioned works of art that are created specifically for what they have in mind.
“Getting the right theme is very important to us,” she said.
Inspiration can strike at any time, or it can build off of an idea. The theme for this year’s event was a combination of the two.
It was during a meeting at the Greater Hilltop Shalom Zone when Von Niessen said the gears started to turn in her head. During this particular meeting, the board was discussing local organizations who are making a positive impact on the lives of residents when the initial idea came to her.
“I thought it would be great if we could focus on organizations that are doing good things in the community,” she said.
When she went before the Summer Jam West board with her idea, it was expanded upon her fellow members and Rachel Pace was credited with coming up with the theme, ‘Hilltop Rising.’
“‘Hilltop Rising’ means that we are a community on the rise,” said Von Niessen. “We have come up from so much struggle and are making something better.”
She noted the businesses that have recently found their way to the westside, such as the Hollywood Casino, and the road improvement investments that have taken place.
While discussing the imagery behind ‘Hilltop Rising,’ they immediately thought of a phoenix, the mythological creature who is said to be reborn through its own ashes. They knew that was the imagery needed for their public art installment.
In the early fall, they set out an ‘all call’ for local artists who could work with their theme. Eight artists, said Von Niessen, submitted works for the board to consider. She said it was a very tough call.
“They were all so great and different.”
Eventually, the board decided it was the rendering of Franklinton artist Andrew Lundberg that ultimately made the greatest impression.
“It was the physical representation of ‘Hilltop Rising,’” Von Niessen said.
It also didn’t hurt that the primary materials Lundberg and his assistant Eric Vacheresse were to use to construct the phoenix would be sheet metal and corrugated steel.
“It reminded us of the materials used at the Delphi plant,” said Von Niessen, referring to the former car-parts manufacturing plant that closed in 2007, taking with it thousands of jobs.
For months, Lundberg and Vacheresse worked on the sculpture, never once having an issue molding the often testy material to do as they wanted.
“It was almost as if it was making itself,” said Lundberg, a native of New York who moved to Columbus in the 1990s.
As Lundberg explained, making this sculpture wasn’t just a job to either artist. It was a point of pride and a point of reference.
“I moved to the westside about six years ago and it was super rough,” he said. “Over the years, I watched it grow from nothing into something.”
For Vacheresse, his family grew up on the westside and over the course of this project, they never failed to mention how much it meant to them that he was taking a part in its beautification.
Throughout the creation process, the duo never knew where the phoenix sculpture would end up. They thought it was planned for a public park but Von Niessen and the Summer Jam West board had something else in mind.
“We wanted this sculpture to be at the highest point on the Hilltop,” she said.
That just happened to be on the grounds of the Hollywood Casino.
Himbert Sinopoli, the vice president and general manager, said he has heard of many requests throughout his 25 years of working in the casino business, but this marked the first time someone has asked to put a piece of permanent art for the public on its property.
“I was shocked and surprised,” he said during the dedication on June 8.
But he also knew it was a great idea.
“I just needed to get permission from my boss, and his boss, and their boss, and the boss’s boss and their boss,” he said, referring to the fact that it had to be signed off by the highest level of management at Penn National Gaming.
He added that everyone loved the sculpture and the meaning behind it.
“I think it truly represents the westside and the imagery of where the westside is heading.”
The phoenix sculpture was erected in front of the casino near its fountains, just off of Georgesville Road. It measures 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Since it is a permanent fixture, it cannot be moved to Westgate Park when their annual music and arts festival is held on July 14 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Instead, Von Niessen will encourage everyone in attendance to be sure to check it out as they drive along the revitalized Georgesville Road. She also encouraged everyone else to go see it as well.
“It’s a true work of interactive art,” she said.