Newtown Culturals Arts Commission chair Jennifer Johnston remembers meeting with First Selectman Pat Llodra in her office at the Newtown Municipal Center just days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. She says she asked what the Newtown arts community could do to help. Llodra told her the town was inundated with calls -- people from around the world wanted to donate paintings and sculptures, to host art workshops and provide art therapy, she said.
"Can you field these calls?" Llodra asked. Johnston agreed, and told Llodra to pass on her personal e-mail and phone number. When she got home from the meeting -- it was about 9:15 p.m., she says -- her answering machine inbox was already full.
"From Chicago to New Hampshire to Florida, people wanted to help," Johnston said. "They wanted to donate a sculpture, or a piece of artwork, or put together a program or do a benefit concert."
The result of the work of coordinating hundreds of requests -- including about 75 in the first week alone, Johnston says -- is the HealingNewtown Arts Space.
While the site has already hosted some events -- including a "free day of play" in January and the Stray Kats Theatre Company's staged reading of "A Delicate Balance" -- they haven't officially christened the space yet.
They'll open their doors Thursday, February 14, with an open house event that will see Gov. Dannel Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Llodra in attendance. Music and performances include local songwriter Jim Allyn, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the Newtown Centre of Classical Ballet, a Newtown children's chorus and acrobat Li Liu. Representatives from Ben's Bells will be on hand to teach bell-making; other activities include screen-printing, jewelry making and a public art word collage.
Aside from the performances, one main focus of the space -- and the open house -- is to showcase the artwork and activities the space has received in the past months. After Johnston started planning, she coordinated with the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut, the State of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development and the Connecticut Office of the Arts. They worked together, she said, to set up a space to receive art and other donations. Almost immediately, they began pouring in.
"[People] donated services and furniture, all kinds of stuff," Johnston said. "Then the healing project began. We started about a week later actually accepting artwork, and we starting to develop this space, filled with beautiful artwork -- oils, watercolors, photography, sculpture."
One of Johnston's favorite pieces was the first she received, she says. Created by Colorado artist Jane DeDecker, the bronze sculpture (see photo above) depicts a standing woman with a child between her legs, while another child holding a teddy bear looks up at her.
"It was exquisite," she said. "When it arrived, it was crated, and when they opened it here in the space ... It was so moving."
The event will also mark the start of a fundraising push. The space -- 8,000 square feet at 5 Queen Street -- was donated by Brause Realty on a month-to-month basis. Members hope the space will become a fixture in town. But Johnston said HealingNewtown may not stay in the spot forever, and members must eventually start thinking about a permanent home. She says it's needed in Newtown.
"The role of the arts is huge" in healing, she says. "It's so important for us to realize the magnitude of the arts and how people express themselves through the arts. Whether it's dance, music, drawing, painting, photography, singing -- it's amazing."
HealingNewtown Art Space's Open House:
5 Queen Street
February 14, 3:00 p.m. -- 6:00 p.m.