Conneaut Lake, prepare: A mammoth is coming!

Woolly mammoth sculpture first part of Conneaut Lake area arts trail

By Jean Shanley

Meadville Tribune
August 17, 2016

CAMBRIDGE SPRINGS — Workers at a welding shop here are creating a special project — a 10-foot high, nearly 10,000 pound woolly mammoth art piece, which, if all goes well, will be on Fireman’s Beach at Conneaut Lake by winter.

The sculpture will be the first component of an arts trail connecting Ice House Park and Fireman’s Beach as part of a major renovation planned for Water Street and Fireman’s Beach in Conneaut Lake Borough.

Amara Geffen, the Allegheny College professor leading the mammoth effort, is excited to see the sculpture being created in Craig Newell’s shop because it is the culmination of two years of planning and community engagement.

Newell, owner of the shop, said the workers first created a small model and then transformed that into the life-size sculpture, which will be created of steel locked together to form a shell. It will be overlaid with steel rods and material, which will give it a basket weave, nest-type appearance.

When it is completed, the steel form will be removed and the body of the woolly mammoth will remain. He described it as having a “basket weave pattern,” so that it looks like a nest up close, but when the viewer stands back, the shape of the mammoth is seen.

Newell said it will take about a month to finish the sculpture, which he said would be “under 10,000 pounds,” depending on the amount of steel rods used.

He said the project has created quite a bit of interest since Geffen posted some photographs on her personal Facebook page, but for safety reasons he is not permitting people to watch the work.

The sculpture is part of an arts trail project funded through a National Endowment for the Arts grant of $75,000 received by the Conneaut Lake Community Development Committee two years ago. The grant came through the NEA’s Our Towns initiative. Geffen said the grant required matching funds and the additional $75,000 was raised through other grants received by the CLCDC and through donations made to the CLCDC for the renovation project.

Bill Eldridge, chairman of the CLCDC, who has been spearheading the revitalization project, said the funds were designated for the art trail design, project oversight, community engagement projects that included town meetings to gather input, 3-D modeling, fabrication, materials, transportation, installation and dedication of the project.

Eldridge said the first year application was made for such a grant, the local group just missed the cutoff. However, he and Geffen had a conference call with the NEA officials to determine what could be done to strengthen the local group’s application the next year. He said the second year the application was more concise and described how the project would create and enhance a sense of place and identity that also promotes economic growth.

NEA Chairman Jane Chu, when she announced the grant award two years ago, said that the Our Towns projects demonstrate that excellent art is as fundamental to a community’s success as land use, transportation, education, housing, infrastructure and public safety, and it helps build stronger communities that are diverse in geography and character.

Geffen, who also serves as director of the Art and Environment Initiative of the Greater Meadville Area, is lead artist for the grant and the project. She has been involved in local public art projects for many years, serving, for example, as the driving force behind the recycled roadsigns arts project near the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation headquarters along Route 322 just outside Meadville. Geffen’s involvement in these projects has often included Allegheny College students, and students from the college were involved with the planning of the Conneaut Lake arts trail.

Some of the history students and others collected through the community engagement events will be incorporated into the sculpture.

Geffen explained that snippets of phrases will be laser jet cut into steel welded onto the sculpture. She explained that the snippets will be “in poetic form, not didactic,” and will include material from a local history book by the late Bronson Luty and from a legend told by local historian Carl Burkett about a curse put on the borough by a native American.

Once the sculpture is completed and prep work done at Fireman’s Beach, the sculpture will be moved from the welding shop in Cambridge Springs to an elevated spot on Fireman’s Beach where a group of trees, benches and a fire pit are currently located. The benches and fire pit will be moved, Geffen said, to provide the place for the nearly 10-foot high woolly mammoth. It will be visible from Ice House Park, she said.

The woolly mammoth is the first art sculpture for the trail, which will include at least one other sculpture, Geffen said.

A woolly mammoth was chosen because of the history of the woolly mammoths in the area. Geffen said the bones of at least five woolly mammoths are still at the bottom of Conneaut Lake and the bones of one are currently on display at the Conneaut Lake Area Historical Society Museum.

Geffen said she isn’t the only one excited about the creation of the sculpture. The men working at the welding shop are also enthusiastic, she said, and one asked, what “he” (the mammoth) would be named. She laughed as she recalled her reply, “Who says it has to be a he?”” and wondered about suggestions for naming the sculpture.

For now, she’s excited about the progress being made to transform the piece of steel into a piece of art and history which will be seen at Fireman’s Beach for generations to come.

The art project is part of a major renovation of Water Street and Fireman’s Beach, which is being spearheaded by the CLCDC and that has received more than $3 million in grants and donations.

Eldridge said the amount of other sculptures and art on the art trail will depend on funding for the project.

Regarding the sculpture, Eldridge said, “We are very happy that the first sign of improvements to appear at the beach reflects a prehistoric, pristine place, and also a place where we gather today to enjoy the beauty of our lake community.”

He said the CLCDC continues to work toward receiving more grants for the multi-year revitalization project.

Eldridge said the CLCDC hopes to see some work go out for bids by the end of the year with contracts to be awarded and construction to begin next spring for the renovation of Water Street and Fireman’s Beach.

The revitalization project is to include improvements at Fireman’s Beach, infrastructure, underground utilities and more.

Those wishing to keep posted on the progress of the creation of the sculpture may visit Geffen’s Facebook page, where she plans to post progress reports.