New Public Art Project Commemorates Immigrant Roots

By Anastasia Marchese

Kadie Dempsey, the director of Creative Placemaking at Morris Arts, clearly enjoys talking about the organization’s most recent public art project, The Gateway Totem.

The concept was Dempsey’s brainchild and she led the project from its inception till the public unveiling on a chilly evening last month.

“I feel like I have given birth,” she says. “I was exhausted that evening.”

After two years of planning and organizing one can see why she would feel relieved, proud and more than a little tired out, especially as the last carving was only set in place that morning.

Two stone pillars stand by the Grow It Green’s Early Street Community Garden at 17 Early Street in Morristown. According to the Morris Arts website, the Gateway Totem Project connects “the garden entry with Morristown High School and with existing low income senior housing, new high-end condominiums and local ethnic businesses.”

The concept started quite a few years ago, with the idea of a mural that would connect Downtown with the Speedwell Avenue area.

“It has been said that they are like two different towns, existing side by side,” said Dempsey, “but was hard to get a mural in a visible space.”

The Gateway Totem project is an extension of this idea, but instead of a mural that can be easily painted over, Dempsey wanted something “really strong and lasting.”

It started to become a reality when Morris Arts was granted a very prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Award about two years ago. Organizations like Morris Arts usually don’t get NEA grants, which often go to organizations in larger, more urban areas. One of the reasons Dempsey believes they were awarded the grant is the deep connections between Morris Arts and other community organizations. The community garden, town hall, the senior center, and the Neighborhood House have worked collaboratively with Morris Arts for years and are representative of the themes of unity and tradition represented in the totem project.

The Morris Arts website describes the Gateway Totem project as two “ten foot tall pillars of Indiana limestone, with 16 panels of iconic symbols evoking the multiple immigrant communities who have called the Speedwell area home over generations: Italian, Irish, Jewish, African-American, South and Central American, etc.”


The stone carvings were designed and carved by Gabrielle Hiltl-Cohen.

Dempsey says that a lot of stone artists who submitted their work for consideration had a more modern look to their work but Hiltl-Cohen’s work “really resonated with everybody. It is very craft oriented.”

The images and designs were chosen through multiple community engagement sessions where people were able to voice what they thought best represented their own immigrant community. Each image is designed to speak to the immigrant community of Morristown. The honey bee and comb is representative of the African-American population that came here was mostly from North Carolina, thus the honey bee and comb was chosen because it is the NC state insect. The menora carving is the same modern menora that is on the entrance to the Speedwell Avenue Jewish Center and that has been serving Jewish immigrants for almost 100 years.

Said Dempsey, “I felt it was long overdue. It was a very personal project for me.”

Yet considering the divisiveness of the previous day’s election, the unveiling proved especially meaningful.

“It turned out to be very timely,” reflected Dempsey.

The project represents more than one first for Morris Arts. It is the first project that received a NEA grant and it is also the first project completed with funds from the Morristown “Percent for Arts” initiative.

Dempsey is looking forward to being able to work with the town and developers to create more such projects, hoping to have 10 or 12 more high end art installations in public spaces in Morristown over the next few years. Previously the funding was not available for such projects, but thanks to the “Percent for Arts” program, which has companies doing redevelopment putting one percent of their total project budget, up to $100,000 to public arts projects, more such projects can become a reality.

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