Community art project aims to spruce up Gloucester City

Artist Winter Willoughby-Spera watches Brianna Siciliano, a freshman at Gloucester City High, at work. Willoughby-Spera, a senior at Horace Mann High in the Bronx, is heading the “wave wall” project.

A New York City high school senior is giving Gloucester City residents a chance to help create an imaginative work of public art on their downtown waterfront.

Fish sculptures hand-painted by students and adults in the city will be affixed to a sinuous, 20-foot-long "wave wall" to be installed in Proprietor's Park along the Delaware River.

The transparent, 7-foot-high wall is the first step in a $30,000, privately funded effort to improve the appearance of an imposing but rather stark waterfront landmark known as the Betsy Ross Pavilion, as well as its surroundings.

"The enthusiasm has just been incredible," says project designer Winter Willoughby-Spera, 18, who attends Horace Mann, a private school in the Bronx. She was in Gloucester City last week to check in on progress of the fish painting.

In November, hundreds of volunteers showed up to paint during an event called "Together for a Better Gloucester City." It was sponsored by a local foundation that solicits proposals for revitalization projects downtown and on the waterfront.

Willoughby-Spera, who organized a mural-making project at Horace Mann and founded two other community art programs in the Bronx, learned about the fund online. She's thrilled at the chance to create a sizable piece of public art and pleased at the local reception.

"I was expecting maybe a dozen people" at the November event, says Willoughby-Spera, attributing the hearty turnout to civic pride.

"People," she adds, "are expressing what Gloucester City means to them."

"The community has embraced the project," agrees city administrator Jack Lipsett. "It's a great addition to the waterfront."

During Willoughby-Spera's recent visit to Gloucester City High School, students painted fish in a design class taught by Janey Dean, who's also a big fan of the project.

"There's explosive creativity here," says Dean, a professional graphic designer and city resident.

Dean runs a nonprofit called Future Artists Now to encourage young people to get involved in art. The city, she insists, has "the largest percentage of creative people per capita" of any comparable community.

I'm not sure about percentages. But I've certainly written about accomplished artists and devoted patrons in this unpretentious, blue-collar community of 11,500.

From the annual waterfront festival sponsored by the Gloucester City Cultural Arts and Heritage Society, to the respected mixed-media work of Marilyn Keating and Debra Sachs, art is alive and well in Gloucester City.

"Thomas Eakins painted Gloucester scenes," notes businessman Tom Monahan, whose new restaurant, Chubby's, will include reproductions of some of the renowned Philadelphia artist's well-known work.

Monahan, who also owns Max's Seafood Cafe, founded the nonprofit Hearth Community Fund (hearthcommunityfund.org) in 2015 to encourage the revitalization of the city.

The fund selected Willoughby-Spera's waterfront proposal from the two applications it received last year.

"Winter did her homework," Monahan says.

In addition to the fish, Willoughby-Spera's plan calls for construction of a second transparent wall, featuring a design based on a vintage map of the city.

Spaces for changing art exhibits will be built within the pavilion as well.

And with the handiwork of hundreds of individuals on permanent display, the project could well be "something people talk about for the rest of their lives," Monahan says.

Back in Dean's classroom, Willoughby-Spera circulates among several long tables, answering questions, offering advice, noticing details.

"I'm looking to be surprised," she says, as boys and girls dip brushes into little cups of acrylic paint and then onto cutouts of 11-by-3-inch fish.

The fish are identical in size and shape, but the colors are fanciful and often beautiful.

Brianna Siciliano is at work on a kaleidoscopic design that resembles stained glass.

"I wanted to be creative," the 15-year-old freshman explains.

"I blended pink and purple, and then I put black on it," says Keith Myers, 16, who's in 10th grade.

Willoughby-Spera says she's "amazed by all the incredible designs" made by students and others in the city.

"Before this project, I hadn't even heard of Gloucester," she says. "Now it's part of me."

kriordan@phillynews.com 856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.philly.com/blinq