Connections: An artist in Frederick County draws the community into a painting that spans many interests.

November 20, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Bill Cochran is an artist who doesn't just like bridges. He believes in them.

"A bridge connects separate lands," he says. "It makes common ground."

And over the last four years, Cochran has made a bridge in Frederick common ground for the whole community.

Spanning Carroll Creek near the center of town is a handsome bridge that looks as if it's from a different age, its three arches composed of stones in an eye-pleasing variety of sizes and colors -- no two quite alike. Sculptural medallions decorate each side, and smaller carved motifs abound on individual stones -- a swan, a flower, a bundle of grain, clasped hands, an open church door. Ivy grows over the stones at either end of the bridge, adding a note of age to the scene.

But that's not all. The retaining walls below the bridge are elaborately embellished. An arched pair of wrought iron gates with a wooden door behind them punctuates one wall. Elsewhere, a fountain protrudes from the wall under a carved relief sculpture of fruits and vegetables. And, most imposing, an architectural niche contains a life-size marble sculpture of a woman in classical costume carrying a vase.

All this you see on a visit to the bridge -- though none of it's actually there: not the carvings, not the doors or the fountain or the statue or even the stones of the bridge itself. They're all paint. They're all elements of Cochran's trompe l'oeil (or fool-the-eye) mural that has turned a utilitarian concrete bridge into a work of art.

Since the project began in 1993, the bridge has become a focal point of Carroll Creek Linear Park, a continuing community project. But it is more than that. The more than 100 motifs Cochran has painted on the bridge represent the ideas of people throughout Frederick County about what symbolizes a community. They make this bridge a community art project on a huge scale, involving more than 2,000 people, even as it remains Cochran's creation.

"I'm interested in making participatory public art," says Cochran, "but with a difference. Sometimes projects like this invite the audiences to be the co-creators by giving people paint brushes and inviting them to help create the mural. This is a way to involve the public without sacrificing the meaning and quality of the art."

Both bridge and artist have won high praise in Frederick. "The bridge itself is unique and so is Mr. Cochran," says Frederick Mayor James S. Grimes. "The beauty and spirit in the message of the bridge have really brought the community together." Grimes contributed $5,000 to the project.

Not everyone agrees. "I'm just sorry the money didn't go into a historic project or into real stones," says Theresa M. Michel, a resident of Frederick and former member of the Maryland Historic Trust. "Other than that, I think it's probably well-done. I just think there are things that are more appropriate to Frederick."

But Clement Gardiner, an early supporter of the mural and president of the Delaplaine Visual Arts Center located near the bridge, applauds its message: "The bridge is an inspirational thing. It shows what the visual arts can mean to a community, and encourages others who have talent to express themselves and feel good about themselves."

While his involvement with the bridge project goes back to early 1993, the whole thing really began about 10 years ago, when Cochran, now 41, decided to become an artist. A native of New Haven, Conn., he grew up in Howard County and graduated from Western Maryland College, where he studied literature, philosophy and theater. By the mid-1980s he was a commercial designer in Frederick, specializing in sign design. "I thought I was wasting my life. Then someone said to me, 'If you could do anything at all that you wanted to do, and you were guaranteed success, what would you do?' I said I would paint pictures on walls.

"I didn't think of it as art at the time, but as a way to express the things I felt. And I feel it's a potential of human beings that anything you set your mind to you can accomplish." Combining his design skills with what he could learn from fellow artists, he first conceived a plan for painting a series of murals on the sides of buildings in downtown Frederick, three of which have been completed so far.

In 1993, the city of Frederick was planning to clad the new Carroll Street bridge in cast stone panels as part of its development of the 1 1/4 -mile Carroll Creek Linear Park. But Cochran had a better idea, and took it to architect Stuart Wallace. Wallace told him that plans for the bridge had already been signed off on by the Historic District Commission, the Carroll Creek Commission and the mayor and Board of Aldermen. "So I thought, 'All right, it's too late.' But then he said, 'Actually this is only just paper right now. You could put together a proposal.' "

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