He may be the creator of “Innovator Park,” the latest of the City of Gaithersburg’s 27 distinctive Art in Public Places installations, but Steven Weitzman knows that public art goes back beyond recorded history. “It’s a very human expression, isn’t it?” he asked. “We’ve been marking the cave wall forever. That’s just something we do, everywhere in this world: We make the mark to say we are here.”
And Weitzman, CEO of Creative Form Liners as well as a designer, builder and commercial artist, has made his mark in a big way, most recently with an interactive space in a park in the heart of Gaithersburg’s Downtown Crown neighborhood that pays homage to innovators, artists, musicians and authors while encouraging passers-by to stop, look and learn a little. “Public art makes the living space in community more embracing to those who come and enjoy it,” he said. “If you build something, they will come, but what’s there when they get there?”
As an artist and innovator, Weitzman wanted to make sure there’s something meaningful for everyone: an opportunity for property owners and managers to engage visitors and tell the story they want to tell, a place for the community to gather and meet — or be by themselves — in an inviting spot where seating areas and foliage are enhanced by inspirational quotes etched in pavers.
Gaithersburg’s Art in Public Places program was launched in 1997, with a lofty objective: to foster vitality in developing and redeveloping areas of the city while promoting arts and arts education. In the ensuing decades, 27 distinctive installations have gone up, transforming the landscape in small and significant ways. This latest project, funded by Crown Farm master developer Westbrook Properties, was challenging, Weitzman said, “because of its location and the fact that its environment had already been built.”
The installation would need to be integrated into the space; it should engage the public and tell a story without being obvious — and it should be complex enough that visitors would want to come back again and again.
“This language cloud — or puddle — is interesting,” said the artist, referring to the pavers carved with words. “It isn’t necessarily one contiguous sentence; wherever you look at it, it may engage you to read further, and the next time you may discover something else.
“It’s participatory and interactive,” he added. “That’s the part that’s fun.”
If fun is a central component of Weitzman’s art, it could be because he’s been an artist ever since he can remember. “It was obvious, from my earliest memory — preordained,” he said. “I always had the facility to draw and I always knew I’d be an artist professionally when I got older, and do well at that.”
As his father was an artist, Weitzman figures it’s probably in his genes. “But he had died at 41, when I was nine months old, so I really never met him, never had his tutelage. But there were a few remnants of his work around the house: paintings, a sculpture or two, a piece of furniture.”
Martin Weitzman’s work can be found elsewhere, too. An artist for the Workers Progress Administration (WPA), his posters may be seen in The Library of Congress, and one was even included in the United States Postal Services’ collection of WPA Poster stamps.
Weitzman said his mom “was on the other side of it,” encouraging him to pursue any career except art; she’d seen firsthand how hard it could be. But Weitzman started his career as a freelance artist at age 19. “And that’s all I’ve ever done: create art,” he said.
More Renaissance man than cave painter, Weitzman became — as his father had — a graphic artist, furniture maker, wood carver, oil painter, professional illustrator and graphic artist, as well as an inventor. “The life of an artist, it’s a difficult life, but it was the only thing I was qualified to do, he said.”
He first came to Maryland in 1984 for a job at the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center in Rockville. “I had to carve a tree that had died on their property,” he said. “Then I came back to do another tree carving, actually, from a 33-ton branch that broke off of The Wye Oak on the Eastern Shore in a big storm — back before that tree totally died. I started competing for public art jobs in Montgomery County and got very lucky.”
These days, Weitzman runs three companies: Weitzman Studios, Inc., for his paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture; the aesthetic infrastructure firm Creative Design Resolutions, Inc. for transportation-related design, and Creative Form Liners, Inc., making urethane rubber molds or form liners, as well as the full-color concrete and resinous improvement upon terrazzo, which he trademarked as “Fotera.” He’s sculpted Frederick Douglass and Washington D.C. “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry; embellished bridges and designed highway extensions. The fact that his public art installation is called “Innovation Park” is no accident.
“You can invent and not innovate, you can innovate and not invent,” he mused. “The challenge for me in this project was to try and find the commonality, the resonance, between what seems at first glance to be disparate occupations, character, personality and pursuits.
“These people, in their own fields, took best practices, made them better, made it their own. That’s the innovation I discovered.”
Weitzman is ambivalent about whether he considers himself an innovator. “I think the word is protean,” he said. “That pretty much describes my personality: that I can go from one thing to another fluidly. One thing I learned, early in my career, was that the more diversified I was, the better chance I had at feeding my family. If all I could do is carve wood, or illustrate, if I didn’t have an illustration job, I wouldn’t have money for groceries.”
Which is why he decided to learn to do what others might normally do after he, as the artist, finished up: the fabrication, the installation, the photography, the graphic design. “If I knew those skills, my clients wouldn’t have to farm a job out to two or three people,” he said. “I could be a one-stop shop.”
But he did not want to make a one-stop public art installation. “Innovation Park” is meant to be enjoyed again and again. “Seating is one of those things I feel is lacking in the downtown area,” he explained. “If you’re walking about, just had dinner, whatever, you might look over, see seating and trees, and that’s why you’d wander over.
“As you’re walking by, you’d also notice a circle in the middle with all this language, but you can’t read it from the street.”
It’s that sense of curiosity that reaches out to the viewer. “What is that? There sure is a lot of it!’” he speculated. “That engages you to walk into the park, turn around. Now you’re in the park and you realize: oh, these are words. Because it’s so big, you’ll just read from wherever you notice the words, whatever your eyes fell on first.
“It’s that kind of undefinable participation that I think is very interesting: a fundamental tenet of what I think public art should do.
“I am a storyteller through public art,” he explained. “And if I do my job right, it will be a multi-layered story.”
The Art in Public Places Program’s “Innovator Park” is located at Olmstead Park, 215 Crown Park Ave., Gaithersburg. The exhibit is open to the public, and admission is free. For more information on the Art in Public Places program, call 301-258-6394 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov.