Woods filled with tall trees, winding pathways, a scenic tidal river, over 40 species of colorful birds… all of it located just off Admiral Wilson Boulevard, and closed to local residents in need of green space. However, on Sept. 20, members of Marlton Girl Scout Troop 21078 officially opened Gateway Park, part of Cooper River Park West, for the first time in 13 years as they hosted a Plein Air Festival and Community Paint Out. “Plein Air” means painting on location, outdoors. The goal of this festival was to promote open space justice and to raise awareness about the park.
The girls certainly met their goal. The parking lot filled with cars for the first time in over a decade. Artists created their pieces from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Passersby asked “Are we in Paris?” Families stopped to see what the art was all about. A local author selected one of the contestants to be featured in a book about South Jersey art. The juror was Dressler Smith, coordinator of adult programs at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her work is in many public and private collections, including Oprah Winfrey’s. At 4 p.m., the first place prize was awarded to Robert Lipartito of Haddonfield. Second place was awarded to Dominic Martelli of Sicklerville and third place to Jemel Balkman of West Berlin. Sue Israel of Perkins Center for the Arts was the juror for the youth submissions.
Gateway Park was created in 2000, during preparations for the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The park replaced a series of motels, gas stations and bars along Admiral Wilson Boulevard. Unlike Cooper River Park East, which was developed and turned into a beautiful area to take walks and bike rides, the west side of Cooper River remains underdeveloped. The park has remained officially closed for 13 years; barriers greet motorists attempting to enter via the parking lot. This much-needed open space will serve Camden and Pennsauken residents who would otherwise have to cross dangerous motorways to access parkland.
Members of Girl Scout Troop 21078 were inspired to base their Silver Award community service project at Gateway Park after participating in a ‘Pledge to Fledge’ bird watching event and meeting with advisor Tom Knoche of Friends of Cooper River Park West. They learned project management skills as they worked with the CCMUA, the NJ Conservation Foundation and Girl Scouts of Central and Southern NJ to approve the project. They worked with local groups such as UrbanPromise and Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, who have long been advocating for the park, to coordinate the event. The Silver Award is the second highest award in Girl Scouting.
An online gallery and more information about the contest can be found on the festival website, www.cooperriverproject.weebly.com. A 2015 calendar featuring artwork from the event will be available in October.