ESSEX — The cube is coming down.
That’s right — the iconic red cube which has guarded the corner of Eastern Avenue and Virginia Avenue just off Back River Bridge for more than forty years is set to be replaced later this year with a tower displaying work by local artists.
The decision was made at a March 15 meeting of a special work group brought together by the Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce to determine the fate of the cube. But according to Cliff O’Connell, a member of the Chamber board who sits on the work group, murmurs about the cube have long been brewing in the community.
He recalled gathering feedback as far back as Essex Day 2019.
“The consensus is, it’s time to go,” O’Connell told The Avenue at a work group meeting earlier this month.
Erected in May of 1979, standing at about 12 feet with ‘ESSEX’ emblazoned across the two street-facing panels, the cube part of the Eastern Avenue rebranding of the day. And history repeats itself — the aim now is to bring a cleaner, more modern look to Essex’s front gate.
But, like — why a red cube? Right?
Lisa Harlow, president of the Heritage Society of Essex & Middle River, has long tried to determine why the red cube design ended up on the high-traffic corner. The best explanation she can offer is that geometric shapes were just a late-70s vogue.
Harlow said that Heritage Society members initially wanted to keep the cube in place, but she found herself in the minority on the work group.
“Everyone at the museum really wanted to see the cube stay there because it’s part of our history,” she said. “But ultimately, I understand the need for progress.”
A tower is planned for the spot, 20 to 25 feet tall and about five feet wide, a metal frame on a stone base and removable side panels that will feature art from local artists. Baltimore-based custom metal crafter Tim Scofield created a design and scaled down model for the work group, and is on hand to create the full structure.
In addition to Harlow and O’Connell, the work group includes community members like George Lang of the Essex Community Association, Leah Biddinger of the Sussex Community Association and Sam Weaver II of Weaver’s Marine. Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sharon Kihn sits on the work group, as does Chamber board member Robert Romadka. Baltimore County Department of Planning representatives Laurie Hay, Jessie Hillman and Marta Kulchytska also joined.
The work group is chaired by Deirdre Aikin, a Towson-based business owner who has a track record organizing public art projects, including a mural at the library in Towson. Aikens gave props to the group for taking on stewardship of the neighborhood.
“The passion these folks have for Essex is really amazing,” she said. “It’s contagious.”
For Aikin, bringing in local artists was key. She is currently circulating a call for artists, and plans to feature the submissions at an art show alongside the unveiling of the tower.
O’Connell also noted the flexibility offered by the removable panels — if one artist is not selected at first, they could still eventually be displayed, and the featured works can be updated over time to keep the tower relevant.
The work group also floated plans to turn the tiny sliver of greenspace into a park, doing a bit of landscaping to spruce up the corner and maximize the tower’s visibility from the road. But the question of a park, as well as the installation of the structure, depends in large part on funding.
Sharon Kihn explained that the Chamber can use a Department of Planning Commercial Revitalization Action Grant to meet, plan and get the spot ‘shovel ready,’ but will need additional funding for the next phase. For this, she will seek additional grants, as well as corporate sponsorships and other means of fundraising — one work group member tossed out the idea of letting community members buy a brick of the base.
And what happens to the cube?
George Lang joked that he would put it up in his backyard if his wife would let him. While he acknowledged some nostalgia for the cube, he also seemed of the ‘out with the old’ mindset.
“A new day, a new age,” Lang said.
Harlow advocated for bringing the cube to the Heritage Society, which adopted the ‘Cubie’ mascot for Essex Day 2019 at the suggestion of museum webmaster Scott Huffines. Whatever happens to the cube, there are no plans to replace googly-eyed Cubie.
“Cubie is not going anywhere,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that we could preserve the cube in some way.”
The current plan is for the museum to end up with one of the ‘ESSEX’ panels, which will be displayed just inside the barn doors along Eastern with a plaque outlining the cube’s history. They may also secure a scaled down cube display rendered from one of the other panels — full details to be determined.
Leah Biddinger hopes to see a transformation on Eastern Avenue, which she said could help address problems like crime and make Essex a more family-friendly community with better retail and community spaces.
“In order to change, you have to make change,” she said. “Our vision is trying to move things ahead.”
Call for artists:
Any and all Maryland artists are invited to submit work for the new Essex Gateway Sculpture, a public outdoor display featured at the entrance to the new Essex Gateway Park. This sculpture will be viewed by over 30,000 people who drive through Essex daily, and it will be the centerpiece to the new public space. Chosen work will be displayed in the four panels of the sculpture. All works submitted will be exhibited in a curated show and press event at the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River.
DESCRIPTION: The work will be four panels set as a four-sided column. The panels will consist of translucent UV resistant LEXAN and will be backlit in the evenings and at night. Applicants must keep in mind the properties of the final installation and be mindful of the light elements. The themes of the work can reflect Maryland as a whole, Maryland water life and the past and future of Essex.
DEADLINE: August 9
SIZE: The final product will be 20-25’ by 5’ vertical. Each concept must be formatted to fit these dimensions once scaled.
APPLICATIONS: Mail applications to: Essex Gateway Sculpture, c/o Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce, 405 Williams Court, Suite 108, Middle River, MD 21220. Physical submissions preferred, though digital submissions will be accepted. Included in the application and sent work should be an artist bio and artist statement alongside the applicant’s name and address.
SELECTION CRITERIA: Only artists native to or based in Maryland may apply; however, there are no other limiting factors. All skill levels and backgrounds are welcome. Subject matter and representation or reflection of Essex is paramount, but the five main considerations are creativity, thematic appropriateness, use of color and space, readability and clarity of design. Selection will be performed by a juried panel sourced from across Maryland.
HONORARIUM: $1,200 will be awarded across winning selections, and all participants will be honored at a curated show at the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River.
Interested artists should contact Chesapeake Gateway Chamber of Commerce (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further information.
Please email email@example.com or call 443-239-0737 with questions, comments or story tips. Have a tip on the origin of the cube, or an anecdote to share? We’d love to hear it! Please get in touch.