When Rubber Duck 84 woke up Saturday morning, he had no idea what awaited him. Carried in a bag towards Edgewood Park, all he could see was a stage, white vendor tents, and children playing in the park’s green grass. Sun grazed his head and music floated through the neighborhood.
That sense of calm was short-lived. Just past 2 p.m., the blue duck rode the West River current to victory at the seventh annual Rubber Duck Race, part of Artwalk’s 26th anniversary in Westville. The neighborhood celebration has raised generations of artists in its two and a half decades while bringing the community together.
Saturday, that included Dawn Henning, Eddie Finayson and 3-year-old Emmett Finayson—the family sponsoring the winning duck. The three, who joked that they would use the winnings to go on vacation, also won the race last year.
Lucy Gardner, who grew up with Artwalk, as a life-sized furry duck. Gardner is now a freshman at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. Johnathon Henninger Photo.
“I was really excited when we won,” Eddie Finayson said. “My wife didn’t want me to buy any ducks this year because someone else should win. I thought we should at least have our hat in the ring.”
Saturday, Rubber Duck 84’s path to victory began long before it ever hit the water. In preparation for this year’s festivities, WVRA Executive Director Lizzy Donius and members of an Artwalk planning committee retired the old fleet of rubber duckies, replacing them with a new multicolored batch.
Close to 300 ducks ultimately entered the race, according to Westville Beat Reporter Pat Patterson (a.k.a. Lou Mangini, who is in real life a staffer for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro). Patterson reported from the event with John Johnson, (a.k.a. Westville's Ryan Gardner).
Jes Mack, a member of the Artwalk 26 planning committee, watches carefully as the ducks race. Johnathon Henninger Photo.
From the beginning, the race was a nail-biter, with a green duck who gave 84 a swim for his money. Neighbors, Westvillians, and Artwalk attendees crowded onto a bridge at the opening of the park, many holding the red railing in anticipation. In the water, longtime Artwalk organizer Jes Mack stood by or supervise the race.
Patterson, who reported from the event, estimated that the banks of the river were crowded with a knot of attendees that ran four or five people deep.
“The attendance this year was fantastic,” he said in a phone call Monday afternoon. “I've never seen that many people on the bridge before.”
Festival-goers held onto the bridge’s red railing shouting support for their favorite ducks. “Go fast green!” one attendee cried. Others cheered on the blue contender, or kept an eye out for their own duckies bobbing along. After Rubber Duck 84 was crowned the victor, the crowd erupted in a loud quacking chant to celebrate.
Corey Schmidt Photo.
It was one of many activities at this year’s Artwalk, which ran from May 8 through 13 between Whalley Avenue, Edgewood Park, and the Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library.
After festivities began last Monday with singer/songwriter Myles Tripp at Mitchell Library, they included a comedy improv show from The Regicides, a “six-square jam” gallery opening, choir performances from New Haven high school students and more.
The duck race was part of the last and largest day of festivities, which also included performances from A Broken Umbrella Theatre Co., a vendor fair, pet parade, and hours of live music programming in Edgewood Park. For 14-year-old Nina Lentini, it was part of a day dedicated to celebrating New Haven’s art and artists.
“We started up at Whalley Avenue there and when we went through all the booths, saw the artists, and we looked at all their stuff—there's amazing creativity,” Lentini said. “Then we just came toward the river and walked through the park, got some water and then said, ‘Let's go see where the ducks go and figured this must be where it is because everybody's hanging out here.’”
Johnathon Henninger Photo.
“The core of Artwalk is local artists of all kinds including fashion designers, artists, artists, and artists, like crafts, people photographers,” Donius said. “A lot of people in the neighborhood come down and check out the fashion show.”
Another key element to the Westville Artwalk is the t-shirts, Donius said. She said the shirts exemplify the festival’s purpose of highlighting New Haven’s artists.
Since we have so many cool things happening in our community, we have t-shirts made,” Donius said. “We have artists design these shirts every year … we offer six to eight design options to pick from every year. It’s all designed by local, New Haven-based artists.”
Corey Schmidt Photo.
At the vendor fair, artists dazzled with jewelry, soaps, hand-printed t-shirts, pottery and woodwork. Among them was 13-year-old Kaylee George, who runs the small business Seaside Jewelry out of her Newhallville home.
“I started out mainly making bracelets for myself and all my friends kept telling me to start making even more bracelets and start selling them,” George said. “I’d say my family and my friends really motivated me.”
George said she was excited to display her bracelets at the Westville Artwalk, especially after previously attending the event. Last year, George participated in the festival as a dancer with Arts in CT, a nonprofit organization that provides art-based community engagement programs that also offers summer camps at the Westville Performing Arts Center.
“She participated in the event last year as a dancer and the kids program at Arts in CT,” George’s mom said. “This year we wanted to come back so she's been working hard on her business all year. We want to use this opportunity to actually get her face out in front of New Haven.”