What I had stumbled upon, in fact, was one of Frederick’s signature features – the trompe l’oeil ("deceive the eye") paintings of artist William Cochran. However, it wasn’t until later that I discovered Cochran’s masterpiece, the Community Bridge. I had seen the bridge before from a distance – an old stone bridge spanning Carroll Creek. Only later, when I strolled along the Carroll Creek Park causeway, did I realize the "old stone bridge" was, in fact, another stunning trompe l’oeil illusion: the "stones" were painted on a plain concrete surface, as was the ivy growing on it, a bronze gate, and fountain set nearby. I examined the bridge more closely: a rich tapestry of symbols, faces, medallions, and subtle optical illusions emerged. I was fascinated. What could it all mean?
Later I learned about the history of the Community Bridge, a project undertaken by literally the entire community – though from start to finish it was the brainchild of Cochran, working with a handful of assistants. He’d had some success with the murals he’d painted around town. However, when he first suggested "painting a bridge on a bridge," community leaders thought he was crazy.
When Cochran finally got approval for the project, his "crazy" concept took wing. Ideas for the bridge were solicited from the local community and far beyond, with all the motifs adhering to the central "community" concept. Suggestions from places as far flung as South Africa and Indonesia were incorporated into the hundreds of symbolic features worked into the "stones" of the bridge.
Contributors to the bridge were asked, "What object represents the spirit of community to you?" The symbols they selected were intriguing: a key, a knot, a hand, a thistle, a chameleon, a spider web, a spiral, and many others. They remind me of Thomas Wolfe’s verbal talismans – "a stone, a leaf, a door…" But while Wolfe asserted that "You can’t go home again," this bridge was meant to be the distillation of home and community itself.
Of course, the overarching symbol is the bridge itself: as a connection from one person, race, culture, or generation to another. Just as significant is the symbolism of the "illusions." Cochran explained that, "The small illusions I create with paint are nothing compared to the large illusions we all insist on being fooled by every day. What if our sense that we are separated from each other by all kinds of differences and barriers is simply an illusion, no more real than the images I paint?"
July 9, 2002
From journal Frederick, Maryland: Bridging Past and Present