Wooster Square Cherry Blossoms

Five Stars

377 years ago tomorrow, New Haven was founded.

One year ago tomorrow, five major annual happenings converged on a single weekend.

Beginning today, that possibly unprecedented bonanza gets its parallel, with the same five events happening in a span of four days.

Like the city’s founders, tonight’s 21st annual Leonardo Challenge at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop leads the way, though it most certainly has more and better food—calling it a “smorgasbord” wouldn’t do it justice—than John Davenport and company had on their journey. Each year issuing an open call to area artists to submit work for an exhibition and auction organized around a theme, this year’s guiding idea is “Uncharted Imagination,” a pun on the artifacts central to the challenge: maps.

We think of maps as precise and directional. But the Leonardo Challenge is inherently freewheeling, and that’s visible in the breadth of the 100 or so submissions it’s cultivated for auction. One piece in this year’s show is a giant origami bird made from maps. Another work, in a whimsical inking style part of the way to Shel Silverstein’s, shows a seafarer holding a map, asking a helpful sea monster for directions. “Maps are such powerful inventions themselves that it turns out they’re a little hard to manipulate. They’re already a great refinement of intellectual and creative energy,” director Bill Brown says, but hey, that’s why it’s called a challenge.

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Answering the Call - Knights of Columbus Museum

Maps and challenges also figure into the Rock to Rock Earth Day Ride this Saturday morning, where cyclists choose one of five routes, from eight miles long to 62, that’ll take them from West Rock to East. Joel Tolman, director of impact and engagement at Common Ground High School (where the ride either begins or ends each year), was one of the initial conceivers of the event, now in its seventh year. He remembers “sitting around with friends and thinking New Haven could use an event like this”—an Earth Day celebration that “was open to everybody,” that would get people “outside on a beautiful spring day” to “explore our city and, in the process, raise support for local environmental work.”

The routes are chosen “to be inclusive” and extensive, Tolman says—to “get people out to parts of New Haven” they might not normally experience, like Scantlebury Park or the Farmington Canal Trail, and to “showcase that our community is green and beautiful, and has all these amazing natural assets.” He seems amazed, too, by how far Rock to Rock has come: what started out as “just a bunch of folks who wanted to ride our bikes” attracted 1,100 riders last year, raising $156,000 for 20+ local nonprofits.

An atmospheric sort of amazement is on the agenda for Cloud 9, Artspace’s annual themed fundraising gala Saturday night. Unlike past years—when Artspace self-hosted the opening party/silent auction portion of the evening, before moving proceedings to the expansive vacant bank building at 55 Church for a live auction and dessert—this time the gala gets a dedicated location for the whole night, and a rather interesting one at that. According to Sarah Fritchey, co-curator of the event and Artspace’s gallery director, it’s a third-floor space formerly occupied by Grant’s department store, with the gala entrance located around the corner, at 95 Orange Street, from the store’s loud Chapel-facing street signage that once invited passersby in.

Fritchey says the gala’s street presence will involve lights strung up in trees outside 95 Orange, ushering attendees into a varied interior, “industrial and raw,” offering a fascinating sense of “crumbling architecture.” In line with the theme of Cloud 9, the lighting scheme inside will play with the color white, interpreting the different chromatic components that make it as a series of pastels. She says it’s been a “MacGyver logic puzzle” to try to make it a safe place to hang the 100+ works of art for sale, while also making it feel “elevated,” and the hint of earned pride in her voice suggests she thinks Artspace’s crew of staff and volunteers has hit the mark.

Though there may be some fierce competition among bidders at the Artspace gala, it probably won’t reach the same kind of fever pitch as the clash happening during the eighth annual Iron Chef Elm City, which kicks off late Sunday morning. Organized by longtime New Haven Register food columnist Stephen Fries, the event follows the format of the TV show, albeit with three lead chefs instead of two; three courses instead of five; and an audience that doesn’t need a large camera crew to feel close to the action.

Local and regional tie-ins abound. Happening inside the Omni Hotel downtown, whose head chef Todd Ruiz is one of the competitors, at its heart it’s a fundraiser for scholarships given to culinary and hospitality students at Gateway Community College, where Fries coordinates the hospitality management program. (Driving the connection home, Fries even handpicks a few culinary students to assist the chefs during the battle.) Separate from the “kitchen stadium” area—Iron Chef watchers know what that means—there’s a tasting floor featuring “samplings from competing chefs’ restaurants and CT food manufacturers.” And the secret ingredient—a component the chefs must use in each of their dishes, which gets revealed to them just before the start of the competition—always comes from in-state, like coffee from Willoughby’s or apples from Lyman Orchards in Middlefield.

New Haven’s beloved Wooster Square Park isn’t an orchard, but its trees are still the headliners during its 42nd annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which, from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, celebrates the breathtaking sea of pink and white blooms that too briefly line its edges each spring. It’s a perennial question as to whether the blossoming will line up with the festival, whose organizers—given the logistical complexities of putting on an event that draws thousands, with continuous live entertainment, 14 food vendors and more than 40 other stations featuring community artists, businesses, nonprofits and family activities—have to pick a date early on and stick with it.

This year it seems we’re in luck. The bloom’s underway, with organizers estimating peak to near-peak coverage come Sunday. Assuming the weather holds like it’s supposed to, it’ll be a bold punctuation mark to a weekend that, much to our delight, is already spoiling us rotten.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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