A community-based movement to increase public art and to emphasize Montpelier’s artistic identity has hit its stride. At least a half-dozen new pieces of outdoor art are going up this summer and fall, as we ride the first wave of an effort that promises to make art much more prominent in the city.
“Public art creates something interesting to look at and to stop by and think about,” said artist Kristine Chartrand. “Sometimes it adds beauty to a spot that needs it…. It makes art more accessible to people, and they’re not always the same people who might go to a gallery.”
A U-32 art teacher, Chartrand painted “Defying the Odds,” a whimsical scene of Vermont wildlife huddled on a tiny ice floe on a summer day, which — in a larger format — is about to be installed above the Rialto Bridge on State Street. Printed on a 9-by-18-foot vinyl fabric, an enlargement of her painting will be on the side of the North Branch Café building, above the North Branch of the Winooski River. Building on the theme of “We’re all in this together,” Chartrand said the humor, fantasy, and playful characters in a precarious situation are intended to give viewers both pleasure and plenty to talk and think about.
Chartrand’s watercolor painting, which she digitized with high-quality photography and which was printed on the vinyl fabric by a company in Colorado, will join several other new eye-catching works. The aggressively colorful mural of bees and food on the side of the building that houses Shippee Family Eye Care on Main Street and the mural on the Montpelier Recreation Center that celebrates the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter are already up.
A cluster of colored, translucent acrylic panels are coming to the open space beside the Drawing Board, and a Peter Schumann piece is going up on the side of the Rabble-Rouser building. In coming weeks, the Challenger Seven Memorial on National Life property will be moved to a site by the bike path, near Montpelier High School, and the city’s Public Art Commission is drafting a call to artists for a large mural on the bike-path side of Shaw’s supermarket.
This increased emphasis on public art is the result of the Public Art Master Plan approved by the city council in 2018, which in turn was the result of the ArtSynergy project the year before. Funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, ArtSynergy held a series of events to get community input on how residents would like to see the role of art expand in Montpelier.
In 2019, as part of the Taylor Street Transit Center project, the city council showed its commitment with a “big art” contest. Gregory Miguel Gomez and Rodrigo Nova won a privately funded $50,000 prize for “Counter Rotation,” a round granite bench with a split-flap counter that with each rotation shows a different image or poem.
The Public Art Commission, which was created as part of the master plan and appointed by the council, has now taken the lead in bringing everything together and to making things happen.
“We have a great community here, and art reinforces that,” said the commission chair, Rob Hitzig. “Art adds to a community’s identity…. It adds to the vibrancy and it adds to personal growth and communal growth.”
Hitzig said that a good first impression and some early successes are important, so the commission is focusing on very visible, inexpensive projects that provide a lot of a bang from its limited budget. The commission has received $20,000 in each of two city budgets and also receives funding from Montpelier Alive.
Hitzig stressed the crucial roles that Paul Gambill of the Community Engagement Lab, Dan Groberg of Montpelier Alive, and Kevin Casey, the city’s community development specialist, have played from the start. He further emphasized that the volunteer efforts of commissioners and other community members, the cooperation of property owners, and support from city workers and businesses have all been essential to this broad-based, community effort. And at the heart of it, he said, are the artists.
“It’s a thing about street art that you own it while you’re painting it, but after that it belongs to everyone,” said Erika McCormack, who painted the fun and very colorful mural that is serendipitously located right next door to where she works when she’s not painting — Three Penny Taproom on Main Street. Customers who are seated outdoors have a good view of her mural, and she said it is fun and humbling to hear people who don’t know she is the artist comment on it.
“I love bees and I wanted to show the interconnectedness of the food we eat and the importance of pollination,” McCormack said. “I wanted kids to like it, too, and I wanted them to be able to go up and touch it… It was fun ordering the paint — all neon, all the way.”
Colors are also important to the new mural on the back of the Rec Center, nicely placed for great views from the bike path and all the way across the Winooski to U.S. Rt. 2/Berlin Street. Titled, “Resilience,” this mural is the work of six Montpelier High School students and two of their teachers.
A few months ago, Xavier Pinnock-Olbino-Santana, a rising senior who is planning to go to art school after graduation, approached art teacher Colleen Flanagan with some project ideas, including a mural. That led to a class project that involved five more students and another teacher. While Flanagan worked with Pinnock-Olbino-Santana as he developed the design, she said the vision was entirely his.
“The mural is a reflection of all of the students’ visions, with Xavier’s broad vision underlying it all,” Flanagan said. “We had some hard conversations working on this mural. I was impressed with the students’ steadfast commitment to civil rights. They amazed me.”
The back row, from left to right, presents Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Amanda Gorman. Pinnock-Olbino-Santana said they represent a progression of Black leadership, with Gorman now one of the people in that role. The front row has four victims of police or vigilante violence: George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Adam Toledo.
“The mural is about what we’ve gone through to get where we are now,” Pinnock-Olbino-Santana said. “The front row is in blue and is about remembrance, police violence, and ending hatred.”
The mural was painted in sections at MHS and then installed on the wall. The other students who worked on it are Mira Pompei, Diego Harper-Vive, Marlie McDermet, Hector Zeankowski-Giffin, and Kathryn McCall. Global citizen teacher Helen Sullivan joined them.
“Why public art?” Groberg asked, throwing my question back at me. “The mission of Montpelier Alive is to create a more vibrant and livable Montpelier by celebrating downtown.…We have so many creative people in the area and we want to create more of those wow-and-wonder moments.…We want to encourage the city to infuse art into its thinking (about everything).”
Montpelier Alive has long promoted art and artists. Groberg noted that in addition to efforts such as the monthly Montpelier Art Walks, before the Public Art Commission was created, Montpelier Alive had done some public art projects, such as “Blue Flags” over the North Branch river between State Street and Langdon Street and the asphalt mural in the parking lot next to Julio’s restaurant.
“I see every blank wall as a possible canvas,” Groberg said. “I’d like us to use art to elevate diverse voices. The Black Lives Matter murals on the Rec Center and on State Street are great examples of that. We can use art to do good.”
Like Hitzig and Groberg, Bob Hannum, the commission’s vice chair, believes that art revitalizes a community, but he added another aspect to this: “It’s not just beautifying our lives and our city; it’s tied into economic development.”
Hannum researched and wrote a detailed report on the more than 30 pieces of public art already in the city. Acknowledging one of the commission’s responsibilities, he included the condition of each piece. Most are in good shape; however, monitoring the condition of outdoor artwork and recognizing and planning for maintenance is important to keeping things looking good.
Showing art that is in poor condition is worse than having no art at all, he said, adding that outdoor art has life expectancies, so some art projects are scheduled for finite periods. Work printed on vinyl fabric, for example, is less expensive than some other types of installations. It is planned for two years. Its lower cost and limited life span allow the commission to stretch its dollars and to test various ideas in various locations.
Casey said this approach has helped the commission to jump-start its work. “Let’s get public art out and make it part of the conversation with smaller, highly visible projects.”
The commission is working in the first section of the Public Art Master Plan’s priorities — short-term goals and strategies. The 84-page plan includes medium- and long-term goals and strategies, as well. Some of those goals push us to dream big. How much will this effort grow?
“Once you build this base, it will build momentum and it will organically find its home and right size,” said Casey. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the expanding wealth of art spreading through the city.