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Defying the Odds Above the North Branch

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From left, Rob Hitzig, Ward Joyce, and Jody Brown (with white helmet), install the aptly named “Defying the Odds.” Photo by Tom McKone.

Even if Bread & Puppet Theater hadn’t been involved, putting up the city’s newest, large-scale, highly visible artworks still would have been quite a show. There was no shortage of drama, entertainment, or ingenuity.

Three members of the Montpelier Public Art Commission spent a full Sunday installing Peter Schumann’s “Handout #27: A Bad Bedsheet” high on the side of the Rabble-Rouser building on Main Street, and U-32 art teacher Kristine Chartrand’s “Defying the Odds” high over the Winooski River on the building that houses North Branch Café on State Street.

At times during the tricky installation of “Defying the Odds,” the name seemed especially apt, but more about that later.

 Schumann, co-founder of the internationally renowned Bread & Puppet Theater based in Glover, painted his colorful work on a discarded, king-size bedsheet, one of more than 150 that a hotel gave him and that he has turned into canvases.

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“Peter has been very prolific during the pandemic,” said Alexis Smith, “curatrix” for Bread & Puppet. “He’s been painting every day.” Smith said that scores of sheet paintings have been installed around the state. This one, however, was photographed and printed on vinyl fabric and mounted on a wooden frame. She said Schumann is dedicating his current work to his late wife, Elka, who passed away in August at age 85.

Smith, who also appears as “the Garbageman” at events, and Bread & Puppet filmmaker Jerome Lipani, came to help install the works both on the ground and in the air.

Bread & Puppet Theater’s Alexis Smith, as “the Garbageman,” leads the cherry picker to “Handout #27: A Bad Bedsheet,” before it is installed. Photo by Tom McKone.

Rob Hitzig, Ward Joyce, and Jody Brown — all artists and members of the art commission — put the two unwieldy artworks in place while balanced in the bucket of a “cherry picker” (also known as a “mobile elevating work platform”).

After building the frame and mounting the vinyl on it, they added a second, temporary frame that was needed to get the final panel onto the building. First, however, they rode the cherry picker up to install the initial set of brackets in grout between bricks.

Then came the real challenge: lifting the huge panel, balanced on the side of the cherry picker, into place on the wall, where Hitzig, Joyce, and Brown removed the temporary frame and fastened the 100-pound panels to the wall. For the Schumann piece, which is 13 feet high and 16 feet wide, the cherry picker parked directly below where the panel would go. The installation required preparation, skill, and balance, but compared with what would come, it was simple.

To install Chartrand’s work, Hitzig, Joyce, and Brown parked the cherry picker on the Rialto Bridge and secured the nine-foot-wide, 18-foot-high panel as best they could on the side of the bucket before venturing out over the river and up the side of the building. There, they discussed how to do this and how much weight the rented cherry picker could support when extended so far out to the side. Before lift-off, Hitzig, Joyce, and Brown all donned safety harnesses and attached themselves to the bucket.  

Their hold on “Defying the Odds” looked precarious, and onlookers wondered aloud about the odds of success. Afterward, Hitzig described the experience as “a little nerve-wracking.”

In the end, “Defying the Odds,” did. The fun, brightly colored panel is a whimsical scene of Vermont wildlife huddled on a small ice floe on a summer day. It stands out as you walk or drive down State Street, and if you stand at the right spot in front of Bear Pond Books, you can see both Chartrand’s work and Schumann’s. Schumann’s is visible up Main Street all the way past the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

Chartrand’s panel is a photographed, digitized, and greatly enlarged version of her small, easel-sized watercolor. Both her work and Schumann’s were printed on vinyl fabric in Colorado. This is not Chartrand’s largest work: she designed, but did not herself paint, the mural on Summer Street in Barre.

These works are part of the Montpelier Public Art Commission’s mission to increase the emphasis on art in the city. This summer, also using a cherry picker, several members of the commission installed the “Resilience” mural on the back of the Rec Center. On the side of Shippee Family Eye Care on Main Street, Erika McCormack painted her playful, very bright bee mural, and in the open space beside the Drawing Board, Arcana Workshop installed five, colorful, translucent polyurethane panels.