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The Way I See It: ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’: Take a Look Around

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“I like the raccoon on top of the umbrella,” the boy, about eight, exclaimed. “He’s so funny.”

The boy, his younger sister, and their mom — I’m guessing based on their interactions — were standing on the Rialto Bridge on State Street, engaged in a lively conversation about “Defying the Odds,” the 9-by-18-foot, mural-like panel hanging above the North Branch of the Winooski River on the side of the building housing North Branch Café.

They were counting and identifying the animals, as well as marveling at artist Kristine Chartrand’s fun and imaginative painting of an unlikely scene: Vermont wildlife huddled on a small ice floe on a beautiful summer day. The enthusiastic trio clearly loved it.

Some readers of The Bridge may have noticed that I’m a fan of Montpelier’s outdoor public art; I’ve written several articles about it, and I’ve attended some installations. Like the family on the Rialto Bridge, I regularly look up or over at the art we have around us. For the past year, I also have been paying special attention to who else is looking at these gems we have spread around the city.

When an installation is new, it not surprisingly gets a bit more attention. That’s still happening with Mauricio Ramirez’s 15-foot-tall, 110-foot-long mural on the Shaw’s supermarket wall. One day, when I was standing beside the bike path and looking at the mural, a woman stopped about 20 feet from me to do the same. At one point, we looked at each other, and she said, “It’s beautiful. I just love it.”

Including art in the cemeteries, on other private property, and on state property, the city already boasted many sculptures and a handful of other artworks; however, in the past few years, we’ve gained some new works in very visible places. Art doesn’t just happen. We can thank the Montpelier Public Art Commission (a volunteer-based part of city government), Montpelier Alive, several building owners, downtown businesses, other organizations and individuals, and a variety of funders, including taxpayers. Not to forget the artists. It takes a village, so to speak.

If you stand in front of Bear Pond Books, looking left down Main Street, murals and a panel by Bread and Puppet Theater’s Peter Schumann adorn the side of the Rabble-Rouser building, and farther down, just before the Shaw’s mural, the translucent-colored polyurethane panels — an Arcana Workshop creation — catch the sun.

Looking down State Street, you see the delightful group of Vermont animals enjoying a summer day on an ice floe. If you walk to the right and go down Langdon Street, you see three huge enlargements of black-and-white Elliot Berg photographs. And — back on Main Street — Erika McCormack’s playful mural with bees and sweets brightens the side of Shippee Family Eye Care. Painted at ground level, McCormack’s mural is another family favorite; twice I’ve seen people taking pictures of their kids there. 

Farther down Main Street, Ryan Mays’s granite mouse sculpture beckons readers into the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Plantings and a small fence were installed to stop kids from climbing on the cute, book-reading mouse, but that hasn’t stopped winter admirers from putting scarves or hats on him (or her or them).

Following the bike path in either direction brings rewards. Heading toward Hunger Mountain Co-op, you quickly come to “Resilience,” the civil rights-themed mural created by six Montpelier High School students with two teachers. Then-rising senior Xavier Pinnock-Olbino-Santana was the lead artist. The thought-provoking, brightly colored, dramatic work is visible not just from the bike path, but also from across the Winooski River on U.S. Route 2/Berlin Street.

Changing directions, the bike path leads to Montpelier High School, with the Challenger Seven Memorial, and nearby, the brightly painted, upright, half-canoe marking the entrance to the Bill Haines Memorial River Access. In front of the school entrance stands the granite owl sculpture. Farther out the bike path, there is the reinvigorated Peace Park, and beyond it, two murals below the interstate. Across the river in Gateway Park, also on interstate structural supports, are the city’s newest two murals.

I’ve touched on only a fraction of the art around us, and more is coming soon. After watching to see who is looking at art, I think that city visitors are noticing the treats and treasures around us more than many of us are. It’s not that we need to always look at art, but if we don’t stop to look once in a while, we’re missing out. 

The Latin phrase, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” is carved below the owl on the MHS sculpture. Translated as “art is long, life is short,” the phrase has various ancient and modern interpretations; to me, it serves as a reminder that life is short, but it is richer if we take time to appreciate the art around us.

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