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Montpelier’s Creative Community Lifts Spirits With the Renewal Project

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Published December 13, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Sunflower still life paintings by Union Elementary School students at Walgreens on Main Street - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Sunflower still life paintings by Union Elementary School students at Walgreens on Main Street

In July, floodwaters rose four feet throughout downtown Montpelier, laying waste to buildings along Main and State streets. Soon after, Vermonters were shocked to see images of debris piled high in the streets as shopkeepers mucked out their basements and tossed ruined inventories. Hundreds of local volunteers, as well as federal disaster-assistance teams, arrived to help clean up.

Now, despite some still-empty storefronts and continuing restoration, America's smallest state capital looks quite different. It was not the only Vermont town impacted by flooding, but its comeback strategy has been, well, Montpelier Strong. And it includes putting art just about everywhere.

Montpelier Alive, whose mission is to promote the city's business and cultural economy, issued a request for proposals for its Renewal Project in October. It sought "art to fill empty downtown storefront windows" as part of an ongoing post-flood beautification effort. And artists from kindergartners to seasoned professionals responded.

Montpelier Strong photographs by Elliot Burg at Roam Vermont on Langdon Street - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Montpelier Strong photographs by Elliot Burg at Roam Vermont on Langdon Street

Monica DiGiovanni is the director of Downtown Arts at Montpelier Alive. In a phone interview, she described the mission of the Renewal Project as "to help build a sense that the city was in repair and moving forward, and quite simply to bring a little cheer back." Putting artwork in windows, she suggested, conveys the message "that we're still here and getting past this."

Locals and visitors who stroll the streets during the day surely find cheerful the sunflower paintings by K-2 students at Union Elementary School, directed by art teacher Kristina Kane. Those adorn the Walgreens windows at 29 Main Street. Under the tutelage of Brian Herrick and Jess Operoski, children in grades 3 to 5 made posters with inspirational messages at Wilder Arts, on view at 40 State Street.

Eleven other posters around town have an auditory component. "Montpelier Rising: Stories of the 2023 Flood" is a collaboration of Victor Guadagno and Paul Richardson of StoryWorkz and the "BorderTown" podcast. On formal color portraits of individuals who survived the flood, a QR code leads to a recording of their stories.

Lighting installation by Chris Jeffrey at the corner of State and Main streets; - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Lighting installation by Chris Jeffrey at the corner of State and Main streets;

Some contributions to the Renewal Project can only be appreciated after dark — which comes around 4:30 these days. The most dramatic is "Montpelier Lights," an installation by Chris Jeffrey in the former TD Bank at State and Main streets. The trippy display uses optical filters, typically employed in astronomical, scientific and medical imaging, that reflect and project ever-changing colors.

Other installations include documentary photography, paper assemblages and a community quilt. When the first pieces appeared in late October, "It was a huge relief — some people said it just felt like someone cared," DiGiovanni noted. "The business owners were just so focused on opening. There's still a sense of shock and disorientation rippling through the community."

Having art in the windows "gave people reassurance, a feeling like It's coming back," she said.

Can we call it capital gains?

Most Renewal Project installations will be on view through New Year's Eve around downtown Montpelier. montpelieralive.com/renewalproject

The original print version of this article was headlined "Montpelier's Creative Community Lifts Spirits With the Renewal Project"

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