Electrical boxes, parking lot walls, skate ramps: These have been some of the “canvases” for Clark Derbes, whose bold, geometric works enliven the public art landscape of downtown Burlington. For a project at Johnson State College last month, Derbes chose a different surface: pavement. That is, on a courtyard and walkway near the Visual Art Center. With the help of “students from a smattering of different art classes,” he created a painting you can walk on. “The ground is an unused sector for doing public art,” Derbes says.
Unsure what he was going to do, the Burlington artist visited the campus in advance to scope out possible sites. Then, he says, “I figured I’d show up with 4-inch-wide rollers and paint and make something on the spot.” After settling on the courtyard, Derbes says, he drew quick lines and the students followed him, widening the lines with rollers dipped in the kind of white, industrial-quality paint used by street departments for zone marking. It’s a medium Derbes discovered at Curtis Lumber while preparing to create a project at the Burlington waterfront. “I got seven gallons for $5,” he marvels. “I think the paint must have been sitting there for years.”
The result of his and the students’ labors is a serpentine path of white lines that defines the courtyard space and a walkway leading from it, concluding with a ring around a drain in the concrete. “As it kept going, it got more complex,” notes Derbes. Indeed, his linear creations resemble aboriginal dreamtime paintings, generously leavened with Keith Haring-like playfulness and a postpunk, anyone-can-do-this abandon.
The work is a big hit on campus, according to Leila Bandar, coordinator of Campus Arts and director of the school’s gallery. “The painting on the run-down asphalt of the courtyard truly uplifted art students, art faculty and administration at JSC,” she writes in an email. Bandar notes that as Derbes responded to the location, “His body became part athlete, part artist — completely engaged and drawn in by the line of the roller and the movement of taking it for a walk. Clark took to the space, exploring it like it was new territory.” Which, to him, it was. But it’s territory the students and staff will see and traverse for years to come.
JSC art prof Marjorie Kramer invited Derbes to the college after seeing his installation for a group show called “Uncharted Territories” at the Firehouse Gallery last summer. For that exhibit, he cut out random shapes from thick cardboard and drew lines in black marker on one side that gave the pieces a faux three-dimensionality — the look recalls early drawings by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Derbes then attached an adhesive on the other side so viewers could stick the pieces to the gallery wall, take them down, or move them around at will.
This interactivity was a hit with both adults and kids — and inspired another recent gig, with Grand Isle middle-school students. “During the summer, seventh- and eighth-grade classes came to the Firehouse to see the exhibits, and I met them there,” Derbes explains. “I ended up letting the 60 or so kids color all the pieces in my exhibit and play with the installation.”
In four recent sessions at the school, funded by the North Hero-based nonprofit Island Arts, Derbes instructed kids to cut out and design their own pieces of geometric art on thin wood. The results will be installed in a stairwell, he says, adjacent to a mural that the students “updated” with more line drawings. “We painted it like a landscape, more or less,” Derbes says. “I thought it would be too visually overwhelming to let them have a free-for-all, so the top half is [painted in] blues and grays, like the sky, and the bottom is green and earth tones.”
So now Derbes can add “school hallway” to his list of surfaces conquered. What’s next? Hello, Burlington Airport? That runway could use an upgrade.