"I love this. I walk by this every day, and it makes me smile." So said a man who was, well, walking by the new public art at UVM created by Burlington artist Clark Derbes and a small posse of volunteers. I myself ambled up the hill on a recent hot day to watch the work in progress.
Actually, it was in progress again. Originally painted the previous week, the work was thought to be graffiti by peeps at the UVM physical plant, who dutifully painted over it. Oops.
Derbes (pictured at right) seemed philosophical about the 'reverse graffiti,' though. Actually, he always is pretty damn cheerful. Must be 'cause he's from Louisiana. And the volunteers looked pretty psyched to be filling in the thick black outlines with a host of bright colors instead of actually working. (Speaking of unemployed artists, check out this video of Derbes working with schoolkids in Eva Sollberger's "Stuck in Vermont" in 2007.)
Anyway, the painting, in Derbes' bold, Mondrian-esque style, covers an entire cement-block structure behind the little brick building that houses the entrance to the tunnel under Main Street. Apparently, the bunker hides the electrical controls for the elevator. The painting, which is a definite improvement over bare gray cement, was commissioned by the Davis Center, according to Pat Brown, director of the center and of student life, which sounds like a lot to direct. While wielding a paint roller at the end of an extension pole, Brown told me the idea came about last semester with a mural class, "but we didn't get permission to do it until after the class ended."
"When we built the Davis Center, we thought we owned this bunker," Brown continued. And if you owned a bunker, wouldn't you want to paint it? I would. And I'd hire Clark.
Justine Cohen, curator of the Davis Center and a UVM grad in studio art, was the project manager for this job. Cohen explained that she had seen Derbes' work at his show this spring at Jager DiPaola Kemp Design and liked it. Also, she said, assistant curator of the Firehouse Gallery Amanda Sanfilippo recommended him.
Cohen said she, too, contributed to some of the painting. "It was really kind of an eyesore," she said of the re-transformed bunker.
And that's when Derbes asked if I wanted to paint something. I said sure and he handed me a roller with the longest attachment I'd ever seen.
I gamely painted in a rectangle of blue. It's been a long time since I had to color between the lines, and I've never done it with a small roller, like, eight feet above my head. Let me tell you, it was harder than you'd think. But even contributing one little patch of blue was oddly satisfying, and I can see why Derbes loves it.
Hmm, wonder how the neighbors would feel about one of these babies on the side of my house?
By the way, this piece is called "Tom Sawyerism." Go have a look.