SWANTON — If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Swanton community has been too quiet for local artist Scott Rheaume. It’s been months since Rheaume erected four community art walls in prominent places across the village and town, with nary a contributor in sight.
“They’re open canvases, open to anyone at any time,” Rheaume said. “You don’t have to be from Swanton. You could be from out of the country, out of the state, whatever. It’s really open for anybody, at any time.”
It’s an open invitation that few people seem to have received. “What I’m finding right now is a lot of people don’t even realize that [the canvases are open],” Rheaume said. “They think you have to get permission to paint on it. Really, you don’t have to ask for permission or anything like that. So far, all the art that’s been on the walls has been me.”
Maybe Rheaume has set the bar too high — his murals, intended as the beginning of a stream of paintings, look like the work of a professional artist, somewhere between Pablo Picasso and Thomas Hart Benton. It isn’t incredible that they might ward off trepid first-timers.
Rheaume said, “I guess some people are afraid that if they paint over something, somebody’s going to ridicule them, and say, ‘Why’d you paint that over that great thing that was there before?’ That really shouldn’t be the case.”
For those who might paint but fear doing so in public, Rheaume urges them to understand public painting is “a beast in itself. I think that’s part of the fun of it. Not too often do you get to paint out in the open, or have such a large canvas to use.” The the art walls measure eight by eight feet, and are double-sided, although the two original walls have now been expanded to twelve-feet wide.
“It’s just great the reactions you get from people driving by. They honk. They hoot, holler and whistle. They’ll holler out, ‘Love what you’re doing!’ It’s bringing color to the community,” said Rheaume.
The art walls are among a recent bloom of Swanton art stemming from the community visit in January 2015, a series of forums facilitated by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Hundreds of locals attended the discussions, in the process creating the Swanton Enhancement Project, six task forces with unique focuses and one overarching goal: to realize Swanton’s full potential.
The Swanton Arts Council is one such task force, designed as a forum for local art and artists. “When I went to the first meeting to be a part of the Swanton Arts Council, they basically went around the room and asked what we could envision to show an artist presence in Swanton,” Rheaume said. “My idea was to have some community art walls. It basically became my project at that point.”
Rheaume met with Reggie Beliveau, the village manager. He met with the trustees and the selectboard. He met with the zoning administrator. Finally, Rheaume went before the developmental review board to find locations for the walls.
The first two art walls were erected in front of the village complexon First Street, and the Chamber of Commerce in the town square. Now there’s another art wall in front of Missisquoi Valley Union Middle and High School; Rheaume is in the process of planning an additional art wall in front of the elementary school on Fourth Street, as well as one on Grand Avenue.
The Grand Avenue art wall is being coordinated with Salon Elixir, a local business, and its owner, Jessica Pelkey. “She had seen the initial art walls, loved the idea, and kept asking me what she had to do to get one at her business,” Rheaume said. That wall has been approved by the development review board and the zoning administrator.
The construction of the art walls was funded through a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. The lumber came from the Swanton Lumber Yard, where Rheaume works as a manager.
Village officials’ only hesitation was a fear that the art walls might be vandalized. “I said you’re focusing on one negative little thing,” Rheaume said. “Think of all the positives: you get community involvement, you get people talking about it in a positive way. You get all these kids coming out of high school, and if they have any artistic abilities whatsoever, a lot of times they have no means of self expression. Even if you paint at home, it stays in your basement. Here you can get three or four buddies together, get some paint and have a fun afternoon.”
And if someone does vandalize the walls, Rheaume said, “Call me anytime, day or night. I’ll be down here with some fresh paint and a roller.”
Even if Swanton residents haven’t rushed out with paintbrushes in hand, the art walls are causing a stir. Members of the St. Albans Art Council reached out to Rheaume, contemplating creating similar canvases across St. Albans.
He notes that Swanton’s art walls were erected last fall, when “the weather had just changed to the point where it was a little too cold to paint.” Rheaume hopes that having more time in the warm weather this year will encourage people to get out there and paint.
There is one rule: the painting can’t be an advertisement. And beyond the obvious — no profanity, please — that’s it. That’s the only rule.
“I wish people had no reservations,” Rheaume said. “Hopefully once we get the word out, more people will feel comfortable going up there to paint. I wish they would just have fun and explore.”