Chain link gallery spruces up construction zone

There are many beautiful paintings, drawings and photographs of downtown Middlebury with its iconic churches, a handsome stone arch bridge and quaint Main Street shops — it’s a nearly perfect advertisement for a New England village. Unfortunately, those images are marred by a big building project that most would call anything by beautiful.
Middlebury is in the midst of a $71 million project that is replacing two downtown bridges over the railroad that passes under Main Street and Merchants Row with a tunnel that will improve the local infrastructure and even create a little more green space. The building will be going on through the summer of 2020. While the goal is terrific, the process of getting there is not picturesque. Chain link fences have been set up in the heart of the village producing an atmosphere that says 21st century industrial more than 18th century bucolic.
But wait, two months after the fence went up, a first-class artist and some youngsters with an artistic bent came to the fences and covered them with imagery that beautifies the space and puts a whole new spin on a modern day New England village. They call it the new “Chain Link Gallery.”
Middlebury Union High School junior Owen Heminway fills a tire planter with topsoil in downtown Middlebury during construction of an art project. The tire planters were attached to the chain link fence surrounding part of the rail bridges replacement project by students and teachers from the school program formerly known as Diversified Occupations.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“The idea was, downtown’s gonna be kind of ugly for the next two years,” said Doug Anderson, executive director of the Town Hall Theater, which sits at the top of Merchants Row. The THT spearheaded the project and put out the open call for submissions. “It’s the old thing of seeing a problem and seeing if you can turn it into a plus, or something exciting.”
The project was made possible by the citizens’ group Neighbors Together, and a $75,000 grant that they secured from the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Currently, the gallery consists of three fence panels, each six feet tall by 12 feet long — two by local artists and one by students. The panel on the right was designed by Jennifer Parmelee, a local artist and special education teacher at Middlebury Union High School. Titled “Gratitude,” it includes golden mannequin heads, metal clothes hangers wrapped in yarn, and a dozen quotations printed on colored paper, encouraging kindness and contemplation. “It is an homage to wisdom, evolution, enlightenment and tolerance,” Parmelee said of her work. “A moment of reflection in these trying times.”
While “Gratitude” was Parmelee’s brainchild, she said “the kids were very much involved, especially the hands-on hanging the installation itself.” And the leftmost panel — entitled “Jardin D.O.” — is entirely the students’ creation, from idea to implementation. It consists of flower planters made from recycled tires, interspersed with hanging bunches of hand-painted CDs — the result of a full day’s work from Parmelee’s students in the Middlebury Union High School program formerly known as Diversified Occupations.
“They absolutely loved it,” Parmelee said. “These kids have their own challenges — a lot of them have intellectual disabilities, some of them have physical disabilities. These are kids that definitely have some uphill battles, and to see them shine and be as happy as they can be creating art is absolutely, 150 percent gratification. As an educator, as a human, as a mother, as a parent, it’s just a beautiful thing.”
“The day that they were out there, out of school, people were driving by and honking and waving at them, and they were stars,” Anderson recalled. “It was the process that was the most fun.”
Middlebury Union High School educator Jennifer Parmelee, left, and Neighbors Together Committee Chair Nancy Malcolm meet with VTrans Regional Construction Engineer Doug Bonneau, VTrans Resident Engineer Tim Pockette and rail bridges replacement project Community Liaison Jim Gish to discuss progress of an art installation along fencing surrounding the construction project.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Sandwiched between the works of Parmelee and her students is “Middlebury Boogie Woogie” by the Middlebury artist Kate Gridley — a colorful crosshatch of black lines and bright squares, recognizably imitating the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Gridley’s piece is composed of hundreds of plastic cups that she found online, which are designed specifically to be inserted into the squares of a chain link fence. Gridley sought to create “a graphic, big, bright piece of art that would obscure the toilet behind here,” she said, gesturing to the construction workers’ port-o-potty behind the fence. “This is an arrangement of shapes — it’s more geometric, because we’re dealing with transportation systems and corridors.”
“We felt strongly that whatever the art was, it had to acknowledge the chain-linkiness of the frame,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t just a matter of hanging art on it, it had to acknowledge it. Kate totally got that, she totally got that it worked in diagonals.”
“You’ve got to let the fence speak, even when you’re hiding it,” Gridley agreed.
All those involved with the gallery stress that the current installation is only the beginning. Each piece will be rotated out after two months, and Anderson hopes to expand onto other construction fences downtown. “Now that we’ve got the first installation up, other artists are coming forward — ‘Now I see what you’re talking about, I see how much fun that could be. Can I do one?’ Sure. We’re already seeing more people applying,” he said.
Count Parmelee as one artist who remains interested. “I’d love to be able to continuously be contributing, I have tons of ideas,” she said. “There’s so many things that you can do, it’s just a matter of having the courage to put something out there, and working out all the kinks. So anything can be done.”
As for Gridley, who is a well-known painter who has painted the official portrait of Gov. James Douglas among other notables, she hopes that her contribution helped “set a bar for strong, graphically happy stuff” to ease the town through a difficult period in its history. “We’re worried about this downtown losing energy, we’re worried about stores closing, about tourists not wanting to come down here while it’s ugly and messy,” she said. “The thing is, it’s still our town center — there’s energy here.”
Anyone interested in submitting a design should email [email protected], where proposals will be accepted over the next two years.

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