There are a lot of silos in the once-thriving dairy valley of Addison County. Some are still in use, but many others stand neglected in the fields. This fact was not lost on Cookie Schwartz Tager, MA French ’66, who often drove by them on visits to Middlebury and the area. But it wasn’t until she took notice of a silo painted with a colorful top-to-bottom mural near an old dairy barn that had been converted into a private elementary school that “the lightbulb finally went on,” as she says. “I began thinking about replicating public art on all those dilapidated silos I have seen over the years.” She felt a painted silo tour around the area would clearly have positive economic and tourism impacts for Addison County.
Tager, who has funded several student internships at Middlebury College, thought about how students could be a part of her idea. She approached Ashley Calkins Laux ’06, then director of the Center for Community Engagement, and told her she would fund a feasibility study for a silo art tourism project that could be an internship for a student. That student ended up being Shane Silverman ’24.5, who in the spring of 2022 was looking for a way to take on a meaningful internship and experience a summer in Vermont. He had applied to several internships through the Center for Careers and Internships’ MiddWorks for Vermont, and he landed the silo project. Laux hooked him up with the Vermont Creative Network, a program funded by the Vermont Arts Council, and connected him with Kelly Hickey, who was the Addison/Rutland zone agent for the network. Through her, Silverman was able to make contact with local artists and community leaders as he researched the silo trail possibility.
Along with the logistical aspects of the project, the research included traveling with Hickey around Addison and Rutland counties looking for potential silos to be painted. “I think we saw almost 50 silo sites,” says Silverman, who created an interactive map with just about every visible silo in the area. He loved it.
“Shane approached the Silo Project Feasibility Study with curiosity and an investigative drive that took into measure economics, arts and culture, and environmental factors,” says Hickey. “The trust he built while interviewing mural artists, and town and business leaders, as well as conducting public surveys is why this project was attractive to the Vermont Creative Network.”
Using the data he’d collected over the summer, Silverman found that a countywide painted silo trail would be feasible and would meet with public support. He drafted a proposal that he pitched to the Vermont Arts Council. They loved it and recommended he apply for grants from them in the future. But the future wasn’t soon enough for Tager. After all the work Silverman had done, she wanted, as she says, “to see paint go up on a silo.” One of the silos identified by Silverman in his report was right next to the Recycling Center on campus on the site of the former Harris Farm, and it seemed to make sense to narrow the scope of the project at this point. With Silverman’s internship winding down, Tager offered to fund another internship, this time for a student to paint a mural on that silo. “I obviously needed a Phase II,” says Tager, and she went to Heather Neuwirth Lovejoy ’08 at the Elizabeth Hackett Robinson ’84 Innovation Hub. She had already talked with Lovejoy about the projects at the Hub, which really interested her, and she felt Lovejoy could help, “because painting a silo on the Midd campus and arguing for its tourism potential would definitely require innovation, an enormous amount of energy, and an indomitable spirit—all of which Heather embodies!”
At first Lovejoy wasn’t sure how the project would fit in at the Innovation Hub. She didn’t want to create a separate program just for the silo. But then she realized they already had a channel to fund students in creative and innovative settings: Vermont Innovation Summer. The internship could be part of that program during summer 2023.
Lovejoy went to work helping Silverman develop a more concise proposal from his research, focused on the College silo, which he then took to the Committee on Art in Public Places (CAPP), the Middlebury group that approves public art placement on campus. “They were interested but it had to be pitched to them in a way they knew something of quality would be created,” says Silverman. After some deliberation, the committee gave them the go-ahead in early spring, and Lovejoy and Silverman worked to spread the word about the project to get students to apply for the internship. “We only got four applications,” says Lovejoy, “but they were really great.”
The interview committee, comprised of several CAPP members, staff, and a student, as well as Silverman and Lovejoy, chose Wyatt Robinson ’24 to paint the mural. “He’d had larger project management experience, such as working with Habitat for Humanity,” says Lovejoy. “And he talked really compellingly about his concept and was extremely thoughtful.” Robinson, an architecture major, had heard about the silo project from Silverman, who told him he should apply. Robinson had been looking for an internship at an architecture firm but, as he says, “I thought about it pretty hard and decided it would be way more fun if I painted a silo all summer.”
An Ode to the Land
I met Wyatt Robinson at the silo on a sunny Friday afternoon and we took a walk around the structure. In the mural a bobcat slunk along beside me on one side, his yellow eyes glowing. A huge moose reared up over my head, his antlers thrusting up the silo. A loon swam quietly in a lake while a fish leaped out of the water. The figures and background were mesmerizing, and I kept circling.
“The impetus of my design was an ode to the land. I was planning on reflecting the surrounding landscape onto the silo so it would cover the entire thing initially,” Robinson said. What he ended up doing was what he did best, “which is a pen-and-ink style of landscape art, with plants, animals; and through the iterations of that design, it ended up just being this band around the bottom.”
Before he could put a paintbrush to the silo, however, some logistics needed to be figured out. There was talk about doing the mural with wheat paste so he could work in a studio and paint the design on thin pieces of paper that would go up on the surface. “But quickly, I found out that wheat paste is a very temporary way that street artists put up art, and the paper is meant to degrade in a month or so.” He decided to go with exterior latex paint.
For Lovejoy, an important part of the logistical challenges was how people in the Middlebury community rallied around to help Robinson. Tim Parsons, the College landscape horticulturist, came by with his crew and cleaned out the shrubbery and weeds around the base of the silo. Robinson connected with Barry Vaccarelli, in the paint shop, who gave him white primer for free. A local high school teacher, Joe Schine, loaned a power washer and shared wisdom about painting outside from his experience doing the retouch to the Sabra Field mural on Wright Theatre. Chris Murray, preparator at the Museum of Art, who had painted that original silo at the elementary school that Tager admired, stopped by to talk about his approach.
And then there was the scaffolding. Robinson needed a way to reach the higher places; ladders were too dangerous and a cherry picker too expensive. Scaffolding seemed the best option, but Robinson couldn’t find any to rent anywhere in Vermont or New Hampshire. It was construction season, after all. In the end, a very generous housebuilder loaned his set to the project. But then came safety and liability issues, and Robinson ended up having to take a course in using scaffolding safely.
Finally, it was time to paint. Robinson timed his first day of painting for when his father could join him from their home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. “My father is a graphic designer, painter, and illustrator and incredibly knowledgeable about this stuff.” He wanted his father to help with the most critical part—transferring his small design onto the large silo. “We took all the measurements of these metal ribbings and the vertical planes of concrete and measured the distances between these bars.” Robinson pointed out the various features as he talked. “We created the grid that we laid over my drawing and he helped me mark it all out. And then we started on the ferns. We painted the ferns together.”
I asked how he chose what animals to include in the design. “I thought about what I think of this land. I had recently seen a bobcat crossing the road; I had just gone fishing with my friends, so I wanted the trout; great-horned owl, moose, black bear, loon. I kind of feel like these are the big six of Vermont.”
Robinson kept his palette simple: two blues, two greens, yellow, and a pinky gray. “I felt like I could communicate any degree of shadows within all the plants with just those colors, and the water as well.” The rest is black and white in the pen-and-ink fashion, and it makes the animals striking. “I just love the contrast of black and white art. I knew I’d be able to get that effect of shadows and texture in the animals without using any color. It was somewhat an abstract stylistic choice, but I didn’t want to just cloud everything in color. I wanted breathing room.”
His father left and Robinson began painting in earnest, but he never could have predicted how hard the weather would work against him. Continual rainy days forced him to adjust his schedule to when he could find dry time to be applying paint. He began to get worried about finishing the mural before the end of the summer and had to get savvy about dodging raindrops. “I had to start working on days when it was sporadically showering. There was one day when I was painting the moose when I entirely packed up everything and left three separate times, because I could just feel the rain coming.”
Painting days became longer and longer, and Robinson felt he was in overdrive—sweating, covered in paint, fending off mosquitos. It was hard to push himself to paint hours on end, focused on every stroke. But an article about the project had been written by Sophia Afsar-Keshmiri ’24 and published in the local newspaper. Suddenly people began stopping by to see Robinson in action. “Especially toward the end, when I was doing really long days and losing steam, somebody would come by and say they saw the story in the paper and wanted to come see the silo. That meant so much to me and would spark something in me to paint more that day.” And Cookie Tager was a regular visitor—bringing him, of course, cookies.
Robinson achieved his goal and finished the mural. On October 2, a celebration was held at the silo with speeches, accolades, thank yous, and an acknowledgment of what can be accomplished by dedicated students and a community of people supporting them. But in the end, for Robinson, it was really about how creativity can not only be an outlet for the artist but can bring something to the observer. “If this can be a place where someone can walk around this silo and just contemplate the painting, and maybe have a meditative moment that takes them out of something that’s bothering them or stressing them out, then I’ve done my job.”