By Shea Barnett —
Amid the yellow-brown crunch underfoot, the crimson leaves dancing sprite-like in the wind, and the bare, wooden sentinels now disrobed and dormant for winter, the Skidmore water tower stands pretty. The tight band of color wrapping the foot of the tower features self-indulgent shout-outs, delicate whispers, pop-culture references, obligatory penis jokes and colorful profanity. The stencils and spray painted designs delineate the average reach of most of their creators–about 8 feet. Other, more nimble people were able to reach the precipice of the structure and spill a chromatic waterfall of paint over the side of the edifice drawing the eyes skyward.
Although not exactly the first place one looks for art on campus, the water tower in Northwoods is something of a gallery and show space for a particularly controversial tradition. Although it can’t be proven that the marks are made by Skidmore students, it’s very likely that they are. This white cylinder painted in shades of blue, black, yellow and red just a couple dozen paces into the woods is one of this school’s more secret monuments that holds a record of past and present Skidmore students’ creative and fun-loving nature.
Like the chapel two minutes away, the water tower acts as a sanctuary. The tower is a space used by those itching to engage in an art often looked down upon in other contexts. Elsewhere on campus, the administration is in continual combat with the stenciled gnomes, owls and Totoros hiding in our halls. Some pieces are more difficult to scrub out and pose a particularly aggravating challenge. Such an effort to wipe out the marks has a monetary value too which is reflected in our student tuition. According to the Skidmore News, the charge to students for damage repair was over $26,000 for the 2010-2011 academic year and $16,000 for the 2011-2012 academic year.
Nevertheless, the collaborative project in the woods continues to display the work of faceless artists passing through our institution, perhaps hoping to leave something of themselves behind. Informal in nature, the mural has a communal feel that speaks with a voice that is immature, sarcastic, excited, morose and belligerent all at once. In an environment that promotes maturity, studiousness, and even-tempered dialogue, the kid often gets shoved to the side. And so a space for self-expression creates itself when other venues are deemed inadequate or unwelcoming.
From a distance, the structure clearly proclaims “DEKRD” and “johnny2x4” above all other voices. The throng of letters beneath the proclamation produces such a cacophony as to be incomprehensible unless under closer observation. While some messages scream, others murmur unknown remembrances such as one to “Boobarb 2012[,] never forget”. Like a tangle of worms, names and phrases bulge and jostle atop each other for representation though most end up in a knotted and illegible mess. Because of the layering of these multitudinous voices, each successive statement becomes that much meeker in comparison. However, the whole spontaneous mural has so many levels and dimensions that it keeps the viewer transfixed and caught up in the brawl.
Both above and hidden among the splotchy reds, whites and purples are images. These pictures are built upon by many artists allowing a story to grow. For example, the flying pigs of one artist are leashed to a green soldier by a subsequent artist. Under the sea of spray paint one might even find menacing orange-skinned girls crying ebony tears and red-headed, pupil-less skulls warning you not to look away. Pop culture references also abound, especially in the emptier real estate above the reach of most spray cans. Stencils of Snorlax, Lincoln, Ron Swanson, Mickey Mouse, and Winnie the Pooh bring some familiarity to the canvas as do references to Game of Thrones, American Dad, Hillary Swank, and reddit. With whimsical notes and more sinister undulations side by side, the piece as a whole presents a multifaceted view of our community. Although school life is so often fraught with stress, drama, class conflicts and bias incidents, the water tower remains a space open to inclusiveness, rebelliousness, creative thought and youthful expression.