BRATTLEBORO—Local artist Susan Rosano recently completed a residency at Brattleboro Union High School, transforming what she calls rusty trash into “an artistic statement of ecology” with her oil drum art project.
Her connection to oil cans began in 2005, when she lived in Connecticut. “I saw an ad in the Hartford papers: A man wanted artists to create art from recycled oil drums that he had in his warehouse,” Rosano said. “He would give them to artists for free if they’d agree to exhibit them in a museum show in Hartford.”
Rosano took him up on his offer and painted a rounded mural on the drum as part of the museum exhibit.
Around the time of the museum show, Rosano says the Connecticut school system began a recycling program, which gave her the idea to use the recycled barrels both as a canvas and as a receptacle for collecting used drink bottles in school cafeterias.
Rosano — who holds a masters in liberal studies from Wesleyan University, with a concentration in visual art — was a master teaching artist in the Connecticut schools. The position is a working artist who visits schools, brings projects to students, and teaches them how to work as an artist.
She brought the oil drum idea to the schools as part of their curriculum on the environment. Rosano offered an example of how her project fits into the students’ studies: “The third-graders were studying ecosystems, and to show what they learned they’d paint ecosystems right onto the barrels.”
In addition to helping the students learn art techniques and giving them an unusual medium for creativity, Rosano says this project helped the students learn to cooperate and collaborate. She reports that for the third-graders’ project, 78 students painted on one barrel.
Since that first project, Rosano reports, she brought the oil drum art program to more than 100 Connecticut schools.
After moving to Vermont, Rosano said, she found her opportunity to repeat her project when Tim Stevenson of Post-Oil Solutions came to her attention seeking participants for The Art of Climate Change, the organization’s yearlong collaborative project with Windham County’s visual and performing arts communities.
Rosano and Stevenson connected with the Arts Council of Windham County, developed a proposal for the oil drum art project, and pitched it to the superintendent of schools at the Windham South East Supervisory Union.
Post-Oil Solutions supported Rosano’s residency completely, even finding grants for the barrels.
Rosano says Liz deNiord, chair of the Fine and Practical Arts Department at Brattleboro Union High School, wanted her to roll the project out through the afterschool art and science clubs. DeNiord also invited her to deliver a presentation to the students.
The artist obliged, appearing at the afterschool Monday Art Club/Preserve Our Planet planning meetings with a slideshow of samples of students’ work
As DeNiord recalls, “[Rosano] led the group through several planning meetings, facilitating students to think deeply about environmental change and to create imagery that would carry their messages.”
Stevenson also attended the meetings to help students plan the project.
According to deNiord, “the students grew progressively more committed to the project with each conversation and planning meeting.”
One aspect of the project that deNiord said was of particular interest was the opportunity for collaboration across classroom and community lines.
“Coordination of people and departments is challenging. We have had visiting artists come in before but have never collaborated with another department, and we were fortunate to have Susan’s expertise in guidance and production of this project,” deNiord told The Commons.
Rosano began the program here in early November, 2014.
She drove to Connecticut with her husband, Dennis Waring, to pick up the barrels for the BUHS project. They stuffed them all into Dennis’ Jeep, Rosano recalls.
She adds that she sourced the barrels from a man she calls “good ol’ Mike Crane,” who gets used barrels from a factory in Bridgeport, Conn.
“Mike takes the barrels to a program he runs in Waterbury for youths who have dropped out of high school,” she explains. By learning to clean, de-rust, and paint the barrels, Crane’s charges learn contracting skills such as plumbing and construction. When Rosano purchases barrels from Crane, that money goes back into his youth program.
She describes the oil drum art project at BUHS as interactive and mostly student-led: “I showed them the idea and they created themes for each barrel. They did the sketches, then transferred them onto the barrels.”
On Dec. 3, 2014, the students spent all day painting four 10-gallon barrels and three 55-gallon barrels. The work took place during what Rosano describes as a day the school sets aside each month for special projects.
“There was a core group of students who took ownership of the project and it wouldn’t have happened without their commitment,” deNiord says. “They collaborated and directed the other students who signed up on Activity Day how to bring the imagery to life in paint.”
DeNiord recalls the scene: “Walking into the room — the main science lab that was lent to us for the day — there was great music, students focused intently on their environmental compositions, and there were some really strong stories and reflections about environmental change that came out in their work. The art faculty all rotated through to help paint and I was actually shocked that we got through seven barrels and lids."
“The students were really proud of their work and they were models of collaborative learning,” deNiord adds.
Of her experience working with the BUHS students, Rosano says, “I was absolutely amazed at their high level of skill and creativity. They are amazing artists. They did a great job with the design and the painting.” She noted the challenge of designing a work of art on the large, circular surface of the barrels.
“They were serious about it,” she adds. “They wanted to stay and paint as long as possible."
Rosano credits BUHS’ art programs and teachers, noting the good working relationship between faculty and students.
Rosano also is vice president of the Arts Council of Windham County and coordinates the council’s Student Art Month. She says she hopes the school will submit the painted oil drums to the student art show and that she hopes to continue the project in Brattleboro and other Windham County schools.
She says the work depends on finding funding.
Because Rosano says she is an approved artist on the Vermont Arts Council’s roster, Vermont schools can get money from the Vermont Arts Council for this project.
Such funding is not a matching grant, she explains: “The council pays for everything.”
Although Rosano describes the project as “fun, therapeutic, and creative, and kids enjoy that,” she also focuses on what she calls “the bigger lesson” of painting on used oil drums: the awareness of climate change.
“The students learned about it because they had to paint about it,” she says.
According to deNiord, “The impact that oil has had on the environment really hit home with the students.” She says that “these barrels, transformed, carry another message about the post-oil world and what that looks like, and the effects on water, air, climate, animals, and humans. The students really got that part of the project.”