BY YANN RANAIVO | JULY 13, 2018
BLACKSBURG — Ben Oderwald is spending another Friday morning crouched over a storm gutter adjacent to the Wells Fargo branch on the corner of North Main and Jackson streets.
On the sidewalk just above the drain is a colorful scene he painted of a freshwater habitat. Visualized through block-style shapes with thick black outlines, the bottom half of the piece shows a school of fish swimming in a waterway while the top illustrates several amphibians and reptiles set against the backdrop of a blue sky.
Noting the shapes of the animals and the outlines, Oderwald said he drew inspiration from graffiti art for his first ever mural project. He said the piece aims to depict a local scene.
“These are all local fish, amphibians, lizards,” he said before he himself issued a reminder for people to be mindful of what they discard onto the streets. “These things are going to swim in it and live in it.”
Oderwald’s piece is among four storm drain murals that the town of Blacksburg commissioned earlier this year as part of a public art project geared toward ecological stewardship.
The four designs were selected among a total of 55 submissions.
The project aims to bring attention to three things: Blacksburg’s freshwater heritage, the protection of Stroubles Creek and the New River watershed.
Stroubles Creek, which runs through the town, has been noted by local environmentalists over the years for its designation as an impaired waterway.
The murals also unofficially complement another public art project that placed 16 life-size bronze frogs near various Blacksburg landmarks.
“We want to use these platforms as an outreach to the public about water quality issues,” said Carol Davis, Blacksburg’s sustainability manager and the point person on the sidewalk murals project. “People aren’t necessarily aware. If they have a small leak, that ends up on the roadways, then ends up in our storm drain and our watershed.”
Then, Davis said, discarded chemicals can end up in the source of the local drinking supply.
The other three pavement paintings are located over storm drains on
- Draper Road in front of Bollo’s Cafe;
- In the parking lot behind Sharkey’s and the Cellar;
- On Clay Street near the Blacksburg police station.
The town, via funds generated by its stormwater fee, paid each artist a $350 stipend for the work, Davis said. The paint also cost about another $300 per mural, she said.
Shoshana Levenson, who’s about to start her senior year at Virginia Tech, completed the piece in front of Bollo’s.
Her painting depicts the Hokie bird in black standing on a cliff overlooking a valley with a river flowing through the middle the landscape. At the very bottom of the painting, set against a simple black background, is a message painted in white stating “Nothing but rain down the drain.”
Levenson said she drew inspiration for her piece from a vintage national park poster and decided to depict a natural scene of the region in that style. The waterway in her painting, she said, is intended to be the New River.
“It’s just a clear message,” she said about what she wrote at the bottom of the painting just above the drain itself. “I just wanted it to be a clear message: clean water.”
Nicole Hersch, who’s finishing a dual master’s program at Tech in landscape architecture and natural resources, is responsible for the piece behind Sharkey’s and the Cellar.
Hersch’s work is an abstract painting that arranges rectangular and triangular shapes to depict a waterfall and two people, each painted in red, standing in the water below the fall itself.
Hersch previously lived in Northern Virginia and moved to Blacksburg last August. An avid hiker, one of her first treks took her to Giles County’s Cascade Falls, which is represented in her storm drain piece.
“So when this opportunity came up to talk about stormwater, I was immediately drawn due to my experience hiking Cascade Falls,” she said.
Hersch also notes the two people in the water, a part of the piece that she painted just in front of the gutter itself. The message she said she’s relaying there: “One man’s stormwater is another person’s swimming hole.”
The fourth artist is Michael St. Germain, who completed the piece on Clay near the police station.
In a piece similar to Hersch’s and Oderwald’s, St. Germain arranged and painted triangular and rectangular shapes to depict a freshwater scene. In the painting are a turtle, three orange- and red-colored fish with yellow fins and numerous lily pads.
St. Germain used the storm drain cover to paint the center of the turtle’s shell, the outer part of which he spruced up with several short red stripes.
St. Germain couldn’t be reached for comment.