Visual Arts

2 artists draw attention to storm drains

Painted storm water drain on North  Limestone St. at Mechanic Street
Painted storm water drain on North Limestone St. at Mechanic Street

The heat wave in Lexington this summer has been brutal for everyone. But it has been particularly rough on two local artists.

Blake Snyder Eames and Claudia Kane Michler have faced an array of difficulties while working on their public art project, Made You Look!, one of the recipients of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government's EcoArt grants. They've spent the past few weeks painting designs on several concrete storm drains downtown.

"It's been terrible weather, and we're constantly in the sun," Michler said, moments after a turning car barely cleared her work area on the hot asphalt.

The car's driver stopped beside the curb to chat with Michler and admire the progress on the ladybugs that she and Eames had painted on the storm sewer at High Street and Stone Avenue.

"Really, the cars are the biggest obstacle" because drivers cannot easily see them working down on the ground, Michler said.

Although dangerous, the busy corners where they work have helped to inspire the patterns. At Maxwell and Rose streets, for example, the graphic pattern was combined with lines reminiscent of tire tracks "running over the art."

The inspiration for their brick design at Limestone and Sixth Street was the architecture of the area itself.

Many of the designs have been altered on the spot because of the variable size of the concrete storm drains.

"When we conceived of the idea, we thought they were 2 or 3 feet square," Michler said. "Turns out they're much bigger."

"People think we have this crew, and it's just the two of us doing it," Eames said.

Michler was approached about the project by Connie Jo Miller of the advertising agency Group CJ, which was working on a larger campaign on behalf of Lexington's Department of Environmental Quality.

The agency already had considered painting some drains around town to complement their television ads featuring talking storm drains, reinforcing the idea that "what is thrown on the street ends up going into the drains and polluting the streams."

"Then we saw the EcoArt grant and thought, 'Let's get some real artists to do this,'" Miller said. "The drains are even better than we ever imagined."

Michler put Miller in touch with Eames, whom she had known since they both had studio space at Gallerie Soleil.

Miller and the agency helped write the grant, and once it was approved, "she gave us complete freedom." Eames said.

The campaign is to remind people that Lexington has both a sanitary-sewer system and separate storm-sewer system. Lexington was sued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006 because of problems with the systems that led to contamination of the rainwater runoff that feeds into local streams, which flow into the Kentucky River.

The goal of the painting is to bring attention to the drains so the public will care more about the actions of themselves and others.

"After I had children, I started thinking about the future more," Eames said. "Anything we do on a daily basis will make a difference in their world."

Eames hopes that their decorative efforts bring awareness to the storm- sewer system, and "people will seek out more information, in their own groups" and even police one another's littering.

"I think water is a very important resource, which is becoming scarce, and I don't think Lexington is aware of the worldwide water crisis," Michler said.

But the art itself is meant to be valued as much as its purpose. The drains are one example of the public art projects gaining popularity in Lexington. Michler says many Lexingtonians have told them that the city needs more such projects. Some people have asked whether it is for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games next month.

"No, this is for Lexington," Eames told them.

The project is scheduled to be completed by Monday, but the painters have not gained access to some drains on Main Street, which have been covered by Lexington's extensive road and sidewalk reconstruction.

Finished works can be found along Limestone and High Street, and at Short Street and Broadway. The Short Street drain is a tribute to Gallerie Soleil, they said.

The drains lack the visibility of Horse Mania 2010, but the low-lying art is more of a surprise, as is finding the artists at work.

"People are having a good time finding us," Michler said.

Eames said, "We were expecting some resistance and we're not getting that from anyone."

A passerby confirmed that as she walked away after admiring the work at Stone and High: "You're beautifying Lexington," she said.