An artful response to life under lockdown

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Strollers and passersby in Fairport may have noticed a recent gradual and quite unusual renovation of fire hydrants that sit along a stretch of Church Street and a couple of adjacent side streets in the neighborhood of the Fairport United First Methodist Church.

Formerly decrepit and rust caked, their paint faded to a pale, almost-white ghost of the bright yellow shade they once sported, the hydrants have been transformed into brightly whimsical, multicolored standouts. Each is unique, clad in its own enamel cloak.  

Exactly how and why this came about has been an object of speculation among certain strollers. So testifies the man who spurred the village art project. A professional who is well known among certain circles in Rochester, he spoke to me only on the condition that he remain anonymous. I will call him the Artist. 

He began the hydrant project as a secretive solo effort, sneaking out in the early dawn to solitarily confront first one then another rusting fire plug. Others have since followed his lead, taking up scraper and brush to whimsically decorate other Fairport hydrants. The Artist says he sought no acolytes and has no idea who they might be but is pleased to have inspired them. 

When not engaged in the early morning forays during which he completed the project, the Artist regularly strolls the neighborhood himself. Others he passes sometimes wonder who might be responsible for the colorful renovation. The Artist nods quizzically, as if it were as much as mystery to him.

The project came about after the pandemic hit and the Artist started working from home. As it did for many of us, the lockdown induced a vague unease in him. He sought to walk it off.

“Things slowed down,” says the Artist. “I started joining my neighbors in long walks. The streets were empty. The air seemed fresher. The chirping of the birds seemed louder. l started noticing how dilapidated the fire hydrants were.”

To the Artist, the dilapidated fire hydrants were “neglected servants,” a metaphor embodying systems that we as a society had let decay. It seemed to him that just as the pandemic had called his attention to the hydrants’ decrepitude, it also had brought societal decrepitude into sharper relief.    

These thoughts translated to a sort of nervous discomfort, an energy calling him to do something. But what? 

“I have a paint brush and some leftover paint,” the Artist thought. “I can paint those fire hydrants.” 

Under their peeling coats of paint and thick scabs of rust, the fire hydrants were still fully functional, the Artist thought, a sign perhaps that it might not be too late to fix what else ails us. 

Having begun to formulate a plan, the Artist had practical questions: Would it be legal? Do I need official permission? Who would he ask? Who is responsible for fire hydrant maintenance? 

He did research and consulted a lawyer. He learned that the Monroe County Water Authority owns the hydrants and its Department of Engineering is responsible for the county water system’s hydrants and valves. 

In the end, he feared that seeking official permission could result in an interminable delay or worse, a turndown. The Artist quietly started the project, informing no one. He never learned if the effort was legal or, if so, what kind of preapproval would be needed.

The work, says the Artist, “is not as simple as it looks, but it’s not hard either.”

As in any painting project, preparation was key, the Artist says. The cleaner the surface to be painted, the better the final outcome will be. He set to work with a thick-bladed scraper, steel wool and, for the most stubbornly scabrous rust spots, a ball peen hammer and a chisel. 

Working painstakingly on one hydrant at time, the Artist was at the task for three full months, taking many days to complete each hydrant.

He noticed the foundry marks denoting where and on what date each hydrant had been cast. Many were cast by the Elmira Pattern and Foundry Co. Inc. of Horseheads. He came across one cast in the year he graduated from college. The Artist took it as a sign that fortune smiled upon the project.

Working long and patiently on each hydrant, the Artist says, he came to feel acquainted with each as a distinct and unique individual, which may partially explain why he chose to not repeat any combination of colors

The Artist painted on weekends. He carried his supplies to the worksites in the early morning.  He began his workdays around 6 a.m. Usually, there was no one around. By 7:30 or 8 a.m., homeowners pulling out of their driveways or passersby would spot him at work.

Reactions were varied, mostly but not uniformly positive, the Artist says. Many gave him thumbs up and words of encouragement. He thinks most people took him for a municipal employee of some sort. One man critiqued his work, pointing out that the Artist had failed to paint a hydrant’s bottom flange.

That lapse occurred early in the project, the Artist says. He had failed to bring a shield to protect his brush and didn’t want to risk dragging it through the dirt. He said nothing but made sure to be properly prepared to paint bottom flanges from then on.

The Artist began to see passersby’s reactions as a sort of Rorschach test. Some raved positively about the unique nature of each hydrant. Others wanted to know why the hydrants were not properly painted in a uniform manner. Some wondered if the multicolored hydrants would confuse firefighters. One man offered to privately pay the Artist to repaint the hydrant in front of his house. The Artist did not accept the offer. 

Once, a man walking his dog, sneeringly urged the canine to do what dogs do at fire hydrants.

“He said to the dog, ‘Why don’t you put a stripe down his back,’” the Artist recalls. 

The remark, which seemed to him needlessly hostile, rankled him, but the Artist held his tongue. 

Fairly early in the project, the Artist fell into a deeper-than-usual conversation with a woman who was particularly appreciative of his work. He decided to confess the project’s true nature to her. She asked his name. The Artist balked, declining to reveal it, but mentioned that he was at a point where he would need to invest in more paint and new brushes. 

A couple of months passed before he saw her again.

“Oh,” said the woman. “I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to give you this.”

She offered him a $10 bill.

“My first reaction was: Oh no, I can’t take it. I don’t need the money,” the Artist recalls. “But then I asked her: ‘Would it give you joy to give me the money?’ She said it would, so I took the money. ‘You are part of it, now,’ I told her.”

The Artist offered the woman the opportunity to help choose the colors and design of a hydrant, which she did.

Once while the Artist was at work on a hydrant, a uniformed firefighter driving an official fire department vehicle pulled up.

“Oh, no,” the Artist thought. “Now I’m busted.”

The firefighter rolled down a window and gave the Artist a cheery thumbs up, before driving off.

It has been several weeks since the Artist wrapped up the fire hydrant project.

“At the end of the day,” says the Artist, “the fire hydrants were a starting place,” a stepping stone.    

Freed of his self-imposed obligation to renovate Fairport’s long-neglected fire plugs, he has started volunteering at Foodlink, the local nonprofit that distributes food to the needy, runs healthy meal programs in local schools and has helped create a national network of similar organizations.  

“I’m raising money for them too,” the Artist says proudly. “So far, it’s more than $1,000.” 

Might dilapidated fire hydrants somewhere still call to him?

 “Oh, no,” says the Artist, “I’m done with that now.”

After learning of and inspecting the repainted Fairport fire hydrants some five weeks ago, the MCWA plans to repaint the hydrants, covering the Artist’s and other volunteer painters’ work with a coat of standard fire hydrant yellow.

“It’s a question of public safety,” says MCWA executive director Nicholas Noce. 

Hydrants are painted in bright colors—yellow for municipally owned hydrants and red for privately owned ones—to ensure visibility, Noce explains. And even though virtually all of the Fairport hydrants are painted in highly visible bold primary shades, the authority cannot be sure proper paint was used. The wrong kind can gum up works, making it hard for firefighters to open hydrants. 

Improper paint can seep into threads and harden, Noce says. People died in a Michigan fire when firefighters couldn’t open an improperly painted hydrant, he cautions.

I was unable to verify that claim but did find that firefighters battling a 2011 house fire in Utah were hindered in efforts to quench the blaze by a painted-shut fire hydrant. No one was injured. The house, which was already fully involved when firefighters arrived, was a total loss. 

As to the Fairport hydrants’ shabby appearance, Noce concedes that the authority was behind schedule on hydrant maintenance but pleads that the pandemic upended the authority’s maintenance schedule. 

When COVID-19 hit, the MCWA suspended its usual program of hiring temporary, summer-break crews of college students to repaint rusting hydrants. Noce expects to see the dozen or so recently redone Fairport hydrants covered with a new yellow top coat, “hopefully before the snow flies,” and the rest of the fire district’s hydrants redone in the not-too-distant future. 

Learning of the authority’s plans to obliterate his work, the Artist took it in stride. He says he considered the temporary nature of the project before he undertook it and made his peace with it then. 

“It’s like those sand mandalas Buddhist monks make,” he explains. “They spend weeks or months creating these elaborate constructions. Then, when they’re finished, they destroy them. I think there’s supposed to be a tinge of sadness when they’re destroyed. But I got what I needed out of it and for however long they last, they bring joy to people.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

2 thoughts on “An artful response to life under lockdown

  1. We have found the hydrants very cheerful, and even took my young nephews on a field trip to look for them. I’ll be sorry when the whimsy is gone.

  2. Lovely project! I needed help to know I had to swipe right to see more of the Artist’s wonderfully colorful hydrants. They are indeed joyful. It would be fun to see them together in poster-like fashion. Artist, thank you for bringing joy.

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