Art ReCAPP: Loving to Hate “Tire-rhea”

This is the first in a series of articles titled Art ReCAPP, focusing on issues of public art on the Middlebury campus. As a student representative of CAPP (Committee on Art in Public Places), it is my hope that this series will constructively build off Luke’s October 23rd article on the vandalism of Hillcrest to create a dialogue within our community of the effect of our visual environment here at Middlebury. 

I would bet that the percentage of Middlebury students who know the actual name of the sculpture on the Proctor side of Hillcrest is less than 1%. Installed in 2007, the work has come to be known amongst the student body simply as “Tire-rhea,” an indication of student opinion on the piece. In MiddBlog’s original article on the addition of the work, students in the comments called it “hideous” and “a pile of trash bags,” all before the work had even been properly installed. The controversy has only grown from there and if you haven’t yet had a conversation about “tire-rhea” in your time at Middlebury, you’re probably a freshman and will have before the year is over.

The sculpture is actually titled “Solid State Change” and was conceived by American artist Deborah Fisher in relation to the exterior curved wall of Hillcrest, which in 2007 was the newly renovated and expanded home of the College’s Program in Environmental Studies. The piece was inspired by the geology and topography of Vermont and its shape alludes formally to the metamorphic bedrock beneath Middlebury itself. Recognizing that Environmental Studies encompasses a broad, multi-faceted approach in its courses, Fisher created an artwork from recycled rubber tires intermixed with colorful strips of plastic insulation that were once used to sheathe copper wire. Composed of materials that are not biodegradable and not accepted at most landfill sites, the structure incorporates the processes and products of industrial activity, yet it appears to have emerged naturally from the earth. The installation of the piece also came at the same time that the International Paper Company in nearby Fort Ticonderoga, NY was fighting a case against the EPA to do a two-week trial burn of tire chips to produce fuel for its boilers. Thus the work’s purpose became relevant not only to the inauguration of Hillcrest and Midd’s Environmental Studies department but also to a heated community issue.

It is not my intent in writing this post to change public opinion on “Solid State Change”. You’re going to think it’s ugly if you think it’s ugly. Rather, my goal in this post and subsequent posts in this series is to challenge how we as students perceive the public art on our campus. If you hate it, why do you hate it? How can you go beyond the aesthetics of a work to further develop your understanding of it? I’d like to challenge everyone to move past a simple, passing judgement of “it’s soooo ugly.”  Public art anywhere is in the unique position to make people look at things. Rather than a painting that can be hidden in a nook at a museum, Deborah Fisher’s sculpture is unavoidable when looking at the side of Hillcrest. I think this provides a teaching moment for everyone, whether you hate the work or love it. It may be an eyesore to some people, but what one deems an “eyesore” is subjective. There are things in our society that are not pleasant and would seemingly be easier if they could be ignored or rejected. However, we don’t have that luxury. I think that if nothing else “Tire-rhea” can teach us all a lesson in tolerance and force us to look at and question things we don’t like. You may not be able to embrace the sculpture as a part of our campus environment, but I think that all Middlebury students are capable of learning to respect and accept it. A liberal arts education should be about cultivating an open-mind, something you don’t do if you ignorantly judge any piece of public art as “hideous.”

Next post: Responding to the statement “I don’t like it and I’m paying to be here, so it should go.”

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5 thoughts on “Art ReCAPP: Loving to Hate “Tire-rhea”

  1. Good for you for writing this. it is astounding that some students feel the campus is “too nice, too perfect,” and therefore are justified in committing vandalism (previous posts), or feel that public art “should go” if they don’t like it. Art is to be appreciated, if not liked, as it reflects an artist’s inspired reaction to something…in this case our very local environment.

  2. Thanks for the backstory – I admit to being a tire-rhea hater, but knowing more about the artist’s inspiration and intention no longer allow me to dismiss it as something that doesn’t belong. Perhaps it would be helpful if the art in public places had placards such as you see in museums, with the title, artist, material and description.
    Next most objectionable piece, in my opinion – Smog. Can you shed any light on my that monstrosity was chosen? I personally think it would be much improved if it became our version of Tuft’s cannon, and students could paint murals and advertise there. Also, I think it would make a great playground.

    • There actually is a label next to the work, although it lacks the complete description. There is however a QR code that when scanned with a smart phone leads one to the work’s description on the Middlebury site that I linked to in the post.
      As far as Smog is concerned, I’m planning on using that as the featured piece in my next post – so stay tuned!

  3. Oh man I’m pretty sure that trash bag comment was mine. Without having seen the thing in a few years, I stand by said comment.

  4. Hillcrest Plagued Again by Graffiti | MiddBlog

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