Q&A: Adrian Tans’ Public Chalk Art Brings Smiles to Woodstock | Stuck in Vermont | Seven Days

At the intersection of Elm and Central streets in downtown Woodstock, people, cars and trucks pass by in a steady stream. But during the pandemic, Woodstock emptied out and, like many places across the country, became a ghost town. Suddenly there weren’t community events to post on the Town Crier, a decades-old public message board owned by the Woodstock History Center.

So, in spring 2020, artist Adrian Tans co-opted the chalkboard and turned it into the Town Smiler. He began by sharing notes from the community and soon shifted to drawing elaborate chalk illustrations with seasonal or holiday themes.

Tans is the youth services director at the Norman Williams Public Library, a block away from the Smiler. In this tight-knit community, all ages flock to the board to see what new chalk creation Tans will share each month.

In her latest episode of “Stuck in Vermont,” Seven Days senior multimedia producer Eva Sollberger visited Tans on a sunny spring day to watch him work on a new piece inspired by spring and Mother’s Day. Community members and tourists stopped by to see the work as it progressed. Over the span of five hours, the piece took shape, with pops of bright yellow dandelions filling the frame.

Sollberger spoke with Seven Days about filming the episode.

How did you hear about the Woodstock Town Smiler?

I first met Adrian back in summer 2007, the year I started making “Stuck in Vermont.” He was one of the organizers of Field Day, a “war of the wards” competition during the Ramble festival in Burlington’s Old North End. It is pretty fun to watch that ancient, grainy video — we sure were younger then. Last summer I was filming a video about Joseph Citro in Woodstock when we ran into Adrian and he pointed out the Smiler. I vowed to return to cover it someday.

Chalk is such an ephemeral medium.

It’s true, and this is not the only temporary medium that Adrian works with. He is also a snow sculptor with Team Vermont, which has been competing for over 20 years. Its members have won national and international awards for their gravity-defying sculptures and have done Vermont proud. I was able to catch them in action back in 2011 for the Vermont State Snow Sculpting Competition. Adrian wasn’t there for that event, but I interviewed his teammates and friends.

There is something very gutsy — and zen — about making art in such temporary mediums that will melt or brush away. Before starting a new drawing, Adrian often asks people passing by to erase his last chalk creation, and they express dismay at the idea of wiping out all that hard work. There is a magic to these fleeting art forms — you can’t get too attached.

Adrian is also a children’s book illustrator and a visual artist. He has gotten a few commissions from his chalk artwork and has a calendar featuring his chalk drawings coming out this year.

He works at a busy intersection.

Woodstock is a quiet, quaint town, but that intersection is where all the action happens. There are a ton of art galleries, cute shops and places to eat. Tourists and locals wander the streets. So many community members stopped by to sing Adrian’s praises. He said it felt like being at his funeral and hearing all the nice things people had to say.

Sleeping babies were wheeled by. A group of schoolkids walked past in single file and called out, “Hello, Adrian!” Teenagers stopped to say hi. They didn’t realize that their librarian was also the chalk artist until that day. A woman in a wheelchair paused to watch. Dog walkers slowed. Tourists from Washington, D.C., and Somerville, Mass., took photos. I set up a GoPro to film a time lapse of the chalk piece, and everyone very thoughtfully stepped around it to avoid getting in the shot. There is a constant stream of vehicle traffic, with big logging trucks making tons of noise.

I am not sure how Adrian is able to concentrate in such an active space! But he managed to make huge progress in five hours, with a quick lunch break and a jaunt home to give his dog a pill. This image took a total of 12 hours, with three hours of planning and another four hours of drawing after I left. The town doesn’t pay Adrian to make the chalk drawings, but maybe it should.

There must be a lot of logistics to shooting in a downtown.

Yes. Thank you to everyone who talked to us and took the time for an interview! I always feel a bit awkward accosting strangers on the street, but people were happy to talk about Adrian and his work. I want to thank Encore Designer Consignment for letting me park in its lot, right by the Smiler. Adrian was nice enough to get that parking spot for me, but his car, parked on the street, got a ticket! I also want to thank Becky Brettell of the Woodstock Gallery for letting me use her facilities. It’s the little things that make a big difference when you are on location all day.

Final thoughts?

I have never seen chalk applied so creatively. Watching the image transform from a sketch into a final artwork composed of a million colorful marks and smudges was thrilling. And spending the day talking to another artist about the artistic process is priceless for me.

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