Revising the Writing on the Fence

A few years ago I noticed the emergence of a cultural phenomenon that truly irritates me. Kids were leaving messages for one another in the fences of local middle and high schools, composed of styrofoam cups. “Jane is 16!” “Go Cards.” That sort of thing.

Now that I’m sitting down and writing about it I see this as the manifestation of a desire to make their mark on the world around them using tools available to them. The cups are an everyday part of disposable culture they are growing up in. (When was the last time you were in a school cafeteria?) It makes me incredible sad since I’m the kind of person who will decline a beverage on the airplane in order to save the plastic cup it would be served in. You may not know anyone like this but we’re out here. I’m sadder still when I see the messages weeks later – falling apart, blowing away in the wind, waiting to be cleaned up by the custodial staff – no longer of interest to the kids but forever with us as fuel for the global trash heap.

Lots of artists are making interesting work with styrofoam. I wonder if any environmentally conscious art educators out there have used this opportunity to share this work with their students, perhaps harvest the used cups, and make sculptures of them.

For my part, I have a little local intervention in mind based on an idea I found at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) this fall. Organizers left strips of t-shirt jersey by a chain link fence with a simple invitation: “Be Creative: Use the fabric to weave fence art.” The moment I saw it I imagined this process replacing all those cups. The t-shirt material could be gathered from old shirts (stains and holes welcome) and reused over time. Every time I see a new cup message pop up in my community, I feel a small pang of guilt that I haven’t introduced this new fence writing method to kids in Columbus yet.

So, last night, as a very last minute Valentine’s gesture, I made a big ball of red t-shirt yarn and went down the street to the neighborhood middle school. I didn’t come close to replicating the vision in my mind. It was late. It was cold. I realized I would have been better off with multiple shorter and fatter strips than the super long skinny one I brought (with no scissors for alterations on site). But I made a gesture. And I plan to make more as the weather warms up. I hope others might follow my lead.

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