While in Madrid in April, I happened to see an article in my hometown’s newspaper, which announced the deadline for their Trains on Main public art project had been extended to April 30. As I read more about the project and application requirements, I knew I had to apply. This was a perfect leap for me—doing something before you feel ready. I had just a pinch of impostor feelings, but knew fully that I was enough for this challenge and excitedly applied. (The bullet under “Artist Eligibility” which read “Previous public art experience is not necessary; all who are interested are encouraged to apply” very much played a role in giving myself the all-clear.)
Here’s what each artist would have to work with—a steel train made by our local Endres Manufacturing Company:
Artists would be given a $200 grant for the project and were completely free to choose materials, style, theme—no limits there.
Applicants had to write a proposal for their train, explaining what they would do and why, and how they would weatherproof it. Which meant that in order to apply, I had to have some sort of idea as to how I’d transform this train into a piece of art. (Hello creativity challenge! This is why I’ve been building that muscle all year…)
Since I’d been thinking more and more about human connection, unplugging, and humanity (the fact that we’re all imperfect) the past three months—especially with all of my travel sketching and the memorable moments with locals that resulted from making art in public—I decided to propose something exploring those themes.
I pulled out what has since become my “brainstorming”/catch-all notebook, and sketched two different sides to a train.
I wanted one side (above) to be the messy/human side, vibrant and in motion. I’d use four different symbols of life/humanity for the wheels, and feature two people talking to one another on the train body. I wanted to incorporate a notebook somehow, which people could take off the train and write in. I planned to use string art on this side, like I’d done for the WI plaque I had made years earlier.
On the opposite side (below), I wanted to represent how technology can sometimes be divisive and prevent us from marveling at the natural world and celebrating our flaws. I wanted it to be sleek and black/white on fabric (to represent a curtain), featuring social media icons on the wheels and two people looking at their phones on the train body.
This is how it began!
I danced around the room when I found out my application had been accepted. A train would be waiting for me at Endres when I got back to the states, and a check would be sent in the mail.
The Creation Process
Some point after getting the actual train, I made another sketch:
Then I biked to Ace Hardware in town (the first of many such trips) and got a black anti-rust spray to coat the train—the only thing I knew I should do. (Tip: When you’re not sure how to tackle a huge project, just do what lies clearly at hand.)
Days later I took advantage of having my mom’s car for an evening and left home a bit earlier to stop at Savers (a secondhand store) and Michaels (a craft store) in search of materials for the train. Without a clear idea in mind, I walked through every aisle in Savers, and in the end bought the following:
- a white sheet (for the “fabric” side of train)
- two mugs (for flowers, with plans to break the mugs and fix them with gold—kintsugi)
- a farm toothbrush holder (which I planned to repurpose as a pen holder for the notebook element)
- plastic canvas circles (saw a pack of 60 for $3 and thought I could use four for the wheels)
- various bags of yarn (for the wheels—later I learned I should have checked out grandma’s yarn stash in the basement first!)
- a set of clips for a shower curtain (thinking I could use them to hang the fabric on the technology side)
From Michaels I got a few bottles of outdoor acrylic paint: a large tube of teal (a favorite color of mine), yellow, blue, white, black, and grey; a sponge brush; and a pack of 10 iron-on paper sheets.
With these new materials, I now had more to do lying clearly at hand. I’d work on the yarn wheels whenever I was watching Netflix, and brought one to an art night with friends and another on a 2-hour car ride with Grandma.
I went to town with the teal, covering one side of the train in one of my favorite colors:
At some point I decided to ditch the idea of doing string art on this side, which would have required attaching something like small nails around the entire perimeter of the train—to loop the thread around.
During Waunakee’s Garage Sale weekend I got a few other random items for the train: a small bird figurine, gold nail polish (for the mugs), and a tiny container of spring meadow confetti-type particles (bright green with colored specks, which I thought I could use for grass on the colorful side).
As I was walking our neighbor’s dog the week after, when big items were still at the curb for pick-up, I spotted an indoor birdhouse decoration, with a fence, duck, and lights attached. I sized it up (during which the dog peed on this birdhouse base!) and then had an idea: This could house the notebook! I picked it up and carried it home, dog on leash in the other hand.
Back in the garage I took off the fence, duck, and lights, washed off the base in the backyard, then popped off one side of the roof so I could later add hinges. I had another Michaels run in here, where I got purple, orange, and green acrylic; and gorilla glue. Then once I got the hinges screwed in, I started to paint.
I used the gorilla glue to attach the yarn wheels to the train, doing one at a time and stacking books on top (with a plastic bag in between) for a tight seal.
I accidentally glued a paper towel to the first wheel I attached, the rain/water wheel on the right. I removed what I could of the paper towel and left the rest. After all, this side was all about embracing our imperfections, right?
The last main part for this side (excluding the base + birdhouse) involved selecting a quote—which ended up being two—and writing them on the train’s body. I used Copic markers to do so, which wrote on top of the acrylic really well, but later proved to be troublesome when I learned they’re alcohol-based, and would melt away when covered in epoxy (or many other protective sprays).
The fabric side progressed bit by bit. Designing the body was probably the most time consuming, as I’d take screenshots from sites like Buzzfeed and insert each headline into Pages, where I made all of the train images.
When picking my friend Liz’s brain about weatherproofing at one of our art nights in May (she did this very art project the past two years), she suggested I ask the organizer to put me in touch with the two people who had fabric on their barns last year (Barns on Main). I did, and those two women both got back to me with helpful advice, both suggesting I use epoxy to seal it.
On my final weekend, when I was getting ready to epoxy everything, cutting the fabric proved surprising and frustrating: The lines I’d been following on the fabric did not line up very well at all with the actual cut out. Whoops.
I’m not sure if the fabric changed a bit as it got ironed out, or if I simply hadn’t been exact enough when I drew the train outline onto the fabric back at the beginning, but there were some big discrepancies. I’d get the wheels and back wagon to line up on the right, then everything was way, way off on the left.
After covering it with epoxy, I was a bit disappointed to see that the fabric absorbed the liquid in some areas, but others remained white, giving it a splotchy look. You could also no longer read many of the headlines that had been in grey, which had originally given the train body a shaded, 3D look on the fabric, but the effect was completely lost when I covered it in epoxy.
Then it was right on to the base. This involved painting the base green and attaching the mug, birdhouse, and later the bird with gorilla glue. I’d bought a plant from the outdoor greenhouse in town (by Waunabowl), on my most recent run to Ace Hardware. I’d asked the man for something that could fit in a coffee mug that would grow without much care. This particular flower loves the sun and should keep blooming all summer, he told me.
Once that had all dried, I sponged on a brighter shade of green and sprinkled on that “spring meadows” confetti paper dust onto the wet paint. Finally, I finished off the grass by hot gluing some green marbles to the bottom—something I’d seen lying around the house which I thought would add more dimension to the piece.
After the base dried (another three days later), I prepared the notebook for the birdhouse and called it good!