Image: Melissa Sortman (left) and Terry Scharf on the newly-painted steps at Valley Court Park
Visitors to this year’s East Lansing Farmers’ Market in Valley Court (opening June 7) will see a new art feature just north of the market. The steps running from Valley Court’s glacial washout plain up to the Oakwood Neighborhood have been painted rainbow colors under a project led by Melissa Sortman and Terry Scharf.
As we reported in the fall, this project has been funded as part of the Urban Mural Project and was given approval by the Arts Commission and the Historic District Commission. It began when Sortman asked Scharf to paint the steps in her Glencairn house that lead from her main floor to her daughters’ bedrooms. Sortman wanted a rainbow color scheme, and from there the idea emerged to paint the Valley Court steps in a similar fashion. The Oakwood Neighborhood, which sports many rainbow flags and stickers on the houses and of which Scharf is a member, enthusiastically supported the plan.
This Friday and Saturday, Sortman and her daughters, Scharf, and Oakwood residents Ken Sperber and Val Thonger painted the steps red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, following the traditional rainbow flag. There are eighteen steps, perfect for painting three rounds of the rainbow flag colors.
Scharf told me in an interview today that she and Sortman went to Sherwin-Williams to talk to the manager about what colors they could use that would hold up the best given the conditions—weather, foot traffic, and so on. Said Scharf, “We had to compare them to the diversity flag and get as close as we could.”
Scharf told me, “It’s concrete paint, so some of the colors require several coats. It’s also impregnated with gritty stuff so that it creates a non-slip surface after it is dry.” She said the painting was challenging since they were painting in a park with natural debris and bugs constantly getting in the paint. She and Sperber joked that the DNA of local ants will be found embedded in the paint in thousands of years.
Sortman daughter Beatrice, aged eight, was painting next to her mother when I stopped by on Saturday. Sortman’s daughter Eleanor, aged fourteen, told me she thinks diversity means “a combination of different ethnicities and cultures coming together.”
Sperber pointed out that the steps themselves turned out to have a lot of “diversity” to them; there are “long ones, short ones, crooked ones, old ones, replaced ones, and it’s kind of representative of diversity. It’s a great gateway into the park.” He added that, “Looking at it from different sides, it looks very different. From the top you see the tops of the steps and from the bottom, you see the edges.” The colors seem to expand as you approach from below or above.
Says Sortman, “It is important to bring together this community for an art project and to celebrate what this community values, which is all kinds of people and non-discrimination on all fronts. It’s nice to be able to bring my children out so they can see us do something for the community.”
Sortman and Scharf are hoping that a business or individual from the community might be willing to take on the task of landscaping the areas next to the steps which are currently covered in scruffy weeds and dirt. They think the steps would look best planted with flowers and well-mulched. Says Scharf, “We’d love to have that by the time the Farmers’ Market opens.”
Below, left to right: Val Thonger, Ken Sperber, Melissa Sortman, Beatrice Carr (child), and Terry Scharf.