Graffiti in Potsdam.
Weird art in a weird town. We’re a funny little place, Potsdam: just shy of the Canadian border and as well-known for harsh, long winters as for Sandstone structures. But by simply taking a walk down alleyways and side streets, you can discover what makes the tundra worthwhile. Driving through downtown and the outlying areas, you are not apt to see much if you’re just on your way to somewhere else. The gems are around obscured corners; you just have to know where to look. Potsdam is an economically depressed area, and the old-timers and younger kids alike will tell you that if you want to have fun you have to make it for yourself. It makes sense that everything you will encounter is weird.
The special finds begin on one of the first residential streets you’ll pass once you get out of our paltry Business District. From there to the end of Market Street there are the branches of side streets before you get to our “downtown.” Walnut Street is a third of the way on your right. There, in our little apartments, we host house shows and creative writing workshops. We push the couches aside and guard possessions with end tables. The bands set up in the corner by the sliding glass window. They play, and though the shows are quick and abrasive, the three or four acts that show up don’t share equipment. Some of them have expensive guitars, but it’s at the expense of their amplifiers and the ring of their cymbals.
The music is either angry or quiet, with little in between, except for the bar bands, if that’s your thing; for most, it’s not. There are aggressive bands who come through town, who start here, who sleep here. There are the solo acoustic guys and the garage rock anarchists. They play through rushed sets, faster and faster with each song, despite the fact that it’s humid and crowded with the bodies of fans filling the space. When the sets are done, the few people who have spare dollars throw it to the bands for a T-shirt, or a grab bag with pictures of pornography in it, and they’re repaid with handshakes and hugs. Some of the sweaty performers have brought screen-printed shirts and cassettes and burned CDs with handmade cover art. There are always the same familiar faces in front of the band. The downside is that there’s this half-brained notion about hardcore, punk kids and their violence, but you can tell by the way we all clasp hands that there couldn’t be anything further from the truth.
So the show’s over and you can walk away. Walk toward downtown. Like any small town, there are the boutiques and shops tucked away inside renovated homes, where the keeper sleeps upstairs and has to tell her kids not to run around during business hours. You’ll pass the closed down gas station. Normal things in a quiet place. You can glimpse the specialty shops that cater to the creative: the lone instrument store, the Arts Council Building in which they offer local crafts and classes. Across the street they’ve sell brushes, paint and yarn. But as you pass between buildings, you can see the graffiti — the physical art without bounds. What no one paid for, except in spray paint. You’ve got the average tags from someone just getting their start and the installation of toilets that have been planted in haphazard rows on some guy’s lawn. A pastel garage, whose side displays a smiley face with pie plate teeth. A scarecrow watches over the lot. Sprouting from the toilet bowls are flowers. The rumor is that the guy who put it up is doing so as retaliation against the town, which prohibited him from opening a Dunkin Donuts. Either way, the local paper is clogged with complaints about it.
Past the sub sandwich shop and the H&R Block, turn right onto Raymond Street. Of importance to us is Tile Company — both what’s outside it and what is beneath it. On the wall is a rainbow collage of a tiger and it’s so vibrant you may fear it. The adjacent walls are similarly tagged, but with spray paint. In the Tile Company’s basement is a community art gallery. We’ve done poetry readings there with world-renowned poet, Maurice Kenny. They’ve displayed fantastic art from local students, ranging from high school to college, and more.
Leave the alley and walk down another. Expect Us! proclaims a wall, beneath the stencil of a suit and tie with bloody finger streaks. Across the way, a brick building is emblazoned with huge letters that read Art Before Guns, and The Revolution Has Begun! Plastered all over town are handmade stickers and Sharpie love letters. Potsdam has always been a haven for the arts. The proof is written, quite literally, on the walls.
And then you round the corner to the marquee of the Roxy. Stop in and see what they’ve got on the block. If it’s a Monday during the school year, then you’ll find Cinema 10. They’re an independent film organization that runs 10 indie films per semester, and the range of films are all over the place: Staggering documentaries or the latest Charlie Kaufman flick that leaves the audience in shambles; a live ensemble performing an original score to Nosferatu or some other black and white classic. And they give props to local artists, too. The cinema recently showed a flick about a non-traditional student written and produced by people from Clarkson, a neighboring university. Say hello and they will show you where to go. Fill your face with popcorn, and then walk up toward campus while there’s still light left and maybe you’ll catch the gallery at SUNY Potsdam open.
If you’ve learned anything on your trek from the residential section to downtown, you won’t be surprised by any of the art there. You will find yourself staring. A gallery tucked into what the rest of the world considers a hole in the wall. The paintings and sculptures are dark, but typically not for the sake of darkness. The art is produced by kids who want nothing more than to throw paint on a canvas, or to smash clay pots and glue them to a platform. You will find your own meaning in a stack of televisions, wired abstractly, or a self-portrait stretched and distorted so that you can feel your own veins contort. The art is unsettling and always bizarre. It’s no wonder: Your mind will wander and come up with the strangest things when you’re locked inside, out of the cold, for eight months of the year.
If you spend time browsing the local papers, whether digital or physical, you’re not apt to find a lot of positive news. The mouth will wander, too, if its owner doesn’t have an outlet for expression; it will instead spend time trying to find different words for “scathing.” You’ll find lots of gripes about those gorgeous toilets, and the kids making noise around town, whether it’s in the bars or at a home or in the lone venue on campus. But if you can turn up your headphones and just take a walk, you won’t have to hear it. Take it from someone who’s been too stubborn to venture too far away: The art is worth much more than the money it does not make.
[Photos provided by Ethan Shantie.]