If Ron Snapp looks like a westerner dropped into northern New England, that’s because he is. Last weekend, the Colorado-born artist was likely the only guy walking around St. Albans sporting a cowboy hat and boots, turquoise jewelry, and a black T-shirt that read, “Fear No Art.” And he was definitely the only person with an installation in Taylor Park consisting of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys affixed to chain-link fencing.
Specifically, the piece is a stand-alone segment of woven galvanized steel, attached on either end to support poles driven into the ground. It’s akin to a community bulletin board, but this one has a single message. From a bit of distance, passersby can discern that the little plastic toys on the bottom half of the fence are primarily yellow and those on the top half, blue. Yes, Snapp’s sculpture is an allusion to the Ukrainian flag, the toys an oblique homage to that country’s traumatized children.
On Saturday morning, farmers market vendors had set up their tables in the leafy downtown park adjacent to Snapp’s installation. As this reporter waited for the artist to arrive, a small boy scampered over to see the toys. He pointed longingly at various pieces, but his mom said the toys were only for looking. If she got the flag reference, she didn’t explain it. (And how could one answer a young child’s inevitable follow-up question: “Why?”)
As a foursome of teenage boys passed by, one of them grasped the visual clues immediately. “Look, it’s the Ukrainian flag!” he said to his friends. “Yeah,” they chorused in fleeting art appreciation.
An older woman, shopping tote in hand, paused to study the installation in somber silence before moving on to the market.
Snapp said he originally set up the piece in his front yard. “A lot of people stopped by and seemed to get it,” he said. “I wanted it to get more attention.” Initially, he thought about “going down to Burlington.” But instead, he approached St. Albans’ city hall.
Some two and a half months later — a delay that Snapp interpreted as municipal reluctance, though it may have been normal bureaucracy — city operations and business development director Marty Manahan called with good news: Snapp could install his piece in Taylor Park.
According to city manager Dominic Cloud, the city council approved the sculpture but initially considered whether to locate it in Houghton Park along with other public artworks. They ultimately decided that the piece could go in Taylor Park, “as that was where the artist wanted it,” Cloud wrote by email. It will remain there at least through the summer.
With help from his son, Snapp put the sculpture up right away, “before they could change their minds,” he said with a laugh. It’s well sited on the western side of the park, near the sidewalk and passing motorists on North Main Street.
The title of the piece — “Youth in Asia (After Terry Allen)” — references work that Santa Fe-based musician and artist Allen created from 1982 to ’92; his pieces commemorated Vietnam vets who made it home only to commit suicide. Allen’s and Snapp’s works are drastically dissimilar in style, but both evoke the human toll of war.
The title might mystify viewers who read the name plate in Taylor Park, but if they say it out loud — euthanasia — they may appreciate the grim pun as much as Snapp does. As he explained over drinks at the nearby Catalyst Coffee Bar, he just had to resurrect it.
The Ukraine-focused installation also represents a resurrection of sorts for Snapp, who is 79; it’s the first artwork he’s made in 10 or 11 years, he said. He was a professor of art for nearly four decades, including a couple of years at the University of North Carolina and 34 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. In addition, Snapp created a 10,000-square-foot art co-op in Norfolk, he said, and was actively engaged in exhibitions. His work spanned drawing, painting and large-scale installations that used a great deal of “what most people would call crap,” he said.
Though Snapp isn’t averse to scoring items at the town dump, he prefers new objects, such as those plastic toys. He has been known to spend hundreds of dollars on “art materials” at Walmart. “I’m not interested in nostalgia,” he said.
After he retired, Snapp spent some time living and making art in Ottawa. He relocated to St. Albans in 2008 to be near his son; his ex-wife lives there, too. And though he’s maintained an arsenal of supplies in storage, Snapp said, he fell into a long fallow period with his art.
It didn’t help that in December 2019, he became an early adopter of COVID-19. Snapp is convinced that he contracted it during a ski day at Jay Peak Resort — a group of skiers from China was there, too, he said.
His illness was relatively mild — at first. But to this day, Snapp suffers from symptoms including brain fog, achiness and neuropathy in his extremities. A longtime drummer, he now lacks the coordination to keep the beat. At one point, he experienced a heart blockage and was hospitalized to have a stent put in.
“I work out every day; I shovel snow in the winter,” Snapp said. “But I still feel like I’m in a fog, and I can’t play drums.
“But I can make my art!” he added.
Snapp is not entirely sure what compelled him to create “Youth in Asia.”
“My work was usually involved with what I saw as a crisis of some sort,” he said. “I was just prompted by the horrendous news coming out of Ukraine — especially the murder of children. I was excited when I was motivated to do that piece.”
Thus reignited, Snapp said he’s thinking about making another assemblage on the topic of school shootings. And he’s got an idea for a local site-specific installation, which he prefers not to reveal yet. “I’m terrible at marketing and promoting myself,” he lamented.
For now, it seems, Snapp shouldn’t worry about wearing out his welcome in downtown St. Albans. “I was there last night,” he said, “and there was quite a steady stream of people going up and looking at the sculpture.”