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Smithtown students use art to warn against dumping in drains

Artist Susan Buroker, second from right, works with

Artist Susan Buroker, second from right, works with marine science students on their storm drain designs last Wednesday at Smithtown High School West. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Town of Smithtown maintains 10,134 storm drains that shunt water and, on occasion, pollutants into dry wells and recharge basins. Curbside, showing the world little more than unpainted metal grating, they are hidden in plain sight. That is about to change.

Smithtown artist Susan Buroker and students at Smithtown Central School District’s East and West high schools are designing storm drain art, six miniature murals scheduled for spring unveiling intended to raise awareness of what goes into town drains and how pollution can affect the watershed. The town already has coaster-sized medallions on some drains, placed several years ago by environmental officials to warn against dumping, but the murals will be larger, brighter, impossible to miss.

“We want these to be seen. We want the children to be able to see these for themselves and create conversation, create dialogue,” said Buroker, a New York State Council on the Arts grant recipient. The project grew out of a performance called "Little Fish," which she stages at Long Island schools using immense sculpted puppets to dramatize the effect of pollution on aquatic life. 

Successful storm drain art is “bold and direct,” not too busy, she said. Also, so as not to harm the environment it would protect, the art only uses paints approved by Smithtown environmental officials. There are two, Pro-Park and Traffix, and they only come in yellow, blue, black, white and red. “This does limit the artist, but it’s also a great time for them to learn about mixing color,” Buroker said.   

The murals were still in draft form on butcher paper last week in the lab used by Kimberly Williams’ marine science students at West and in Timothy Needles’ advanced placement art class at East. They showed brightly colored fish, a watery globe, seaweed tendrils, a peace sign and a napping otter similar to one a class spotted on a Nissequogue River field trip last year. 

West juniors Anthony Fasano and Jake Del Rosario had teamed up on the otter piece. The otter will be brown, with a contrasting blue water background “to make it pop,” Fasano said. They had, after searching for otter rhymes and otter-themed words, decided to include this tagline: “We otter keep our water clean.”

Nikki Stocker, also a junior, was still considering a design that included a frog, a fish and the peace sign. It would have been easy, and a mistake, to employ grimmer, more realistic images, she said. “There has to be some type of sentimental purpose: when you feel bad, you do nothing,” she said. 

Williams, who stocks her classroom with scientific equipment and a giant tank filled with tiny baby trout, said that she encounters fewer and fewer students “who have a connection to the outdoors, and we want to keep that connection.” 

The drains, which last week appeared mostly clean but for dead leaves and an errant soda can, will get painted in spring, near where school buses and parents’ cars pick up and drop off, will be “conversation-starters,” she said.

That is an idea that David Barnes, Smithtown’s top environmental official, shares. In an interview, he envisioned expanding the program from schools to town parks, beaches and playgrounds where they might spark family discussions. “It’s like painting a mural on a building,” he said. “They’re beautiful and eye-catching, but you want to put them strategically, where they’re appreciated.” 

Storm drain pollutants:

• Road salt

• Fertilizer runoff

• Pet and Canada goose waste

• On occasion, chlorinated water from winterized swimming pools

Source: David Barnes, Smithtown environmental protection director

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