Last November Jacob Schmidt took out the trash. It was not for the first time; Schmidt, 18, has been taking out the trash of his Compton Heights home for years now. But this trip was different.
"I don't know what made me really notice it that day, but it just struck me how Dumpsters are everywhere, and they are incredibly ugly," Schmidt said. "I started looking at all of these ugly things — Dumpsters, billboards and I realized these are normal and accepted in city life. I started to ask the question 'Why?' Why can't we be bombarded by art instead of stuff that's dull or is trying to sell us something?"
Many an idealistic teenager has asked that question, but Schmidt decided to do something about it. With permission from the city, he painted two Dumpsters in his alley. From there, he met with St. Louis streets officials. Schmidt wanted to paint 100 alley Dumpsters, but streets officials worried some folks wouldn't be able to tell the difference between their recycling and trash Dumpsters. And inevitably some residents would grouse that they prefer their army-green Dumpster to a brightly colored work of contemporary art.
Still, Streets Commissioner Kent Flake loved the idea and wanted to help. He agreed to sandblast and prime 25 large-scale Dumpsters for Schmidt to paint. So far, some of the completed Dumpsters have been used for street cleaning, but ultimately they will be used at large festivals, parades and construction sites across the city.
"It becomes a traveling art show," Schmidt said.
Flake hopes the painted Dumpsters will deter vandals who have often tagged street-cleaning Dumpsters left overnight in neighborhoods.
"We would come back in the morning and there would be graffiti all over them, which is not what we want to portray," Flake said. "The hope is people will say, 'Someone went through the effort to be creative here so let's leave it alone.' We'll have to see, but so far the ones out there haven't been touched."
The Dumpsters are 20 feet long by 8 feet tall, with protruding ribs and bars — not exactly a flat canvas. Schmidt's team of professional and amateur artists have transformed the Dumpsters into panoramas of racing cyclists, bursting fireworks, the Milky Way and abstract street scenes.
The working conditions are miserable; they've been laboring daily on the scorching blacktop of a streets department parking lot all month. The pay is lousy; Schmidt chose to forego summer in New Hampshire to run the all-volunteer project. Schmidt raised about $4,000 to pay for 80 gallons of paint and 150 cans of spray paint through an online Kickstarter campaign.
Artist Megan Rieke of Kirkwood donated to the campaign, and then offered to help and get her friends involved.
"I like the idea of free beauty," said Rieke, who painted the cyclists as well as a mural of a VW bus. "As an artist, I know artists need to sell their work to survive, but I also like the idea that art can and should be anywhere, even on a trash Dumpster."
Flake hopes to bring Schmidt back next summer to paint the city's truck beds. He thinks colorful trucks would bring the same whimsy to city streets as the popular Cardinals, Rams and Blues street sweepers do.
"Why not support these young artists and do something creative with these trucks?" said Flake. "I mean, orange is one of my favorite colors, but there's too much of it in the city."