Hand-sanitizing stations are an artistic response to pandemic

Maisie Arnold, 12, uses a Handy Station during the unveiling outside of The Void, on Main Street in Brattleboro, on June 18.

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BRATTLEBORO — Hand-sanitizing stations with art and music are aimed at welcoming patrons into businesses and reminding them to take public health precautions in the coronavirus pandemic.

"This project came out of me thinking how I could be useful at this time as our society is experiencing some severe changes," Erin Maile O'Keefe said during a recent Brattleboro Rotary Club meeting, held remotely.

In 2015, O'Keefe founded the Human Connection Project, which brings communities together through art and placemaking. The next year, she co-founded Tiny House Fest Vermont. She also is a member of the Brattleboro Sunrise Rotary Club.

The Handy Stations project, O'Keefe said, "emerged out of the fact that a lot of my work involved a lot of groups of people, festivals, teaching large groups in communities and families, and lots of close contact."

"So as you can imagine, a lot of work kind of evaporated in March," she said. "Being an artist, I feel like we kind of thrive in these conditions where everything is tossed up in the air and you're like, 'How do all these pieces fit now?'"

Collaborating on arts events at the Melrose Terrace housing complex with Felicity Ratte and Chris Hart that couldn't end up happening, O'Keefe came up with questions that ended up inspiring the group to develop Handy Stations. She asked how the community could "safely and creatively" come back together in public spaces and employ artists to "facilitate this invitation."

Hand sanitizing became the focus.

"That seemed to be something that needed to happen and could easily be something that got very dull or maybe overlooked," O'Keefe said. "I thought, 'How do we make this novel and fun, not just something we have to do?'"

Another aspect of the project involves highlighting visual artists and musicians who may be out of work at a time when large gatherings are restricted and money is tight.

The team engaged other community members to create a prototype in May. Made of plywood, that model went in front of The Void on Main Street in June and featured a button on a skateboard that triggered a jingle lasting 20 seconds, or as long as someone should allow hand sanitizer to dry.

O'Keefe said the hand sanitizer comes from Saxtons River Distillery of Brattleboro and the sound system has been upgraded since its original rollout. Musician Peter Siegel came up with the jingle and artist Maddie Pixley helped with the design.

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Efforts are underway to create motion sensor devices to prompt the dispensing of hand sanitizer and tunes without touching anything. O'Keefe described a class designed for families to learn computer coding and make the devices.

Businesses don't pay for the Handy Stations, but do take care of them.

"Everything is grant-funded and sponsorship-funded because our brick-and-mortar businesses are struggling, so this is a way of helping them," O'Keefe said. "This is a way of really clearly broadcasting that our downtown is open for business and that our businesses are really taking public health seriously, and to be really clear about what steps a patron needs to take in order to walk into that business in a safe way."

Handy Stations are part of Open Artful Streets, an initiative of the Human Connection Project and Brattleboro Housing Opportunities, the programming arm of Brattleboro Housing Partnerships for which Hart is in charge of development. Downtown Brattleboro Alliance is also participating in the pilot project, which received seed money from the Arts Council of Windham County. The hope is that other communities use Handy Stations as a model.

"We've had various municipalities reach out to us," O'Keefe said.

She also wants Open Artful Streets to expand in scope, describing Handy Stations as the first project of the initiative.

In July, the Brattleboro Select Board approved funding for three Handy Stations. O'Keefe said the Thomas Thompson Trust is sponsoring four Handy Stations and she is waiting to hear back about potential other grants.

The goal is to get enough money for an additional 15 Handy Stations. Each station costs $1,500 to sponsor.

Local social justice organizations are being contacted to "amplify their mission since they don't have the brick-and-mortar presence of Main Street," O'Keefe said. She's also designing an interactive map and app showing where all the Handy Stations in a community can be found.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.