Signs Of Love: How An Anonymous Artist Sparked A Town-Wide Debate In Plainfield

Sep 29, 2017

In the heart of Plainfield there’s a utility pole covered with messages of love. But not everyone in town is moved by the mysterious “love” signs.

On the corner of Main and Mill Streets, right across from the Positive Pie pizza shop, there's a stone wall. For generations, it's been a hangout spot for young people in town.

But it's the utility pole snugged up against the stone wall that has been the talk of the town for the past month. That's because it's now covered with signs that simply say "love."

Jacquelyn Ripley, who lives in an apartment above Positive Pie, says the signs make her feel loved.

Melinda Vieux, who lives a little further down Main Street, says without irony, "I hate those signs."

Izabelle Harrigan, who makes pizzas at Positive Pie, is more ambivalent. She says the signs irked her at first, but she's kind of gotten used to them. “I’m very on the fence," she says. "I couldn’t care less about the love signs.”

Plainfield Road Commissioner Bram Towbin sees the signs as an experiment in sociology: "It’s an interesting exercise in how other people perceive things."

Love signs aren’t new in Plainfield; there’s been one on that very utility pole for over a year. But the display, and a surrounding debate, have escalated in the past few weeks.

Izabelle Harrigan tosses pizza dough at Positive Pie, in Plainfield. She says people are constantly coming into the shop talking about the 'love' signs.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Town Constable George Cushing was the first to bring the matter to the select board’s attention. He said it’s illegal to hang anything on utility poles in Vermont and the town should take the signs down. The board deferred to Green Mountain Power, saying the pole is the utility company’s property.

GMP spokesperson Kristin Carlson commented that while the company doesn’t condone hanging things on poles, they don’t police the matter either.

That doesn’t sit well with Vieux, who says the signs are in violation of Plainfield’s zoning ordinances, as well as state law.

Melinda Vieux isn't a fan of the signs. She says they don't fit in with the town's historic village and they are illegal under state law as well as local zoning.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"There’s a whole detail in the zoning about signage," she says. "And it’s because, people, we don’t like to be bombarded with signs."

And now it’s more than just signs. There’s even a plastic toy oven on the pole, above a sign that says "L'OVEN."

There’s also a rather official looking sign that says “No Love Signs. Town of Plainfield.” Towbin says that sign was his doing:

"The idea behind that was really, if people chose to have the public right of way be a free speech forum, then I thought that it would be appropriate to have a representative of the other side, in a sense."

Towbin says he bought the sign with his own money. And he even voluntarily paid a $5 fine; the amount on the books for violating the statute banning the hanging of signs on utility poles.

While the pole's adornments come and go, this is how the pole appeared one day this week.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

But his “no love signs” sign was stolen. So Towbin took further action:

"I wrote an editorial and I said, ‘Look, somebody took the ‘no love’ signs down. And I think if you’re going to be tolerant of the ‘love’ signs, then please return the sign.’ And lo-and-behold on Old Home Day somebody did return the sign and put it back up, along with lots of other signs."

So what started out as one man’s expression of love has turned into a community debate that has played out in newspaper articles and Facebook posts, as well as on that village utility pole.

But one question lingers: Who made those first anonymous signs?

While he's never said so publicly before, Owen Bradely admits it was him.

Bradley is Plainfield resident and former principal of Twinfield Union School. Now he’s a principal in Bethel. But he says he started making love signs at Twinfield 18 years ago.

Owen Bradley offers up one of his hand-painted 'love' signs at Plainfield's Old Home Day Variety Show on September 8.
Credit Bram Towbin

"When I became a principal at Twinfield School, where I was a student, and I experienced a horrible thing back in the day when principals would smack you around and all that," he explains. "And [then] I became the principal and I made a commitment to myself that I would bring loving energy to that place that did not have that loving energy."

The genesis of Bradely's love signs was just the word "love," written in magic marker on a white sheet of paper. He put it up to cover some graffiti on a school wall until it could be cleaned up.

The paper was stolen off the wall, but that didn't stop him.

He made another hand-written love sign and put it up by his office door.

That sign disappeared too. So he made another one.

"Somebody kept stealing those signs," he recalls. "... So I felt like somebody was wanting or needing love, so I copied a bunch of them and I just gave them out to anybody that wanted them. All the teachers had them in their rooms."

Eventually, he began painting more substantial signs. Some he makes for people he knows could use some extra love. Others he makes just to put a little more love out in the world.

"Anyone can take those signs," he says. "What’s happened in the past is I’ve put these out and people take them. And I want them to take them. I’ve left them around."

In fact, Bradley made the first love sign that went up on the pole over a year ago. But he didn’t put it on the pole.

The pole of 'love' signs is in the heart of Plainfield, right across the road from Positive Pie.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

He did add a few more signs last month, however, after a white nationalist rally turned to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"And there was all this hate in the world," he says,"and I was moved to put these up in a prominent place in our little town."

Bradley says, if the love signs come down, that’s ok with him. He’s already given that love away.