Outside the Box

October 24, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Photo Courtesy Boston Art Commission
Artist Heidi Schork turned this Roslindale Village utility box into an optical illusion mural painting.

Murals bring life to city utility boxes

The metal utility boxes that dot Boston sidewalks, containing traffic signal timers and other wiring, may be necessary. But nobody said they have to be ugly.

PaintBox, a new city program, is thinking outside the box, turning those gray cubes into lively public art. Local artists are creating murals on 13 boxes in most Boston neighborhoods as pilot program that may expand next year.

This weekend (weather permitting), Jamaica Plain artist Jessica Burko will be decorating the box at S. Huntington Avenue and Moraine Street in front of the Alchemist Lounge with a collage depicting the history of JP art.

“JP has such a great tradition of murals,” Burko told the Gazette, adding that her piece will “commemorate a little bit how supportive JP is of artists and the arts.”

JP artist Heidi Schork, head of the city’s youth mural program, already finished a utility box in Roslindale, in front of the community center at Washington Street and Cummins Highway. Her painted mural creates the illusion of a brick wall crumbling to reveal a tropical island behind it.

Some other local cities, including Cambridge and Somerville, already have utility box mural programs.

“It’s something we thought we could improve upon, use really professional artists,” said Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission, which organized PaintBox along with the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events.

As in other cities, a main motivation of the program is to deter graffiti, which often targets urban objects that are unattractive to begin with.

“In our experience, murals don’t really get tagged as frequently as blank boxes,” Goodfellow said, adding that the decorated boxes will be coated in a transparent graffiti-resistance substance just in case.

Another motivation in Boston is turning the boxes into showcases for local artists, raising their profile in and connection to the community. Artists can sign their boxes with contact information. Goodfellow said she hopes residents also chat with artists during the decoration of the boxes.

“This is a very creative way to bring both beauty and individualized neighborhood character to the urban streetscape,” said Mayor Thomas Menino in a press statement.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to do public art before,” said Burko, a widely exhibited artist who specializes in photography-based mixed-media work.

Burko said that when the city invited her to participate in the mural program, “My first response was, ‘Oh, but I’m not a painter.’” She was quickly reassured that PaintBox is open to other media. She said she will use an acrylic substance to stick the images onto the box for her collage.

Burko said her work is always narrative, and the story she wants her collage to tell is the history of JP arts. Last week, she was still gathering material for the collage from local arts organizations, the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and Gazette photographer John Swan, among other sources. She even intends to include images of other JP murals.

Wall murals are so popular and numerous in JP that they have their own category in the Gazette’s annual “Best of JP” awards. (This year’s winner: Hyde Square’s Hi-Lo Market.)

“I used to live in JP, and it has a really potent artistic feel,” said Goodfellow.

Goodfellow said that, for the pilot program, the city invited artists already familiar to city art agencies. Burko, for example, recently exhibited in the Mayor’s Gallery at Boston City Hall.

There were no design guidelines beyond using a “durable” material and inserting the city’s own official tag—“City of Boston/Mayor Thomas M. Menino”—to make it clear it is sanctioned art. All of the artists submitted designs for approval, but none were rejected, Goodfellow said, adding, “They’re not going to put up anything inappropriate.”

Before the artwork goes on, the city takes the first step of painting the box with primer. The artists are paid “a small stipend to cover the costs of materials,” Goodfellow said. She and Burko both declined to say exactly how much the stipend is.

The pilot program began last month at Christopher Columbus Park in the North End during the Boston Arts Festival. There, artist Aimee Empey painted a sea-and-sky scene covered with sparkles on two boxes. The program kick-off was intended to coincide with various neighborhood Open Studios arts events.

If response is good, the program will become official and expand, possibly next spring, Goodfellow said.