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Volunteer Project Turns Sidewalk Utility Boxes in San Jose into Public Art

Trudy Levy, an artist who normally paints on canvas, was intrigued when a San Jose neighborhood group asked if she’d like to paint one of those ugly gray, rectangular utility boxes that tend to squat on city sidewalks and collect graffiti and half-empty coffee cups.


“I had never painted anything like that before,” she said. “I had to make a model of one so I could see what I could do with it.”


She won the commission in September and painted the image of an orange dog being walked. The utility box she painted is fittingly across from the former Andy’s Pet Shop in the Shasta Hanchett neighborhood. Levy earned all of $200, plus she had to use her own paint.


“Yeah, it’s not the money,” she said. “This is really cool. You can beautify a neighborhood and get your art out there for people to see.”


She was the first of eight artists commissioned to paint city-owned utility boxes through the Art Box Project San Jose, a volunteer effort led by Tina Morrill. A community activist who left a career in corporate marketing to pursue a master’s degree in public administration at San Jose State, Morrill was inspired by painted utility boxes in Edmonton, Canada. But she didn’t want or expect San Jose taxpayers to foot the bill.


“The city is already stressed out,” she said. “So I thought, what if the community owned it?”


She started quietly and without a city permit by approaching neighborhood associations and Cherrie Lakey, a downtown gallery owner. Lakey helped create the Phantom Galleries program, which allows artists to showcase their work on a rotating basis in vacant retail windows throughout downtown.


Once a neighborhood group selects a box and pledges the money, Lakey puts out a “call for artists” to propose ideas. Neighborhood representatives generally prefer images that reflect the look, feel, lifestyle or history of the area.


Artist Sara Tomasello looked to history for a box at the gritty corner of 13th and Hedding streets in the Northside neighborhood. The area was once home to the Luna Park amusement park. Borrowing an image from the merry-go-round, Tomasello used bold brush strokes to produce a horse and rider in motion. The job took Tomasello, who lives in the neighborhood, about 21 hours to complete. No one bothered or threatened her.


“In fact, people were really interested in what we were doing,” she said. “They supported it a lot.”


Besides adding art to the urban landscape, Morrill wanted to protect the boxes from ugly graffiti. The rectangular boxes have become inviting targets for taggers and street gangs claiming turf.


“I think it’s a great idea,” said Marie Aguilar, owner of Casa Vicky restaurant, which has a painted box in front. “I hope it deters graffiti.”


So far, none of the eight completed boxes has been retagged, according to Morrill. Lakey said taggers tend to respect public art they consider cool.


“There’s definitely a code,” Lakey said. “You don’t go after art.”


Morrill figured she’d have to get official permission sooner or later from City Hall. The project wasn’t exactly an underground secret. Several officials and City Council members knew and gave the art boxes a quiet nod.


Nevertheless, Morrill asked for a hearing and won permission last week from City Hall to continue. The city has about 700 utility boxes, and PG&E and AT&T have dozens more. But Morrill’s growth plan isn’t that ambitious, at least not yet.


Lakey said the volunteer project could easily become an nonprofit group with a budget, employees and an executive director.


“It could take over your life,” she told Morrill, who shrugged at the idea without rejecting it.


Published by Merury News.

Posted in: News