03 Feb Painted Utility Boxes, Part 1 (2009)
45 photos of 7 utility boxes!
Outdoor painting on hot July days.
Public Arts Commission at work.
Ashland Public Art series.
Have you noticed the bright, colorful utility boxes around town? I love the way these gray metal boxes have been transformed into colorful works of art. This article will feature mostly photographs, including fun “before and after” photos of the utility boxes.
In 2009, after consultation with the City utility department, the Public Arts Commission (PAC) invited artists to submit designs for paintings on seven utility boxes in and near the Railroad District area. PAC’s Call for Entries document stated in part: “The theme for Phase 1 of this project is Reflections of Ashland. Artists are invited to submit designs that are suitable to the theme of Reflections of Ashland. These may include but are not limited to designs that reflect Ashland’s natural beauty, cultural offerings, history and distinctive charm.”
Artists were required to submit a two dimensional representation of what their design would look like on the three dimensional utility box. As an example, artist Zelpha Hutton submitted the design below. PAC chose six artists to paint the first seven utility boxes.
When the Public Arts Commission was created in 2003, it began with lofty ideals and no consistent funding source. Money was still tight in 2009, so funding had to be found for the utility box project. A Mail Tribune article described the supporters of this project. “In addition to support from the city government and Ashland Public Arts Commission, the utility box project was made possible by a $1,500 grant from the Jackson County Cultural Coalition and donations of paint and services from Miller Paint Co., The Party Place and Meyers Painting.”
Following this map, you can create your own Art Walk of these first seven painted utility boxes. Follow along as you read this article on your mobile phone, or get some fresh air on a sunny day after you have read it.
Box 1: North Second Street (“Dogs and Bikes”)
The first box on the map is located on North Second Street near East Main Street, in front of the entrance to U.S. Bank. Zelpha Hutton is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Dogs and Bikes.”
Hutton was an art teacher and owner of Paisley Yarn Shop in Ashland for many years. According to the Mail Tribune, the design came to her “when she noticed several dogs tied up at the nearby Agave restaurant while their owners dined. A bicycle was also outside. The scene — often repeated at cafés all around town — inspired Hutton to create a playful design featuring dogs tied to a table with a bowl of water and a bicycle nearby. The utility box she painted is in front of U.S. Bank on Second Street.”
I’ll begin with the before and after photo, share two more photos taken in 2009, and then add three that I took in January 2021.
Box 2: North Second Street (“Poppies”)
The second box on the map is located on North Second Street near Lithia Way, in front of Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth. Kathleen Taylor is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Poppies.” This photo collection also includes the before and after photo, two more photos taken in 2009, and then three that I took in January 2021.
Along with Taylor’s poppy flower design submittal, she wrote, “I am inspired by the beautiful springtime flower here in Ashland.”
Box 3: Lithia Way (“Mountains and Trees”)
The third box on the map is located on Lithia Way at the west end of C Street. Pokey McFarland is the artist, and his title for the artwork is “Mountains and Trees.” The theme was a natural for the artist, since McFarland was a hiker, trail runner, mountain biker and skier.
When McFarland submitted his design for the utility box to PAC, he wrote: “I feel that Ashland is a unique area, naturally beautiful and hidden in among mountains and forests. I feel many come here for that isolated feeling. The natural beauty here is one of a kind, wonderful! When I reflect on Ashland, I think mountains, trees, rivers, natures’ beauty…”
In a 2011 article, the Ashland Tidings said, “McFarland previously was one of the winners of a city contest to paint drab utility boxes in colorful designs. He also makes posters for bands and music festivals, designs T-shirts and does art projects for businesses.
A staff member at the Lithia Springs Boys Home, he likes to take troubled youngsters out into nature. They sometimes team with Ashland Parks and Recreation Department workers on projects.”
Below you’ll find the before and after photo, one more photo taken in 2009 as the box was being painted, and then two that I took in January 2021.
Box 4: Oak Street (no longer painted)
Box 4 was located on Oak Street in front of the Recology Ashland office. Sadly, it is no longer there. The utility box was replaced and not repainted. Here is a photo showing how the box, painted by Kathleen Taylor, looked in 2009, and a 2021 photo showing how it looks now.
Box 5: Oak Street (“Ashland Activities”)
Box 5 is located on Oak Street near the Old Ashland Armory. Judy Bryant is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Ashland Activities.” This painting is full of detail. After the two photos from 2009, I included a number of close-up photos taken in 2021 to show some of that detail.
With Bryant’s design submittal, she wrote, “When I was giving thought to a design for Reflections of Ashland I kept thinking of all the activities we as locals get to enjoy right outside our front doors any day of the year.”
Box 6: A Street (“Clouds and Grapes”)
Box 6 is located on A Street near the Ashland Food Coop. Adrienne Bailin is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Clouds and Grapes.”
Box 7: A Street (“Return of the Swans”)
Box 7 is located on A Street near Fourth Street. Ann DiSalvo is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Return of the Swans.” I interviewed DiSalvo, so I’ll share a little of her experience painting the utility box and some of her insights about public art. I found out that she also painted three other utility boxes around town between 2010 and 2016, so you’ll see her name come up in future articles.
DiSalvo got her degree in art at the University of Wisconsin, and has worked as an artist most of her professional life. Since moving to Ashland in the early 1990s, she has been active in the Ashland Gallery Association, including editing their annual Gallery Guide for more than 15 years.
Hot, hot, hot
She remembers the July days in 2009, when painting was done, as extremely hot. PAC rented canopies for the artists to work under, which helped a bit. The artists picked up their paint supplies (exterior acrylic paint from Miller Paints) the first morning in the Elks Club parking lot and headed for their individual utility boxes. Each box had been thoroughly cleaned by city staff in preparation for painting. Later, after artists finished their painting, city staff added a UV clear coat to prolong the life of the outdoor artwork.
DiSalvo described the challenge of working with the outdoor acrylic paint under these conditions. “Because of the heat, the acrylic paint would dry so quickly. In under a minute it would be dry, and my brushes would be caked with paint because it was drying on the brush. The metal was so hot [in the afternoon] that when the paint hit the metal, it would be stiff within seconds, and it was hard to make a good flowing stroke. It wasn’t so bad in the morning.” She added that utility box painting in subsequent years was done in the spring or fall to avoid these hot summer temperatures.
The value of public art
Ann expressed one of the benefits of creating public art on site – community members get to interact with an artist at work. “A Street is a pretty busy pedestrian street in the summer. A lot of people came by and commented, and that was nice. In addition, a neighbor brought me a cup of iced lemonade while I was painting.”
Regarding the value of public art, she added: “When I go to another city and I see their public art, it really speaks to me of what they consider valuable. Public art shows the imagination and care the community has, not just for residents but for visitors too. There is a sense of humor in much of it. If a city were a person, this would be its facial expression.” She also believes that public art, because it is visible, inspires other artists to want to live in that community. “They feel like they belong in a city that loves art.”
In addition to visual arts like sculpture and murals, I would extend Ann’s thought to include theater art, music, dance and other creative endeavors. All of these art forms, especially theater, currently attract people to both visit and live in Ashland. I think expanding public art in Ashland, because it is both very visible and freely accessible, would be one way to build our community’s economic engine.
Photos for box seven will begin with Ann’s design for the box, followed by two photos from 2009 and four that I took in January 2021.
More utility boxes
I hope you enjoyed this “walk” around the Railroad District to visit the first group of painted utility boxes sponsored by Ashland’s Public Arts Commission. Quite a few more have been painted since 2009. I will visit more in another article.
Aldous, Vickie. “Map showcases Ashland Watershed,” Ashland Tidings, July 28, 2011.
Anon. “Artists paint Ashland utility boxes,” Medford Mail Tribune, July 23, 2009.
DiSalvo, Ann. Interview, January 2020.
Etling, Bert. “Beautifying the boxes,” Ashland Tidings, July 24, 2014.
Public Arts Commission. “CALL FOR ENTRIES: Reflections of Ashland: Utility Box Beautification Project (Phase I),” Public Arts Commission, 2009. (accessed January 26, 2021)
Public Arts Commission. “Reflections of Ashland: Utility Box Beautification Project,” Presentation prepared by RavenWorkStudio, 2009. (accessed January 26, 2021)
Public Arts Commission. Designs submitted, 2009. (accessed January 29, 2021)