‘Let's Put Art Everywhere': Vt. Project Spruces Up Bland Boxes

Utility boxes used to house telecom equipment and traffic signal devices are the centerpieces of a community art project powered by volunteers

A northern New England city has found a new twist on utility boxes many people drive, bike, or walk past every day — without paying them much attention.

"I love it," beamed Katie O'Brien of South Burlington, Vermont, describing the volunteer project she is overseeing to transform dull and rusty utility boxes into pieces of public art. "If they keep giving us more boxes, we'll just keep going!"

The retired art teacher is on a mission, with city approval, to see six dozen or more utility boxes transformed throughout South Burlington.

"It's taking an eyesore, and making it beautiful," said Shannon Estep, one of the painters working on the project.

The boxes house telecom equipment and the gadgets that run traffic lights and crossing signals. The units now double as canvasses for the artists recruited to help O'Brien.

"If we can put art everywhere, let's put art everywhere," said Kendra Knott, one of the dozens of volunteer artists helping O'Brien in the project.

"The amount of artists is really amazing, and the variation in their art is fun to see on the sides of roads as we drive around our beautiful South Burlington," added James Valastro, another volunteer artist.

O'Brien said the idea started when her daughter suggested coming up with a way to combat graffiti in the community. However, since the painting started in July of 2018, it has grown into a community-wide celebration of the arts.

The work is not done yet, and each week for the past several days, drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians have noticed more boxes added to the "finished" column along roadways.

"It just makes me happy," observed Kevin Dorn, South Burlington's city manager. "Public art, and appreciation of public art, are very much part of a community."

O'Brien heads a small committee that approves design proposals for the boxes, and there are three guidelines the artists have to follow. The boxes have to be bright and colorful, there can't be any political or controversial content, and they have to make people smile when they pass by them.

"I think it makes the city more beautiful and unique," observed South Burlington high school senior Nikki Pearl. "It's really creative."

"If you're sitting at a traffic light, it's so much nicer to look at some fish," added Anne Johnson, referring to one box depicting a colorful school of fish that she saw while visiting relatives in South Burlington.

Yes, other cities and towns have transformed traffic and utility boxes, too, but O'Brien noted some of them have paid for professional artists, whereas the South Burlington effort is all-volunteer.

Donations have covered the materials, the retired art teacher said.

"It just really makes it special," O'Brien said of the volunteer nature of the project. "It really is a great place to live, and now, it's even nicer to look at!"

O'Brien said she hopes the project continues to add unexpected splashes of vibrancy to her community, adding that underutilized walls and other industrial spaces may also get the community artists' attention in the future.

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