Gray. Boring. Invisible.
That’s how Petaluma’s numerous downtown utility boxes have often been described. A vital part of a town’s electrical and transportation infrastructure, the large metal cabinets are usually painted as inconspicuous a color as possible, intentionally designed to blend in and not be noticed by those passing by. But four months ago, in the core of downtown Petaluma, the exact opposite began taking place, as specifically selected artists began the job of transforming those utility boxes into objects of art.
At the corner of B Street and Petaluma Boulevard, artist Maxfield Bala has created a vividly colored collage from images of a tiger, a bee and a snake. They gaze out from different sides of the 5-foot-tall box, while across the street, near the trees at Center Park, Marla Pedersen has wrought a whimsical homage to nature and youth, with a child surrounded by bright flowers and sun-like patterns. On one side are the words, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” At the corner of Western and Kentucky, artist Diana Majumdar has created a charming vision of small birds perched here and there on two-dimensional branches, with hints of buildings in the background.
And that’s just the beginning.
As pedestrians walk about downtown, they will encounter six more, with several additional boxes scheduled to be painted over the next few months (See sidebar). The project is being paid for with money raised through a city assessment, funneled from local business owners to Petaluma’s Business Improvement District, all to make the core downtown area more appealing, accessible and functional for shoppers, merchants and visitors.
“From that pool of money, we have a beautification component,” explains Marie McCusker, Executive Director of the Petaluma Downtown Association, which is managing the utility box project. “We saw that the downtown utility boxes were often covered in graffiti, and were causing a bit of blight. So we decided to recruit some local artists and offer them a stipend to take a utility box and transform it into something attractive and fun. We’ve been delighted by the response from local artists, who’ve really jumped in with a lot of creative ideas.”
The effort echoes similar projects in cities of all sizes, all across the world, where so-called “utility box art” is often a major opportunity for local artists to strut their stuff while enlivening shabby or unappealing areas. In Auckland, New Zealand, artist Paul Walsh has created a famous series of utility boxes, inspired by internet memes. In several Southern California towns - Glendale, Los Angeles, Santa Ana – artists have been recruited to use the boxes as canvasses for their unique visions, which often reflect different aspects of the area’s cultural and demographic makeup. In some cities, famous artists have stepped in to adopt and transform a box or two, and in some cases, the work of lesser known painters has given them an instant dose of celebrity and fame, often serving as “calling cards” that lead to bigger, more prestigious opportunities.
In Petaluma, artists interested in adopting a box have been invited to submit a proposal, with drawings or sketches illustrating what they plan to do. Selected artists receive a stipend of $500. The painting of a single box can take anywhere between a few days to a few weeks, depending on the ambitions of the artist, and the time they have to devote to it. Once painted, the boxes are then coated with a weather-proof sealant to protect the art from the sun, rain and other harsh elements.
TAKE THE TOUR
1. Bus Depot on Copeland Street. Artist: Richard Watts. Description: “Colorful swirls.”
2. Corner of D Street and First, near power plant. Artist: Ryan Peterson. Description: “Colorful swirls.”
3. Corner of Petaluma Boulevard and D Street, near 7-11. Artist: David Sullivan. Description: “Day of the Dead.”
4. Corner of Petaluma Boulevard and B Street, near Sugo and Peet’s. Artist: Maxfield Bala. Description: “Tiger/Snake/Bee.”
5. Corner of Petaluma Boulevard and B Street, near Center Park in front of the Mystic. Artist: Marla Pedersen. Description: “Children’s Mural.”
6. Corner of Western Street and Kentucky Street. Artist: Diana Majumdar. Description: “Birds on branches in front of building.”
7. Corner of Western and Petaluma Boulevard. Artist: Justin Ringlein. Description: “Chickens.”
8. Corner of Petaluma Boulevard and Washington Street, near statue of Bill Soberanes. Artist: Johnny Hirschmugl. Description: “Magnolia tree.”