Electrical boxes go from wearisome to works of art

inq_mg1paint20z-f
Three boxes were transformed on Bainbridge between Third and Fifth Streets on Labor Day weekend 2014.

The Queen Village Neighborhood Association said it had these ugly electrical junction boxes on every street. What could be done about them?

On a recent Wednesday, Ryan Psota was the 15th artist to transform the nearly six-foot-tall metal boxes into works of art. Using brushes, a roller, a beaded paddle, and cardboard coffee-cup sleeve, Psota, 26, created a background texture for his line drawings at a box at Seventh and South Street - with the pressure of a live crowd behind him.

"I'm a big fan of turning ugly things into more visually appealing things," said Psota, of Northern Liberties. "It's important to the community."

Mary Ellen Vajravelu, who lives in the Graduate Hospital area, had never noticed the boxes, which contain cables, wires, couplings, or lighting switches, but she was intrigued by the transformation. "It's a nice thing to do that adds to the beauty of the neighborhood."

It was the neighborhood that was the inspiration for the more than year-old effort by HAHA x Paradigm - the marriage of HAHA magazine founder Ginger Rudolph and Jason Chen and Sara McCorriston, co-owners of Paradigm Gallery + Studio in Queen Village - which aims to create programing that interacts with the community and offers public art to people hesitant to enter formal galleries or museums. The group took a cue from other communities, most notably Ocean City, N.J., which hired artists to paint its utility boxes.

HAHA x Paradigm started by commissioning three artists - including My Dog Sighs (a.k.a. Paul Stone), who traveled here from Portsmouth, England - to transform three boxes on Labor Day weekend 2014 on Bainbridge between Third and Fifth Streets.

"It seems everywhere we go, we are bombarded with advertising imagery telling us our life would only be better if we bought, consumed, ate, wore things," said Stone. "To place art on the streets reminds everyone that life is more than that. It's about stumbling across the unexpected, seeing something that makes us question our daily grind."

When Stone arrived in Philadelphia, he was struck by the sheer number of the city's homeless, which reminded him of the UB40 song "One in Ten."

"It's about those overlooked and ignored by society, and it seemed like an opportunity to use the box as a voice for those without one," he said. "Hidden behind a single glassy eye are the lyrics, and in the reflection, the Center City skyline reflects back."

Participating artists, who are found through word of mouth, work mainly free of charge, often sleeping on McCorriston's couch. A stipend totaling $2,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the South Street Headhouse District, with the rest coming from HAHA x Paradigm, helps fund flights and cover meals. But the artists have the freedom to create their own design, often on the spot. It generally takes a day to complete a box.

"It's really impactful in an area like South Street, where art has always been pervasive," said Bill Arrowood, assistant director of the South Street Headhouse District. "It does eliminate random acts of graffiti."

In late November, Dennis McNett, 42, from Richmond, Va., took about 21/2 hours to paint the box at Sixth and South, using wood-block prints to create patterns, and then painting mythological characters. "It's fun to do something that anyone can see, that isn't confined to a museum or gallery."

Not everyone likes every design, McCorriston said, "but our whole thing with these is to bring fine art out into the street in a way that makes people talk and think about art."

The boxes completed so far are on South between Second and Seventh, but dozens more in the South Street Headhouse District, as well as throughout the city, sit waiting to be painted. HAHA x Paradigm hopes to tackle them all, working with other neighborhood associations. There's no real schedule - when a willing artist rears his or her head, another box will be painted.

The local tradition of creating art using electrical boxes as canvas started more than two years ago, when a group of University of the Arts students created designs for boxes in Washington Square West. These were more about blending in than standing out, as the designs were meant to interact with surrounding buildings, brick patterns, or street shadows, said Mark Campbell, dean of the College of Art, Media, and Design.

With a $12,000 budget from the Washington Square West Civic Association and UArts, a printer created vinyl wrappings that would last 10 years, covering the first box in spring 2014. So far, 14 of a proposed 32 boxes have been wrapped - each costing about $500 to print and install. The next phase will begin in the spring semester.

"The reception both from the city and the citizens," said Campbell, "is a testament to the long history of public art in the city - it's just a part of our culture."