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Art Box Project San Jose Turns Drab Utility Boxes Into Art

Utility boxes are for the most part rectangular, gray, metal structures housing needed electrical wiring. They are also both drab and ubiquitous.

Now there are exceptions in the form of original artwork transforming drab to dramatic and gray to colorful.

Art Box Project San Jose is behind these mini street beautification efforts bringing smiles to passersby.

Tina Morrill, a community activist completing her master’s degree in public administration at San Jose State University, is the project’s driving force.

Since September 2011, when the first Art Box was done at the corner of The Alameda and Julian Street, Morrill says close to 40 have been completed and several more are in the works.

She has worked to keep the process simple and straightforward.

Once a utility box is identified as being owned by the city and a neighborhood, business or individual is interested in turning it into a small piece of public art, Morrill goes to work.

Cherri Lakey, co-owner of Anno Domini art gallery and one of the founders of the Phantom Galleries project, screens interested artists and makes recommendations to Morrill.

“I work with the community,” Morrill says. “I show them different artists’ styles, and they choose a style and we discuss a conceptual design.”

She says they ask the community to give the artist license because the stipend is very small.

“The artist comes up with something, I ask the community to approve what they’ve designed and if they have minor suggestions or changes, fine,” she says. “There’s a lot of give and take between the community and the artists, a lot of patience and generosity about creative freedom.”

Sponsors pay a $200 stipend for a single utility box or $250 for a two-box configuration. Artists provide their own painting supplies.

Many of the Art Boxes are sponsored by neighborhood associations, including the College Park, Shasta Hanchett and Willow Glen Neighborhood associations.

In late December, the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association used Crowdtilt in hopes of raising $500 for Art Boxes. Crowdtilt is an online platform that allows groups to combine payment and charges only when all participants have opted in. The effort brought in $1,000, enough for four to five boxes.

District 6 City Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio has sponsored nine Art Boxes. “It’s a nice way to add art,” he says. “You can look at art in different ways. You can look at big art that’s very expensive in the center of the city, or you can look at art that is less expensive and spreads throughout the city.”

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