Sitting on the corner of your average intersection sits a canvas.
Well, it's actually a traffic signal utility box. But that blank silver exterior you usually look past begs for artwork, don’t you think?
Six traffic signal utility boxes are getting a makeover — from overlooked cabinets to works of art — to tell the stories of the people who pass by them every day. The Austin Transportation Department’s Artbox program is continuing in its pilot phase, adding six boxes to the four already completed in Austin.
The Artbox program is a collaboration between the city and Houston-based Up Art Studio, which specializes in "mini mural" art. It touts more than 200 colorfully painted traffic cabinets in Houston. Austin’s pilot program is entering the final steps of its second phase, after completing the first phase over the course of five months last year.
In the first phase, the city decided to spread out the selected utility cabinets across city council districts. The initial four boxes painted can be found at East Stassney Lane and Jacaranda Drive in District 2; Little Walnut Creek Library at Rundberg Lane in District 4; Arroyo Seco and West Koenig Lane in District 7; and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Guadalupe Street in District 9.
» MORE NEWS: Broadway in Austin: ‘Hadestown,’ ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Wicked’ coming for 2020-21
Each traffic cabinet is intended to represent the people and culture of the community in which it resides. The program seeks input from the surrounding community regarding the artist and artwork for each cabinet.
When Mila Sketch, an award-winning visual artist, was selected to paint the District 3 traffic utility box (located at South Pleasant Valley Drive and South Lakeshore Boulevard), she was excited because she felt like she knew and identified with the people in the area.
Sketch lived in District 3 when she first moved to Austin five years ago. She said the area is a diverse community, and she feels fortunate to be part of the project.
"It’s a great responsibility to (paint the Artbox)," Sketch said. "Hopefully this piece can inspire a child or an adult and give them hope and strength."
The process starts with an application pool of artists, which Up Art Studio narrows down to a shortlist. The project surveys the people who live or work in the area, and the artist with the most votes is selected. They then learn about the community for which they’ll design an Artbox.
After receiving the District 3 community’s feedback from the survey, Sketch had an idea of how she wanted to leave her mark on the street corner. The words used by those surveyed to describe District 3 included culture, resilience and nature.
Sketch has submitted two design ideas to be voted on by the community. One is titled "The Future Is Female," with the "shape of the strong young black female" at its center, according to Sketch’s description, surrounded by scientific motifs. The other is titled "Inner Beauty" and features a hand holding Texas plant life against a galactic background.
The city expects to begin work on the District 3 box’s design in March. Installation for another box in District 1 (located at East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Chicon Street) is scheduled for the same time. The community can vote on the designs for both boxes until Feb. 28.
» MORE NEWS: SXSW 101 for newbies
Artboxes in four other districts (5, 6, 8 and 10) are in the artist survey phase. All the artists in the candidate pool are based in Austin. Those surveys closed Feb. 20. The city expects to complete all the installations in the project’s second phase by midyear.
Up Art Studio co-founder and managing principal Elia Quiles said the program gives artists another way to put themselves out there.
"We’re happy to be in Austin, providing public art," Quiles said. "(The Artboxes) are a low-cost, high-visibility way to get art out in the community and express that community in a visual form."
The city’s contract with Up Art Studio ends in late July. The results of the pilot — and the future of the program — will then be evaluated, said Matthew Ramirez, program manager for the Austin Transportation Department.
"Moving forward, we want to look into expanding this program so it's easier for neighborhood associations, community members and other local artists to access the program and get more of these utility boxes painted," Ramirez said. "The designs themselves have been really amazing and really reflective of the communities around them."
More information, as well as the community surveys, can be found at austintexas.gov/artbox.