Saturday, November 25, 2006
Stamford art on traffic boxes
November 25, 2006
On Traffic-Signal Boxes, Art That Stops Traffic
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN
STAMFORD, Conn., Nov. 24 — A blown-up version of the green-and-yellow crayon box familiar from childhood sits by the Boys and Girls Club. Down the road is a white takeout carton that could feed the Chinese Army. The box outside the firehouse on Washington Boulevard appears to be aflame. And there is a half-painted picket fence on Palmers Hill Road, the brush hovering in midair as if Tom Sawyer himself had momentarily stepped away, with a sign warning, “wet paint.”
What began four years ago as a tiny, grass-roots experiment to beautify the unsightly boxes that control traffic signals around town has become an unexpectedly impressive public art collection, with head-turning installations cropping up constantly to transform drab streetscapes into outdoor galleries.
About 50 of the city’s 190 boxes, once covered with graffiti, are now suitable for framing.
“They appear overnight,” said Renée Kahn, a local preservationist and a fan. “One weekend you drive by and there’s nothing, and the next weekend it’s suddenly there.”
When civic boosters first asked local artists to paint the boxes, the results often looked like shrubs or faux stone walls. But the artists grew bolder and began to riff on Stamford’s pastimes and passions as more neighborhood groups began to commission the boxes, which are usually 58 inches tall, 44 inches wide and 27 inches deep.
Thus, bag-laden shoppers were soon spotted at a shopping center, knicker-clad golfers teed off near the links, and a pigtailed girl scribbled on a chalkboard filled with equations outside an elementary school.
Two must-sees, resembling Pop Art at its wackiest, popped up in recent weeks. They give anyone stuck in traffic along Broad Street much to look at — too much, perhaps, if traffic suddenly starts moving. That crayon box, with the legend “Crazola,” holds an assortment of “X-tra Big” crayons. And the fine print on the oversize takeout carton, paying homage to a nearby Chinese restaurant, says, “No msg.”
“They make you smile,” said Sandy Goldstein, who as head of a downtown business group enlisted artists to decorate a dozen boxes in and around the central business district.
Most of the boxes in Ms. Goldstein’s collection, which received an award last year from the International Downtown Association, were the work of Zora Janosova, a former set designer for the Palace Theater. Ms. Janosova carried an oxygen tank with her as she scrambled to complete several boxes around town before her death last year from breast cancer at age 33.
On one she left behind near Curley’s Diner, a cow tumbles mysteriously from the sky, and on another, over by the Palace Theater, silhouetted heads ring the bottom, giving the audience on the street a figurative glimpse of the audience inside.
There is a range of motifs and styles on display around town. Springdale, a residential neighborhood in the northeast part of town, is dominated by Anne Salthouse’s subdued pastoral scenes. Hubbard Heights, a neighborhood of older homes, looks as if Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg moved in.
The Hubbard Heights Garden Club fell in love with the idea of commissioning boxes to beautify the streets because, as one 87-year-old member explained, she and the others were getting to the age where they were “a little beyond digging.”
The club hired Liz Squillace, 29, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who lives in Greenwich, to do 20 boxes. Among her works are the crayons, the Chinese takeout, the flames outside the firehouse, and another on Washington Boulevard that looks like a carton whose contents are spilling out. Stamped on the outside are warnings like “handle with care.”
Looking back, civic boosters say they never set out to create public art on a grand scale. But in wrestling with what to do with the large boxes that had become graffiti magnets, they knew that hiding them was not possible.
Joseph Andrews, Stamford’s traffic signal supervisor, said that special turning lanes and signal synchronization had made suburban traffic boxes more complex; the electronics need to be above ground, he said, for ventilation and other reasons. In New York and other cities, Mr. Andrews said, signal boxes are usually smaller and hang on poles, while the newfangled ones here in Stamford are equipped with sensors that count the cars and adjust accordingly.
By most accounts, the first painted box here appeared, circa 2003, at Bouton and Hope Streets, in the form of whimsical trompe l’oeil blossoms sprouting along a classic picket fence. Marilyn Trefry, president of the Springdale Neighborhood Association, had hired Ms. Salthouse, a local artist, to do a few boxes, with the proviso that they had to “melt into the background,” according to Ms. Trefry.
Before work could begin, however, Ms. Trefry had to get permission from the city, which owns the boxes. Officials worried that dark colors absorb sunlight, and that the resulting heat could throw off the electronics. They warned the artists and neighborhood groups that if the boxes were hit by cars, too bad — the city would not pay to have the art replaced or repaired.
Finally, Ms. Trefry recalled, “the city was worried that if we did it, everybody else in town would want to, and they were right.”
Eventually, the city not only signed off on the idea, but also helped get grant money that the neighborhood groups have used to pay the artists, who generally get a few hundred dollars per box.
The boxes also seem to have won the approval of graffiti scrawlers, who have generally left the painted boxes alone. Civic groups and the police both interpret that hands-off response as a sign that the work has earned the respect of those who fancy themselves street artists.
At least four of the decorated boxes have been done in by wayward cars, just as city officials feared. Some of those now sit in a makeshift graveyard outside Mr. Andrews’s office until he figures out what to do with them.
Another casualty awaits replacement at the corner of Greyrock Place and Broad Street. It is a Janosova original, with painted caryatids that look as if they may crumple from the stress. The dents and dings are rusty rebukes to those who wish they had made time to see the piece in its better days, a reminder that this is one art show with an uncertain closing date.
Ms. Goldstein, the downtown business booster, said there are no plans as yet to offer tours of the collection, but said she would look into creating an official map. John Ruotolo, her operations director, joked that someone should “start selling maps to the signal boxes, the way they sell maps to the stars’ houses.”