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Painted utility boxes brighten our town

Have you noticed the bright, colorful utility boxes around town? I love the way these plain metal boxes have been transformed into colorful works of art. You can thank the City of Ashland Public Arts Commission for these humble yet uplifting sights.

In 2009, after consultation with the City utility department, the Public Arts Commission (PAC) invited artists to submit designs for paintings on seven utility boxes in the Railroad District area. PAC asked for "designs that reflect Ashland’s natural beauty, cultural offerings, history and distinctive charm." A few additional utility boxes were painted in subsequent years.

Bring this article along so you can create your own art walk as we look at eight painted utility boxes in the Railroad District.

We'll begin with Box No. 1 at the corner of East Main Street and Second Street, in front of the entrance to U.S. Bank. Zelpha Hutton is the artist, and her title for the artwork is "Dogs and Bikes."

According to the Mail Tribune of July 23, 2009, the design came to her "when she noticed several dogs tied up at the nearby Agave restaurant while their owners dined. A bicycle was also outside. The scene — often repeated at cafés all around town — inspired Hutton to create a playful design featuring dogs tied to a table with a bowl of water and a bicycle nearby."

Walk north half a block and you will see Box No. 2 next to the Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth, just before you reach Lithia Way. Notice the church building, which was constructed in 1895. Thanks to an anonymous female donor, the bell tower and bell were added in 1900.

Kathleen Taylor is the artist of Box No. 2, and her title for the artwork is "Poppies." Taylor wrote in her design submission, “I am inspired by the beautiful springtime flowers here in Ashland.”

Walk across Lithia Way, and you will reach Box No. 3. Pokey McFarland is the artist, and his title for the artwork is "Mountains and Trees." The theme was a natural for the artist, since McFarland was a hiker, trail runner, mountain biker and skier.

When McFarland submitted his design for the utility box to PAC, he wrote: “I feel that Ashland is a unique area, naturally beautiful and hidden in among mountains and forests. I feel many come here for that isolated feeling. The natural beauty here is one of a kind, wonderful! When I reflect on Ashland, I think mountains, trees, rivers, nature's beauty...”

Walk west on Lithia Way, then turn right on Oak Street to reach Box No. 4. Shortly after you turn on to Oak Street, you will see the McCall House across the street. The magnificent magnolia tree in the front yard was planted in 1890 by Mary McCall.

Box No. 4 is located near the Old Ashland Armory on Oak Street. Judy Bryant is the artist, and her title for the artwork is "Ashland Activities." Her artwork on all five panels of the box is full of detail. Count how many of the local activities she portrays that you have participated in.

Continue north on Oak Street. At the corner of Oak and A streets, you will see colorful Box No. 5. This one was painted by Yelena Joy in 2014.

The large building across A Street was built in 1912 for the Ashland Fruit & Produce Association. Ashland's orchards produced so much fruit that many boxcars of peaches and apples were shipped via rail across the nation. Later from 1945 to 2000, this building was the home of Ashland's oldest family business, Oak Street Tank & Steel. The fifth generation of the family now works in the business.

Around the corner at A and Pioneer streets is Box No. 6, painted in geometric patterns by Ann DiSalvo. This one was also painted in 2014.

Follow A Street to the slight curve and you will see Box No. 7 on the other side of the street. It is located across the street from the Ashland Food Co-op. Adrienne Bailin painted this utility box in 2009 and titled it “Clouds and Grapes.”

Today's Ashland Food Coop building was the site of the Natatorium (from 1909 to 1919) and Twin Plunges (from 1931 to 1977). These were mineral-water-fed swimming pools that provided recreation, exercise and a gathering place for generations of Ashlanders.

The final painted utility box on our short walk is located on A Street near Fourth Street. For Box No. 8, Ann DiSalvo is the artist, and her title for the artwork is "Return of the Swans." I talked with DiSalvo and asked about her experience painting this utility box in 2009.

She remembers those July days as extremely hot. PAC rented canopies for the artists to work under, which helped a bit. The artists picked up their paint supplies (exterior acrylic paint from Miller Paints) in the Elks Club parking lot and headed for their individual utility boxes. Each box had been thoroughly cleaned by city staff and a fresh coat of base paint applied. Later, after artists finished their painting, city staff added a UV clear coat to prolong the life of the outdoor artwork.

DiSalvo described the challenge of working with the outdoor acrylic paint under these conditions.

"Because of the heat, the acrylic paint would dry so quickly. In under a minute, it would be dry, and my brushes would be caked with paint because it was drying on the brush,“ she said. ”The metal was so hot [in the afternoon] that when the paint hit the metal, it would be stiff within seconds, and it was hard to make a good flowing stroke. It wasn't so bad in the morning."

DiSalvo expressed one of the benefits of creating public art on site – community members get to interact with an artist at work.

"A Street is a pretty busy pedestrian street in the summer. A lot of people came by and commented, and that was nice. In addition, someone brought me a cup of iced lemonade while I was painting," she said.

Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for his Ashland stories.

Painted utility box on Lithia Way. (photo by Peter Finkle)