Reimag(in)ing the city 

click to enlarge Traffic box at Michigan Street and Emerson Avenue by Andrew Severns. - HEIDI UNGER
  • Traffic box at Michigan Street and Emerson Avenue by Andrew Severns.
  • Heidi Unger

A gray aluminum cabinet owned by the Department of Public Works becomes a canvas. The canvas begets a painting. The painting sparks a conversation about the value of public art.

That's what happened when 19 traffic signal boxes morphed into one-of-a-kind art pieces along an eastside community's main thoroughfares. Irvington is home to Foundation East, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing "artists, funders, and dreamers" together to transform eastside neighborhoods through public art.

The traffic signal box idea originated from an unlikely source. IMPD Officer Shane Foley attended a conference where he learned about the decades-old concept of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). He told Irvington Terrace's Crimewatch group about CPTED's landscaping and lighting design principles — and its philosophy that modifying the built environment can deter criminals.

"I was trying to tell anyone who would listen, and Irvington Terrace picked up the idea," Foley said. The group already had a history of litter cleanups and beautification efforts, and CPTED theory hit home.

During 2012's Great Indy Cleanup, volunteers painted seven boxes along East Washington Street using designs selected from artist submissions. The 2013 round of boxes were painted by the artists themselves.

After a few of the paintings were defaced in the wee hours of Dec. 31, 2013, community outcry was immediate and fierce. Rita Spalding, one of whose paintings was damaged, received 600 emails and countless expressions of support on Facebook. She was able to restore her still life because she'd applied a layer of clear coat finish.

Now Foundation East's founders, Aaron Story and Vishant Shah, hope to ride that wave of public support to raise funds for the same treatment on all boxes. They also hope to gain buy-in for future Pennsy Trail and Ellenberger Park installations, along with their plan, "Gallery on the Go," to turn IndyGo buses into mobile art galleries.

At Foundation East's recent gathering at Jockamo, 65 community members packed the venue, lining up to thank the artists and contribute ideas. Many chipped in for a "clear coat fund."

click to enlarge Traffic box by Rita Spalding.
  • Traffic box by Rita Spalding.

One in attendance was Russian-born Svetlana Sadovova, a painter whose creative impulse was nurtured by the prevalence of public art. "There are statues everywhere in Russia; you're just surrounded by art," she said. "That gave me a lot of creativity and imagination."

Two years ago she moved to Irvington, and she's appreciated the spread of public art. "I think it's wonderful that there is art for people to view without going to a museum."

By all accounts the project has been enriching for artists and appreciators alike. The artists speak of making unforeseen connections: IndyGo bus drivers stopped to introduce themselves to Spalding and waved each time they passed as she spent some 40 hours on the paintings. Residents talked with Erin Kelsch as she worked on her Brookville Road box, sharing their stories and struggles. She was impressed with their positive outlooks, and her bright orange painting reflects that sense of hope.

Holly and Dave Combs had similar experiences while turning their boxes into whimsical tributes to the neighborhood's gardeners. "Do you know what it meant to us when people honked and waved?" Holly said.

Bookmamas owner Kathleen Angelone attributes the positive response to people's desire to have beauty in their lives. "I think public art is vital to any community because it makes it beautiful. It denominates where the community is and gives it character."

"I want to live in a civilized community where people are interested in art and music and learning, not just their day to day jobs."

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