One Box At A Time

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Over the past decade, the subject of public art in central Indiana has been in the headlines frequently. Whether it's individual works, like Peter Shelton's, "thinmanlittlebird" that adorns the exterior facade of the Marion County Public Library, or the much-anticipated, multi-piece program of public art along the Cultural Trail, there is no shortage of opportunities and reasons for bringing it to the public forum.  For this post, I'll carve off a thin sliver of the public art discourse to discuss Foundation East, a grassroots initiative located in Historic Irvington on the eastside of Indianapolis.

Traffic box at the corner of Arlington Avenue and Pleasant Run Parkway.
  • Traffic box at the corner of Arlington Avenue and Pleasant Run Parkway.

As a resident of Irvington, I've witnessed the handiwork of Foundation East without knowing who was behind it or, for that matter, that such a group existed. It is responsible for the project Traffic Signal Boxes, Vol. II in which it commissions area artists to paint images on the traffic signal boxes that sit at most of the major intersections throughout the Irvington community. These metal boxes are generally about the size of a small refrigerator and, until recently, pretty much faded into the background. That was until Irvington residents Aaron Story and Vishant Shah decided the traffic signal boxes would be the perfect vehicles to bring art to the masses and help deliver social change.

My interest was to learn what's behind this initiative and why Foundation East chose to do it, so I contacted Story and asked him. As it turns out, the traffic signal box project started with an Irvington Terrace group in 2012.  Shah and Story took up the cause about eight months ago and expanded the program to include the rest of Irvington after attending a neighborhood Crime Watch meeting.

The topic of the meeting was on CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design), which is dedicated to enhancing the urban environment and building better communities. It focuses on the beautification of high traffic areas that are susceptible to criminal activity and ways to decrease the likelihood of such activity. For Shah and Story, the signal boxes seemed like the obvious first step. They even took a version of their idea to Big Car's 5 x 5 in June of this year and, in addition to being a finalist, received much encouragement.

This all sounds plausible, but I was curious how these two got involved with this public art initiative. Story is a Pastor at Indy Metro Church; Shah, a consultant for the electrical power industry--not exactly folks predisposed to public art involvement. Story responded that after living in Irvington for six years, it was his observation that the community lacked public art expressions.

He went on to say, "Artists live here, but we didn't see people pursuing art projects on the eastside." He explained that when the traffic signal box project started, "A lot of people showed their support; people loved it, and this was a project I could get excited about."

Traffic box at the corner of Michigan Street and Emerson Avenue by Andrew Severns.
  • Traffic box at the corner of Michigan Street and Emerson Avenue by Andrew Severns.

While not a formal nonprofit, Foundation East has been working closely with IDO (Irvington Development Organization), Irvington Historical Society and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, which have been supportive and kept communications open with the city, allowing them to clear the many hurdles required to make the public art project a reality. To date, a total of 19 boxes have been painted.

As I mentioned earlier, public art comes to us for many reasons. For Foundation East, it represents an opportunity for social change, making neighborhoods safer and more desirable to live in. For those that might question whether painted traffic signal boxes or for that matter, if public art in general can make a community safer, I would offer the following point: The finished painted boxes are just one piece of the equation, and in this instance, maybe not the most important.

In a recent article, Rita Spalding, one of the commissioned artists, said of the experience, "Painting in public like this created a feeling of goodwill, and I was surprised and pleased at how it opened up and peeled away that sense of separation between people that were otherwise strangers. So many people that stopped asked about the project (was I "allowed" to be doing this? Did I need permission?), and shared their own stories of how art influenced their lives."

It's this type of interaction that creates a sense of community and a common pride in one's neighborhood. Forging partnerships with like-minded organizations, making the city aware that you care about your neighborhood, collaborating with local artists and meeting and respecting your neighbor is what will help facilitate the change Foundation East is after. If bringing public art to help Irvington gets us one step closer to accomplishing this goal, then count me in.

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