Unexpected Art: Thinking Outside the Box, Davis is Transformed by Art

utility box
One of the many traffic control boxes in Davis that display art. (Courtesy photo).

This is one in a series of stories looking at Unexpected Art in our community.

By Leigh Houck, UC Davis News and Media Relations Intern

In most towns, traffic control boxes are largely ignored. These boxes control nearby traffic lights. Generally gray or green, these purely utilitarian fixtures at best blend into their surroundings, and at worst, become an ugly eyesore. But when walking through Davis, from downtown to your own neighborhood, you’re sure to see utility boxes that are anything but boring.

Filling a prescription at the Rite Aid on Russell Boulevard? A quirky orange Boston Terrier greets passersby cheerfully from his surreal checkerboard home. This little character was created by Kerri Warner and installed on a box at the bus stop near Anderson Road and Russell Boulevard.

Picking up some produce at the Farmer’s Market in Central Park? Angela Tannehill’s lush jungle scene, printed on a box at the corner of 3rd and B streets, will make you think you’ve stumbled into a tropical paradise in the middle of the Central Valley.

So how did Davis turn these typically drab boxes into eye-catching works of art? In August 2018, the City of Davis sent out a call for local artists to enter submissions for the contest “Think Outside the Box — Transforming Public Utilities.” Contest submissions were entered by that October, and the winning artists were chosen and notified by the end of 2018. The 13 winning artists’ designs were implemented on traffic control utility boxes in May this year.  

According to Rachel Hartsough, arts and culture manager for the City of Davis, selecting winners “...was a tough decision. We received nearly 50 submissions, and many were extremely high caliber work, so it was very competitive.” Hartsough said the city plans to follow up with a second round of boxes next year to be able to accommodate additional artists whose work “we loved, but just didn’t have the resources to place yet.”

To participate, all artists were required to provide their work digitally, although the original artwork began in many forms — as painting, digital media, photography, collage, sculpture and more. The City of Davis printed the final works on vinyl and wrapped them around the utility boxes. Hartsough said that perhaps the most unusual creation was Ianna Frisby’s work at the corner of F and 8th streets. Frisby’s submission was a high-resolution photograph of her recent sculptural work. Hartsough described Frisby’s piece as “...some kind of golden stalactites oozing around tiny figures, crystals, and other interesting hidden treasures.”

Lily Front box
The work of Lily Therens decorates a box on Russell Boulevard. (Courtesy Photo)

According to the California Aggie, Hartsough saw this contest as an opportunity for artists who do not generally create public art. In addition to the pride of having their art displayed publicly, each winner also received a $500 honorarium.

The Davis “Think Outside the Box” project is similar to the Capitol Box Art Project in Sacramento. The Sacramento project invited local artists to create work to decorate utility boxes with vinyl wraps as well. Now, 31 utility boxes around the state capitol are vibrant pieces of public art.

Locate all of them

The City of Davis provided a list of this year's winners and the locations of their pieces:

Angela Tannehill, 3rd Street & B Street

Brian Alexander, West Covell Boulevard & Sycamore Lane

Ianna Frisby,  F Street & 8th Street

Jennifer McGuire, Cowell Boulevard & Lillard Drive

Jessica Eastburn, Russell Boulevard & Sycamore Lane

Kent Smith, West Covell Boulevard & Anderson Road

Kerri Warner, Russell Boulevard & Anderson Road

Lily Therens, Russell Boulevard & A Street

Melissa Uroff, Cowell Boulevard & Valdora Street

Phillip Hua, Russell Boulevard & College Park

Sandy Fong Whetstone, Cowell Boulevard & Drew Avenue

Susan Silvester, West Covell Boulevard & F Street

Will Durkee, East Covell Boulevard & Poleline Roa

Want to go on a utility box art scavenger hunt? Check out this map of all 13 decorated boxes (provided by The City of Davis).

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