Over the last few years, intricately painted electrical boxes and other public structures have become a fixture of downtown Amherst. Dating back to 2018, these paint-decorated public utilities were established by the Public Art Commission through a project called Electrify Amherst! The Electrical Box Makeover Project. Since their establishment, these painted boxes have continued to liven up the town’s public spaces through two years of fighting off Covid.
Origins and Goals of the Project
Current Chair of the Public Art Commission Shoshona King said that the idea for the project first came from Amy Crawley, who served on the Public Art Commission for six years (from 2015-2021) and now serves on the Historical Commission. “She’s a real dynamo and the kind of person you want on your committee,” said King. “She’s got a lot of ideas, and she knows how to execute.” Crawley added that “If you start as small as public art, like electrical boxes, everybody can see how nice that is. They will want to support having something bigger on the side of the building.”
King explained that one of the PAC’s central goals for the project was to bring more public art downtown. “[We wanted] something that people can really see and just make people happy,” shared King.
Crawley further explained that the project was actually inspired by Northampton’s 2016 pilot program.
Crawley also cast her mind back to the notes she was taking while looking at other neighboring towns and cities — Somerville, Easthampton, Greenfield, and Belchertown — that had done similar projects in a search for ideas.
With their ideas decided, the project organizers went before the Amherst Design Review Board — a town-appointed board — to see if they had any questions about the project. The main question of the ADRB was if there was going to be any advertising on the boxes, which it strongly opposed.
The project also needed to be approved by the Department of Public Work (DPW). According to King, permission to paint the town’s electrical boxes was “an easy ask” that was granted after a couple days of review from the DPW.
“I and one other Commission member presented before the Select Board at that time before the town changed into its current Town Council,” said Crawley. “There was a lot of the groundwork that very first year.”
After many rounds of applications, the council was able to start painting boxes for the first time in 2018, Crawley told The Student. “In a quick nutshell, there is the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is a state organization, and each town has a local cultural council,” she said. “They receive money from the state. Each town gets a portion of the different amount depending on how many residents need different things. So we applied for the Amherst Cultural Council Grant.”
Outside of that grant, the Cultural Commission also received some in-kind donations, which included gift card donations from Cowls Building Supply and paint donations from Sherwin-Williams Paint Store down the street on Route 9.
The Start of the Process
In 2020, the project’s third year, Crawley co-led the project with Bill Kaizen, who was the Public Art Commission’s chairperson at that time.
The projects had a lot of moving parts, as far as Crawley was concerned. She explained that whoever takes the leadership position at the committee should work to set some expectations and bring something different to the table.
To start the 2020 painting process, the project needed to decide which utility boxes to paint. Crawley explained that, for 2020, the Commission decided to keep their work centralized downtown in the cultural district.
Once they had chosen specific boxes, the PAC also had to get permission from DPW to paint those boxes. The DPW’s considerations included a variety of factors, from whether the electrical boxes would need to be replaced soon to planned future roadworks in the area.
Interested artists had to apply through a digital form on the Amherst Town Hall’s website from around October to November in 2019. King explained that the first thing that would eliminate a design was if it contained any sort of copyrighted material. “There was this one about UMass athletics that seemed like it would be a good idea, but [it had] the UMass logo which we couldn’t use, because that’s copyrighted,” said King.
According to King, the group also prioritized highlighting a range of artists’ work. They had some local artists who submitted more than one proposal, which “would have been great,” but they were more keen on giving new people a chance, so as to prevent it from being a one-person show.
In February 2020, the board notified the chosen artists of the Commission’s decisions. From then until September of the same year, the focus was on getting everyone together and figuring out how to install the designs. “It was how it was done during the pandemic,” said King. “That was the peak of the pandemic with social distancing and everything.”
The Painting Process
The painting process itself occurred in September. “We wanted to make it so that it happened when the students came back, and we could be part of it,” said King. According to King, a lot of the Public Art Commission’s activities surprisingly revolve around the academic calendars.
The painting activity was on Sept. 14, and took eight hours to wrap up. The public was invited to stop by anytime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to see the artists perform live. “The event was promoted as an exhibition where you could walk through and watch these local artists paint the electrical boxes. [In that way,] it acted as a happening and an installation piece at the same time,” added King.
Before the painting itself could begin, the oil coating around the electrical box had to be completely de-greased. King said all of this work was done by a volunteer group of local residents and college students.
By the end of 2020, a total of eight boxes had been painted over the programs’ three years of running.
Peter Zierlein, a paper cut artist who did the paintings of a plethora of dogs on an electrical box near Amherst Dog Wash, shared his procedure of getting the design done. “First, I did the design in a paper cut using a small format paper cut to size in relation to the size of that electric box,” he explained. “Then I enlarged the design and cut a stencil from it. I put the stencil to the box and spray painted sculpted. So that’s the process — and also because I liked the dogs.”
It took Zierlein, who was also interviewed in a short documentary King made, two to three hours to finish the paintings that September afternoon. “That whole box was painted during the pandemic, and everybody was still wearing masks,” he said. “I think at the time we had so many bad news events. Whenever you turned on the news, the whole world was so negative. [There was] so much to get burned down on it. For a long time, I did art that was influenced by the political goings-on at the time. I decided to just do something that is not political, [and] that just was about feeling good. It makes it feel good when you look at it, you know.”
“What was nice about the project was that in a couple of hours, there was a whole bunch of people from the community who passed by, but stopped by and gave a little talk,” Zierlein added. “That’s what I kind of enjoy, like being in the community and hearing from the people that are seeing this every day and that was really nice.”
Zierlein didn’t know beforehand that his box would be near Amherst Dog Wash. “[That] was just a nice coincidence that they worked out,” he said.
Looking to the Future
For the most part, the project has been very well-received, although there was some vandalization of the Emily Dickinson box within the first month of its completion. “Someone put a bullet hole kind of thing right in the middle,” King explained. “But, Jeff Wrench, the artist who painted it, was happy to come back and fix her. She got fixed within a couple of days.”
King said that her personal favorite box is one that she notes “you don’t see much because it is the outlier.”
“It’s over where Pomeroy Lane meets Route 116 in which there’s a traffic signal,” she said. “[The box was painted] by an artist named Stormslegacy — that’s her artist name — and [the painting] is this mystical scene with a wolf through magic. She also did [the art on one of] the jersey barriers, an initiative by Amherst Business Improvement District, that you see around town.”
King said that there was a lot of appreciation among local residents for the project, and for art-related events more generally.
September 2020 was the last time that people gathered to paint the box. When asked about the project’s operation during the pandemic, King remarked that “it kind of fell apart in 2020 … [for safety reasons,] nobody wanted to do it anymore. I remember actually doing interviews with people that I recorded with this long microphone, so I wouldn’t have to be near them.”
More recently, the commission has been thinking about rebooting the program. Crawley referenced Northampton’s recent repainting activity as a model. Within the last two years, some of Northampton’s original boxes have been repainted by completely new artists with completely new designs.
For the project to occur again, the art commission will need to once again go through the application process. “If you want something done, the DPW is good at getting stuff done,” King said. “Also, because the project was already done one [or two] times before, getting approval to do it again would be easier.”