Smile Politely

The Urbana Utility Box Mural Program makes the mundane magical

The C-U arts community is awakening from the curse of COVID. And while in this instance we can’t credit true love’s kiss, we can acknowlegde the steadfastness of organizations like the Urbana Arts and Culture Program and 40 North and the innovativeness of local artists who spread their magic through public art.  

The Urbana Utility Box Mural Program is the latest and perhaps the most unique example of public art made possible by the Urbana Arts and Culture Program. 

The practice of utility box beautification has been around for a while. These essential “eyesores” have been hidden by horticulture and gilded with graffiti tags. It has referred to as street art, perhaps because of its particular location or its grassroots origins. But sometime around 2014, city-sponsored utility box murals officially became a global thing, with California being the hottest hotspot. 

Critics say that like other examples of public art, utility box murals must be considered within their own context and as their own form of discourse. So since an approach to Urbana’s three new utility box murals sits within the larger discussion of public art, that’s where we’ll begin.

According to the Association of Public Art, “Public art is a reflection of how we see the world—the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.”  

And though “materials and methods change to reflect our contemporary culture,” the work, which is, ideally, “guided by professional expertise and public involvement,” should “seek out the most imaginative and productive affinity between artist and community.”

In her book 1992 Public Art in Philadelphia, Penny Balkin Bach observes that “as artists respond to our times, they reflect their inner vision to the outside world, and they create a chronicle of our public experience.”

Considering our shared, but not equal, experiences of the pandemics of racial injustice, COVID, and economic (and health care) disparities, artists currently working in the arena of public art have to document and express. 

According to the Urbana Arts and Culture Commission, programs like the Utility Box Mural Program not only make for a “more vibrant downtown,” but also “provide opportunities and direct support for local artists;” a point that proved increasingly significant during the COVID-related shuttering of galleries and other visual arts venues. 

The Murals on Glass Program, the Utility Box Mural Program’s sister initiative, approaches public art as necessary not just to artists and existing art audiences, but, perhaps more importantly, to those who have the least access to art. The Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office, and those who they serve, have benefited from their inclusion in the Murals on Glass Program. 

For Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth, the hyper local office which “provides life-saving support for households dealing with the devastations of homelessness, joblessness, or disability,” has sought murals that “will greet their neighbors in need with images of resiliency, hope, and social justice in the face of life challenge and systemic oppression.”

So much healing potential with such a thin layer of vinyl wrapped. That’s the true magic of Urbana’s murals. 

Now it’s time to meet the three new additions to the Urbana cityscape. 

Utility box mural

As its name suggests, EKAH’s “Convergent Evolution” uses organic and natural shapes to create movement. The fish are a nod to the location, Crystal Lake Park Aquatic Center, while the butterflies, like those in “Points of View,” EKAH’s 2020 Great ARTdoors lenticular art installation, represent hope and new beginnings. The color palette, familiar to EKAH fans, hits the sweet spot between brightness and warmth. The layered pattern challenges the box’s weight and shape with its sense of fluid motion.

Convergent Evolution by EKAH
2021 Urbana Utility Box Mural Selection
Crystal Lake Park Aquatic Center (1401 N. Broadway Ave., U)

You should also check out EKAH’s new Great ARTdoors lenticular installation, “Entre Chien et Loup” (Between Dog and Wolf), at Southridge Park in Urbana. 

Utility box mural

BLACKMAU (the dynamic duo that is Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson) are no strangers to the Urbana Public Art.  Their mural “In the Sunshine” which chosen for the 2020 Murals on Glass project at the Cunningham Township office in Urbana. (You should check out the YouTube video of its installation). “Guilt Trip” is bold in both color and pattern. Vibrant butterflies emerge here as well, but with a difference. The original art, upon which this mural was designed, is a work of collage (see image below), drawing attention to the face, which despite the vibrancy surrounding it, remains in black and white. The transformation into 3D serves the work and its message well. 

Guilt Trip by BLACKMAU (Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson)
2021 Urbana Utility Box Mural Selection
Corner of Vine and Main Sts. in Downtown Urbana

Poster from the 2019 Urbana Downtown Get Down art exhibit featuring BLACKMAU's

Image from the Urbana Arts and Culture Program Facebook page.


Urbana utility box mural

As a longtime fan of Megan Hinds’ work in general, and her blending of organic and geometric shapes in particular, I was excited to hear about her participation in the utility box project. “Greenhouse II” has an almost art in situ vibe, taking its inspiration from the pattern of the sidewalk and the movement of the plants and flowers surrounding it. The bold color blocks embrace the inherent grid structure of the venting. The entire site as a whole finds beauty in the natural and the industrial.  

Greenhouse II by Megan Hinds
2021 Urbana Utility Box Mural Selection
Corner of Race and Main Sts. in Downtown Urbana

The Urbana Utility Box Mural Program is sponsored by Urbana Arts and Culture Program and Commission.

Top photo from the Urbana Arts & Culture Program Facebook page.

Arts Editor

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