Utility box artistry in Brookings draws attention

From left, Julia Eberhart, chair of the Brookings Public Arts Commission, and Kirsten Gjesdal, executive director of Downtown Brookings, show off one of the three decorated utility boxes on Main Avenue downtown. (John Kubal/Brookings Register)

BROOKINGS — “We look for, find and manage opportunities to add public art within the community, with city funds,” explained Julia Eberhart, chair of Brookings Public Arts Commission.

For a recently completed and highly visible project — eight colorfully decorated utility boxes — the PAC partnered with Downtown Brookings. The PAC funded five utility boxes on Eighth Street South; Downtown Brookings funded three on Main Avenue. The two organizations then “came together on the call for artists,” and Eberhart teamed up with Kirsten Gjesdal, executive director, Downtown Brookings, to help bring the project to fruition.

“We did a call to artists and we basically said that we want something that represents Brookings,” Eberhart explained. “We left it kind of vague: give us a sense of the community of Brookings. We selected the top eight (applicants) that we thought best represented our community in an artistic way.”

Gjesdal added that a jury of five people looked at a total of 250 submissions from 80 artists before selecting the eight who would each decorate one utility box. Most of the artists were from the local area.

The artists were paid $1,000 each. Add to that about $500 per box for parts and labor. Total cost for a project that beautifies Brookings: $12,000.

Location was one of the criteria for determining which boxes would be selected for artistic decoration. Eberhart noted that Eighth Street South draws both motorist and pedestrian traffic.

Gjesdal explained the differences between the five boxes on Eighth Street South and the three boxes on Main Avenue. “The boxes downtown are shaped differently and are actually not electrical boxes. They are utility boxes, so there is water access for the Parks Department inside of them; the ones on Eighth Street South are light-change boxes that control the stoplights.”

“I think a goal of the (Brookings) Public Arts Commission is to do more art like this: where it’s taking a piece of something that people see every day and making it engaging,” she explained. “It’s kind of getting art involved in our everyday experience.” She also noted that the Brookings community has responded favorably to the project.

Intriguing, fun to be involved

The transfer of the artists’ work from digital technology to what could be called “vinyl canvases” came next. Wrapping the boxes was a first-time project for Terry Nemitz and his employees at Outlaw Graphics, who used that state-of-the-art digital-age technology that brought the project to fruition. They took all of the artists’ electronic files and printed them on vinyl wrap.

When he got the request for the project from the Arts Commission, Nemitz checked out the boxes and measured them. “I think we can do it,” he told them. “We’ve never wrapped a box before. But it didn’t look too difficult. It was intriguing to me. As we went about the process, we did some measuring, took some photos and submitted a template for the artist.

“Once we had the art files, then we in turn digitally printed those with our machine. We printed and laminated them and then took them out and installed them. It was a fun process to be involved with.”

It required an hour to two hours per box to complete the application of the artistic vinyl. Each artist had provided Nemitz with an electronic copy of their artwork.

“We used our software to scale it and make sure it would fit properly and output it through our machines,” he explained. “Then my guys went out and installed them.

“As the guys were working out on the street: the honks and the yells and the people waving. I had one lady on Medary Avenue get out of her car, come up, tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I think these boxes are so cool.’ Then she got in her car and drove off.”

“Outlaw Graphics really enjoyed being a part of the project,” Nemitz said. “We were glad to work with the (Brookings) Arts Commission. The many honks, waves and good wishes made it fun to be a part of this project. I think the community has enjoyed seeing them out there.”

The decorative work printed on outdoor vinyl should last from about five to seven years.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected].