Steve Cassell, assistant director of Traffic and Engineering for the city of Augusta, has been bringing art to the streets of Richmond County. The 23 painted traffic signal cabinets, aka boxes, throughout Richmond County were his brainchild, intended both as a means of bringing art to the public and creating beauty in unexpected places.
“Steve’s a forward thinker,” said Sallie West, outreach director for the Greater Augusta Arts Council (GAAC). “He has traveled around the country and has seen projects like this one in other cities and brought the idea to us.”
After a few years, the required funding was identified and the GAAC — the city’s public art agency — was able to pick up the project and run with it.
Known as Art the Box, the painted traffic boxes are dotted throughout Augusta. Funding for the project — a cost of roughly $25,000 — was provided by the city of Augusta and the Downtown Development Authority, and not the Greater Augusta Arts Council.
“The partnership with the DDA came about because they were so excited with the idea of the boxes they funded the Broad Street locations,” West said.
There is a greater concentration of painted boxes on Broad as a result, but West said that was also because of funding and ordinances.
“It’s a city-funded project, so there is one at Augusta Regional Airport, Milledgeville Road, Walton Way Extension and more,” she explained. “We’ve got one in every commission district with an eligible box. There is only one district without one and that’s because it doesn’t have a traffic box that isn’t on a state highway, and these can’t go on state highways.”
Members of the public seemed to be under the impression Art the Box would be relegated to downtown, but West said that too was a misconception.
“We’re aware that the rest of the town that isn’t downtown believes that downtown always gets everything, so we wanted to make sure everyone was included in the project.”
Two of the outlying traffic cabinets were painted by Wesley Stewart, an art teacher at East Georgia State College. His designs, located at the corner of Barton Chapel Road and Milledgeville Road, and Lumpkin Road at Richmond Hill Road, will make people look twice.
“Each design plays with and manipulates the surface, creating an illusion from two dimensional into three dimensional. What is seen as the background reverses into foreground and vice versa.”
The box designs were selected out of 48 concepts submitted by 30 artists, which in the end was whittled down to 19 artists to paint 23 commissioned boxes. With a deadline of the end of May, artists began working in earnest, sharing their progress on social media and tagging it with the hashtag #arttheboxAUG.
One concern raised by the artists was that of integrity and preservation — would the boxes withstand time, wear and potential vandalism? West addressed this point, noting the boxes were covered in a clear layer that is itself washable, in case someone chose to tag a box.
During the selection process, the designs were assessed carefully by a large panel, and each artist was allocated their location. One exception, Jason Craig requested his location specifically both to keep an eye on it in the years to come and as a way of adding beauty to an eyesore.
“My main concern was to improve the box by making it feel like a part of its surroundings,” he said. “Honestly, I wish it had never been placed there in the first place. So I decided I would like to cover it with sights from around downtown that I see on my drive to work every day. Sort of a cultural camouflage. I figured that if I like seeing these things already, maybe I won’t mind them on the box.”
Guaranteeing the paintings would remain vivid, each artist was issued Golden Artist Colors paints, a brand recognized for its durability and quality. Artist Leonard Zimmerman said it really made all the difference.
“The magic they worked with Golden paint was exactly that — magic. Each artist selected the colors they wanted and double checked them with a specialist from Golden who offered suggestions if the hues we selected weren’t as color fast as another option.”
The project is also a way to introduce established and up and coming artists. Not all the Art the Box participants are well-known in Augusta, though others, such as Zimmerman, Rhian Swain and Craig are familiar names and successful artists in their own right.
“It’s hard for me to highlight one artist, because we have artists from all kinds of backgrounds — two of the artists are just finishing college, and several are aspiring or established professional artists,” West said. “So we had a wide variety — their resume was part of the selection process, but so was the concept and its quality.”
The submitted designs varied widely in concept, and though a few subjects were inevitable, not everyone went for the most obvious option.
“We actually didn’t get as many James Browns as we thought we would!” laughed West, but the selected concepts did sometimes determine their location. “The DDA insisted the James Brown box would be at James Brown Boulevard, and the Woodrow Wilson design would be near his childhood home, and the Jessye Norman design would be on a box near the Jessye Norman School of the Arts.”
The Greater Augusta Arts Council would love to see Art the Box have a positive impact on the image of Augusta, and as a means of encouraging the public to understand the need for exposure to creativity and art in public places. That the project resulted in a massive and sudden wave of art for Augusta isn’t lost on Zimmerman. The artist painted the box outside of Metro, A Coffee House on Broad, using his signature robots and warm, vibrant colors. He sees nothing but good coming from Art the Box.
“Do I think they benefit Augusta? Of course I do,” he said. “Augusta gained 23 pieces of public art at within a month. That’s pretty damn cool. It makes both locals and visitors aware of our community full of artists. The finished painted metal wardrobes in the middle of the sidewalk (that don’t’ lead to Narnia) are like the $20 bill you found in the coat you’ve not worn since last year… surprised when you see it but happy you did.”
The project is not intended to be seen as purely a means of beautification. Although the artwork is protected by an external clear seal, nature may ultimately decide just how long the community can enjoy the art.
Instead, Art the Box demonstrates a need for public art as a means of increasing pride in the community, but providing it is an option available to all — the city can provide funding for public art pieces, but so can Augusta’s businesses.
“Public art is any art that is enjoyed by the public,” she said, “but that public art is any art funded by the public or privately.”
What can we take from that? Well, if the Art the Box initiative generates enough support from the community, we may see the city support other public art projects throughout the area. Local organizations already have the option of funding a painted utility box near their property, said West, they just need to contact the GAAC.
Of course, this reveals one of downtown Augusta’s big struggles — a distinct lack of support and engagement from large corporations. Apart from a few major players, most businesses in Augusta are locally owned or smaller franchises that do not have the capacity or income to support larger public art commissions. Though, said West, there are some notable exceptions, to include the Children’s Medical Center through GRU. But for public art to become prevalent, city residents must become advocates.
Cultural tourism is considered a key factor in improving a city’s quality of life; through these pieces the city recognizes the creativity, beauty and heritage of the Augusta area. “The community has a cultural identity that is local with local artists,” Wesley Stewart said.
That’s why the themes on the boxes resound with so many people, whether native to the area or transplants. Magnolias, frogs, Amen Corner, James Brown, Woodrow Wilson, family, joy and vibrancy — they are all telling the city’s story to everyone.
Erica Pasteki, who painted the boyhood home of Woodrow Wilson on Broad, said, “I love the idea of celebrating Augusta and making its history known. We have such a rich history and the boyhood home of President Woodrow Wilson is just one little part of it.”
The economic impact of public art is also measurable and significant. Cities who actively support public art witness an increase in business and tourism.
“Public artwork can be accessed by anyone and everyone, without PPV,” Stewart said. “They change the space of where they’re installed at or painted and activate that area; this Art the Box project has turned common, run of the mill traffic boxes into works of art.”
Essentially, public art adds value to the area and makes it more appealing to individuals and business, something the Augusta area could benefit from for more than one week every year.
Which is why Art the Box is actually a very clever project. Not only is the outcome desirable, it actively engages Augusta residents and appeals to visitors from out of town. As anticipated, Art the Box has become a talking point on social media and among the public at large. Responses have been overwhelmingly positive, but it is the interaction between the artists and the public that have been even more revealing. Established Augusta artist and owner of Redwolf, Inc., Rhian Swain compiled a video of her experience painting in public demonstrating how eager some folks were to take part in what they saw as a novel venture.
Another participating artist, Stacy Atkins, issued a challenge to Facebook and Instagram followers. In addition to the Americana style “Yummy Tomatoes” cabinet, Stacy painted Chopin’s music on one of the boxes on Walton Way Extension and invited anyone who can read it to take a keyboard to the location and play. So far, nobody has taken him up on the challenge, but it’s probably just a matter of time.
To the artists, the experience was unique more as a result of the interactions than the art alone. Jason Craig, whose design centered on well-known monuments of Augusta, said the responses were a welcome surprise.
“I have been painting outside in full view of the public for over 10 years and have never been thanked as much as I was on this project,” he said. “People felt like we were doing something good for the city and it really gave me more pride in what I was doing.”
Stories were shared on Facebook and Instagram, inspiring and motivating the artists and community to share their thoughts and memories. Erica Pasteki said the interactions were numerous.
“Some of the people that stopped by while I was working would tell me stories about their own history here and their time growing up in Augusta,” she said. “It was really interesting to hear all the different things people went through or did during different time periods. I was flattered they chose to share their stories with me… there were so many they could really fill a book.”
Days after the last of the paint had dried, the Art the Box “reveal” took place during the June First Friday in the new gallery and art space, 600 Broad. Brenda Durant, Sallie West and their team from GAAC welcomed a large crowd to view a live feed of the boxes before their presentation. Looking around the room, it was easy to see the impact the project has already had. Described as “phenomenal” and “just what Augusta needs,” the boxes have already appealed to Augusta’s community and the GAAC team is anticipating more support and interest to come.
Ultimately, it may be that the true reveal was a very real and visible change in the way we see public art, and one that could have an ever-increasing, positive impact on the city. A point on which all the artists seem to agree. Pasteki explained that the public art pieces were certainly enjoyable to paint, but in the end it’s all about improving the surroundings.
“Augusta is as great as we want it to be, but it all starts with us taking pride in our home, so we might as well spruce up the place a bit,” she said. “And a little paint goes a long way.”
Search for more images of the painted boxes on social media with the hashtag #arttheboxAUG, or go to the GAAC website augustaarts.com.