The Hippo


Jul 5, 2020








James Chase and his signal box, at the corner of Auburn and Elm streets. Courtesy photo.

Outside the box
Local artists beautify downtown traffic signal boxes

By Kelly Sennott

 In downtown Manchester, artists have been busy painting traffic signal boxes for the second installment of the Think Outside the Box public art project. But you might have already noticed.

“I saw someone, a guy, doing this on Elm Street, too,” one man told artist Jyl Dittbenner while she was painting her design last week — a diner scene on a box at the busy intersection of Granite and Commercial streets. (“There are five of us — see if you can find all five!” she told him.)
James Chase, who brought New Hampshire Institute of Art upperclassmen Jacob Estevez and Alyssa Woods to help with his abstract, colorful design, said they’d received lots of positive comments from people walking by, and also the occasional yell from a car zooming past.
“People will just come up and be like, ‘That looks really cool, thank you for making it look nicer,’” Estevez said.
The initiative is the result of a partnership between InTown Manchester, the City of Manchester’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen and Highway Department and the Studio 550 Art Center, who hope to help beautify the city and deter tagging with public art. They formed a jury and chose five artists — Chase, Dittbenner, Jasmyn Gray, Sam Harrington, and Anthony Williams — to decorate five downtown signal boxes with paint, vinyl wraps or mixed media.
It’s become a bigger venture since Think Outside the Box’s first go two years ago, when there were just three artists decorating three signal boxes. The project takes no public money — the $400 stipend artists use for materials comes from sponsors, including WMUR News 9, the Radisson Hotel, Downtown Manchester, Dyn, The TITLE Boxing Gym of Manchester, First Sign, and Amoskeag Fishways. This time around, there were more people and companies helping out, plus the call went out earlier, enabling lots of great submissions.
“There was not a single artist who submitted this year that the jury did not like. We just had to rank them and then pick which submission to accept of each artist,” Studio 550 owner Monica Leap said via email.
Leap said she’d love to be able to have more artists painting downtown, but materials can be expensive, from primer and paint to the mural-grade clear coat to protect the boxes after they are finished. Artists, for the most part, are progressing steadily. They began in June and all are slated to finish by August.
Chase’s piece is located at the corner of Auburn and Elm streets near Market Basket. During his visit, the group was spray painting, which posed a challenge because it was a windy day. He’d already sanded, primed and sprayed some orange, green, violet, blue and black in stripe patterns. The design also called for acrylic paint and screen printing at the bottom of the box. He expected to be through by the end of the week or so.
Chase said he used to be on the Manchester Arts Commission and was excited about the opportunity to give back to the community through public art and, as an NHIA teacher, give his students some public art-making experience.
“They’re working summer jobs and they’re taking their day off to give back to the community … which I think is pretty great,” Chase said. “I get excited about projects like this because when I was an arts commissioner, we had zero budget. And to promote the arts with a zero budget was really tough. … I think that now this has legs. There are more opportunities for it to just keep growing.”
The project’s also drawn practiced artists like Dittbenner, who earned an art degree in 1997 and hadn’t done anything with it until last year, when she began drawing again and traveled to Honduras to paint street murals with the Nashua Honduras Outreach Team. She found out about the call for submissions during a pottery class at Studio 550.
During an interview with Dittbenner at her traffic box, she’d primed and sketched the design but was still fiddling with details — pieces with less blank space, she explained, are typically less likely to be tagged..
Gray’s box showcases a stream of colorful fish and Williams’ depicts flowers, butterflies, a lighthouse and statue. Harrington, a graphic designer, created a vinyl wrap illustration inspired by the top of Mount Washington, which she climbed two years ago while volunteering at a checkpoint during Climb to the Clouds, a timed car race to the mountain peak. 
The artist also dabbles in painting, photography and illustration but wanted to go digital to achieve sharp, bold edges — in fact, she’d like to see more digital art downtown.
“I’m trying to get more attention to the digital arts community. You don’t really see those in galleries, and it’s not really displayed as much as [traditional] art. I want to draw attention to the fact that even digital art is beautiful, and it can still be displayed in public and be enjoyed,” Harrington said via phone. 

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