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Art in Public Places program gives Fort Collins transformer boxes a facelift

Business major, John Matthews, plays a colorful piano outside the rec center. Local graffitt aritsts are hired to add their own personal flare to the Fort Collins community by decorating painos and electrical boxes located all over town.
Business major, John Matthews, plays a colorful piano outside the rec center. Local graffitt aritsts are hired to add their own personal flare to the Fort Collins community by decorating painos and electrical boxes located all over town.

Transformer utility boxes can be found around every corner in Fort Collins and through a partnership with the City of Fort Collins and Fort Collins Utilities, these plain electrical boxes have received a noticed facelift, partly due to graffiti around town.

Ellen Martin, the visual arts and “Art in Public Places” program administrator at the Lincoln Center, oversees the city’s attempt at revamping the overall look of Fort Collins.

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“It costs the city a lot of money to continually clean the graffiti off — we completed our first cabinet murals in 2006 as a graffiti abatement program that brings art into the community,” Martin said.

A panel consisting of appointed city council members and people from Fort Collins Utilities choose a handful of artists every year to paint the transformer cabinets and represent Fort Collins.

“You can be a non-profit organization, school of artists or anybody, really. You’ll show previous work, you’ll describe it and do a letter of intent with a resume,” Martin said.

The “Art in Public Places” website is open to anyone wanting to contribute to their community and make some money.

According to Martin, there are 160 transformer cabinets in the city and not all of them are painted yet. There are other unique works of art put up by the program as well including murals, sculptures and detailed stone carvings.

The city pays the artists for their work. Transformer cabinets are paid by the square inch.

One artist, Laurie Zuckerman, reported making as much as $1,600 for painting two transformers. Many hours of labor are put into them. On average, Zuckerman spent four hours each day for two weeks working on art on both pianos and transformer boxes.

The “Pianos About Town” is a branch of the same program. However, the pianos are sponsored by different supporters.

The Bohemian Foundation and Downtown Development Authority bring the painted pianos to the city. Most are donated, painted and then rotated around the city for display.

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“We’ve gotten calls from cities and towns across the country on how to start similar programs,” Martin said. “It is noticed, which is wonderful. The artists might have had beautiful works in a gallery, but this takes their work outside and puts it in public space.”

Pianos and transformer boxes are scattered throughout Fort Collins. The most noticeable are in Old Town Square and on the CSU campus.

“We have a new artist and a new piano painting every two weeks in the summer,” Martin said.

“My husband lost his job and rather than put all the pressure on him, I thought I should be looking for more work,” Zuckerman said.  “There’s not many opportunities for artists here other than trying to show and sell your work.”

Zuckerman’s artwork depicts a zebra on the front of a piano whose stripes represent the piano keys.

The rest of the piano features various mammals, including a long detailed snake that runs along the keys. While completing the piece, passersby would provide Zuckerman with positive feedback.

Zuckerman is working for the city on this project but some people think she is just a random person who decided to walk up and paint.

“I applied for both the transformer cabinets and the piano — they were separate things and I ended up getting both of them,” Zuckerman said.

Arts and pianos around town is an opportunity to enhance the aesthetic value of Fort Collins, to bring artists to the limelight of the public’s eye and to involve the community with fine arts.

“An interactive exhibit such as the pianos are very good for helping people connect,” said Patrice Sullivan, painting instructor at CSU, “sometimes people think art is outside their scope and it’s really not, it’s for everybody.”

Collegian Staff Writer Scott Fromberg can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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