From drab to fab: Turning utility boxes into public art in downtown Dearborn

There’s a romantic vision of an artist that exists, one where they’re disheveled and covered in paint, working away in their studio for hours on end, absorbed in their work and blissfully cut off from the outside world — if only for a few hours.

Public art projects help connect us to the artists that make the art, putting the artist square in the public eye. Working on a public art installation, the artist is subject to curious on-lookers commenting on their work, having to answer all types of questions. There’s a value in that process, mutually beneficial to the artist and the public alike.

“It was a great day,” Drouillard says. “The farmers market was going on, there was live music — I like when there’s a lot of activity going on.”“I had been doing art for a long time, exhibiting in galleries and art fairs. I kind of stumbled into public art a few years back,” says the Temperance, Michigan-based artist Biz Drouillard, who got his start in the public art world with a few projects in Toledo.

“I didn’t think I’d like it, the outside distractions. But I really liked it. Being outside of the studio, I found those challenges really exciting. Now I’m building my career on public art projects.”

Drouillard was one of three artists selected for the ZAP! Art Project, a partnership between the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, Dearborn Community Fund, and Padzieski Gallery. Rounding out the group of artists selected for the project is the mononymous Shadia and Dearborn’s own Becca Simmons.

From drab to fab

The ZAP! Art Project transformed three electrical utility boxes in downtown’s Wagner Park, taking the necessary but, say, boring pieces of infrastructure and turning them into works of art. The artists gathered on the day of Friday, Sept. 10, to paint their public art works, applying layers of color atop the standard utility green.

“It was a great day,” Drouillard says. “The farmers market was going on, there was live music — I like when there’s a lot of activity going on. I got to meet a lot of people and I even had a few people come up to me and ask to paint murals for their businesses.”

The artist Shadia at work.That’s music to the ears of Sasha Corder, gallery coordinator for the Padzieski Gallery, located in the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center and run by the Dearborn Community Fund. The gallery was one of the lead partners in the ZAP! Art Project, tasked with coordinating the project’s call for artists and managing the application process.

Public art aligns with the mission of the Padzieski Gallery, which is free and open to the public. Corder hopes that projects like ZAP! and the recently completed mural on the side of the Blick Art Materials store in east downtown Dearborn will lead to additional public art projects throughout the city.

“I really want to see more public art in the city, for more businesses to offer their space for murals. People have blank space to fill and we have the artists to fill it,” Corder says.

“We’re creating a community and a network between the commercial side and the art side of the city.”

Partnerships are key

The ZAP! Art Project was a true partnership of different organizations from within the community, says EmmaJean Woodyard, executive director of the Dearborn Community Fund. The West Dearborn DDA first approached the Community Fund with the idea late this summer, with the Community Fund facilitating the project and Padzieski Gallery organizing the artists.

“I’ve always been a big believer in partnerships. I think we can get a lot done that way,” Woodyard says.

More than 20 artists applied for the project and a design review committee selected the final three. The three artists selected for ZAP! each received a $1,000 stipend for their work.

While Drouillard and Shadia have prior experience in public art and mural work, this was the first such project for Becca Simmons, a Dearborn local.

“That’s another great thing about ZAP! — it created new opportunities for artists that haven’t done large-scale work before,” Corder says. “Talking to people while they watch you and painting at the same time is a challenge.”

Simmons and her ZAP! mural.Creating equitable access

There are a few more utility boxes around Wagner Park, and Woodyard says that they could be transformed into works of art one day, too. In fact, any number of utility boxes throughout the city could receive the same treatment.

“As you go through the community, utility boxes are a natural place to put something interesting. It just makes sense,” Woodyard says.

“We’re always looking for new ways to promote public art. We’re going to have a walk through both downtowns soon and identify other potential spots for public art, and not necessarily just murals.”

Woodyard points to Grand Rapids, where the internationally-renowned ArtPrize contest and festival is held each year. While there are no plans for a festival of that scale, that doesn’t mean that Dearborn can’t become known for its commitment to public art in its own way. The idea is that bringing more public art, and more permanent public art, to Dearborn will only help in attracting more people to the city and improving the quality of life for those already here. And that can come in the form of murals on the side of buildings, utility boxes, and whatever else can be dreamt up next.

“I love any kind of art that’s unexpected, that induces a feeling. With public art, putting it right in front of people’s faces is sometimes the easiest way to create a bridge to art,” Corder says.

“That’s what Dearborn is all about, making art equitable for everyone. Maybe you don’t have a car or the money and can’t make it to an art gallery or museum. Public art provides access.”

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.