All Wrapped Up
Original Art Adorns Downtown Utility Boxes
When Natasha Potratz glanced at all the drab, gray-green utility boxes scattered around the downtown landscape, it sparked an idea. Instead of just letting these boxes fade into the background, she saw a way to shine a spotlight on area artists and make their work public in the city’s core. The plan was to take established works of art and reproduce them as vinyl wraps, giving these one-time gray-green eyesores a pop of color and culture. As the chair of the Downtown Billings Alliance (DBA) Public Art Committee (PAC), Natasha is always looking for ways to showcase the talented artists who live and work here.
Natasha took her idea to Dave Mumford, Billings’ director of Public Works. Because he’d seen utility box art wraps in other cities, it was an easy sell.
From there, the DBA-PAC selected six original art pieces for the project’s inaugural run. The pieces were photographed, digitally transferred to heavy-duty vinyl and skillfully wrapped around the utility boxes. Voila! Dull became exciting in minutes. In the six years since that initial run, art submissions and installations have grown every year. By mid-2018, more than 30 colorful and original wraps will have a home in downtown Billings.
A colorful cowboy by Lee Walker was one of the earlier art pieces selected for the project. It turns out the wraps haven’t just enhanced the streetscape. They’ve launched careers. Just ask Lee.
“My art took off when that wrap went up!” Lee says of her installation at North 32nd Street and Second Avenue North. Subsequently, her work has been juried into several regional art shows. In January 2018, she left the “nine to five” world to work full-time on her art.
Connie Dillon gave considerable thought to how and when folks would see her art as she prepared the piece submitted a year after Lee Walker's cowboy was installed.
“It’d be in someone’s rear view mirror if I was lucky,” she laughs, knowing her art would be on a busy street corner. “Maybe while somebody is heading home, wondering what’s for dinner.”
Connie wanted a “wow” factor to catch a driver’s attention in under five seconds. She drew inspiration from the vintage children’s marbles she was painting at the time.
Connie’s second challenge was to create a 15-by-30-inch painting that would retain its visual appeal once applied to an angular metal box with an irregular surface. Connie painted a Parcheesi game board and added her colorful marbles in vivid orange, bold green and stark black. Connie thinks the marbles look like they’re “heading home,” just like the drivers passing through the intersection at North 30th Street and Third Avenue North.
When retired Yellowstone Art Museum art educator Carol Welch dedicated her “Spring Melody” installation in 2017, she invited friends to gather on the southeast corner of North Broadway and Fourth Avenue North. They read poetry and toasted the art wrap with a sparkly beverage.
Carol’s garden is her creative muse. “Spring Melody” was painted on June 1, 2016, a day when her garden poppies burst forth in bloom.
“Poppies are so fragile,” she explains. “They are gone in two minutes!”
When you drive by “Spring Melody,” you’ll feel the warm sun as you catch a glimpse of Carol’s effusive, bright-red poppies, even if it is a cold, gray January day.
“I’m a Billings girl and I love downtown,” Carol says. “I’m thrilled you can see the Yellowstone Art Museum from my art wrap.”
Karen Tanner thinks it is serendipitous that her art wrap is at the four-way intersection of Division Street, North 31st Street, Sixth Avenue North and Grand Avenue.
Tanner’s art wrap, titled “Left of Center,” evokes a flowing river and the fish that live in it. Solitary fish swim upstream amid splashes of green, copper, gold and turquoise. Copper oxidation and a muted patina evoke a sense of aging. Karen describes the box location as the “headwaters of downtown.”
“It’s also an homage to finding one’s heart amid life changes, although you might not know that at first glance,” she says. Karen submitted her art piece after retiring from School District 2.
She's no stranger when it comes to public art competitions — her designs won the highly competitive Bozeman Sweet Pea Festival poster contest in 2000 and 2005.
VALUE IN THE VISION
Natasha is quick to credit Dave Mumford for his ready acceptance of the utility box art wrap project when she proposed it. She also applauds the consistent work of the DBA Public Art Committee over the last six years. The utility box art wraps have added an irresistible creative energy to Billings' downtown streets. Other neighborhoods have approached the Department of Public Works to start their own art wrap districts.
Natasha hopes the utility box art wraps are just the tip of the cultural iceberg. She dreams of a day when the city of Billings adopts a “percentage for the arts” resolution, requiring all city-funded projects to include a budgeted amount for public art. Until that day, she says with deserved pride, “We worked together to leverage resources and be the change.”