By Jeanne D’Arcy, Mid-City Messenger
A decade ago, the control junction box for the traffic light at Tulane Avenue and the newly renamed Norman Francis Parkway was tagged and covered with graffiti. The ground around it was strewn with litter. That all changed after the junction box became an art box, featuring a blues guitarist.
It celebrates Tulane Avenue as the starting point of U.S. Route 61, known as the “blues highway” because of its close association with blues songs and artists.
The first of 40 such art boxes in Mid-City, it was painted by Juan Pablo Calle, one of the artists working with Community Visions Unlimited, the local nonprofit spearheading the painted utility boxes as part of the post-Katrina renewal. Originally from Colombia, Calle has a number of other art boxes to his credit around town.
Calle has already repainted the Blues Highway box, said Emily Leitzinger, who worked with CVU while a Mid-City Neighborhood Organization board member.
Mid-City was the second neighborhood to see its utility boxes become works of art. Leitzinger was on a team to identify the boxes that they hoped to have painted. “I think now all 40 or so have been painted,” she said.
A neighborhood partnership of MCNO and the Mid-City Business Association helped raise money for the art boxes through fundraisers such as the annual Mid-City porch crawl.
“They provide a big impact in a small package,” MCNO president Chris Blum said of the art boxes, “by camouflaging rigid infrastructure with local creativity and skilled artistry.” He added that MCNO hopes to maintain the junction boxes and identify more in the future.
Down Norman Francis Parkway at Banks Street is a work by Linda LeBoeuf, who has painted 39 art boxes throughout the metro area. Usually known for her portraits, such as the Leah Chase box on Orleans Avenue, in this case she did portraits of flamingos.
Another artist who has beautified Mid-City is painter Robin Daning. After hearing CVU founder Jeannie Tidy on the radio, she contacted Community Visions Unlimited. “I had relocated to New Orleans and knew I wanted to give back, to thank my adopted city,” Daning said, “and this seemed just the way to do it.”
Daning has painted 14 art boxes, including the two tiger boxes paying tribute to LSU in the medical corridor. The tigers flank the University Medical Center, one at North Galvez Street and Tulane and the other at North Galvez and Canal Street. They are similar looking, but the tigers face in different directions.
“When I am painting, people roll down the their windows and yell ‘thank you!’ It is so rewarding,” Daning said.
She encourages her fellow artists to apply to the program because she believes that different styles will only make it better.
Tidy, the founder of CVU, started the art box project in the devastated Lakeview neighborhood after Katrina to beautify the area and to lift people’s spirits, as well as promote rebuilding and economic development.
She initially sought permission from the Department of Public Works but was directed to the neighborhood associations to get their blessings. So with the help of then-Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry, along with Denise Thornton of Lakeview nonprofit Beacon of Hope, Tidy went to work.
This project has now grown to more than 200 in New Orleans, with more than a dozen others in the outlying suburbs. “Our goal really is to have every one in the city painted,” Tidy said.
Each box costs $750 to paint, Tidy said. Artists are paid a stipend of $300, according to the CVU website. Any local artist over age 18 may submit an application to register.
Once the utility box to be painted is identified, the registered artists are notified and given the location and the neighborhood’s wishes and design ideas.
The proposals are reviewed by a panel consisting of two art experts and a neighborhood representative who selects the artist. The review process is blind, that is no one knows the identity of the artists who are submitting proposals.
The selected artist receives a paint kit from Helm Paint, a project sponsor. They also receive a mini box — a replica of the actual junction box that they paint with the identical design. These mini boxes are auctioned off in competitive bidding to raise money for the project.
“Sadly we could not hold our event last year due to the pandemic,” Tidy said, “but despite that, we held on online version and did mange to raise a respectable amount of funds.” But like most other nonprofits, revenues are definitely down.
Community Visions Unlimited has raised over $100,000 to pay the artists, purchase paint supplies and maintain the art boxes. And they are continuing to beautify Mid-City and to make those junction boxes look interesting.
And happily, the graffiti and the litter they once attracted is no longer an issue.