Ithaca, N.Y. — A boxing match between Edison and Tesla. A serene scene of sunbathing sharks. A view revealing the greasy gears within some mechanical contraption.

These are just a few of the myriad ideas and themes painted by local artists on over 40 electrical boxes located at street corners across Ithaca.

(Courtesy of the 21 Boxes Facebook page.)

Once dull and gray, many of these boxes have undergone complete wardrobe makeovers thanks to 21 Boxes, a community art project developed by Ithaca’s Public Art Commission.

The original set of 21 electrical boxes was painted in 2012. Following positive feedback from the public, the Commission funded a second set of 21 boxes for this year, according to Commission members Caleb Thomas and Norma Gutierrez.

The 2014 set of boxes will be officially unveiled next Thursday at a ceremony at Ithaca’s Washington Park.

(A map of electrical box locations can be found on the 21 Boxes Facebook page.)

The Boxes

The artists behind 21 Boxes drew inspiration from various sources. Some based their designs on real, tangible objects, while others based theirs on fantasy and imagination.

“I like to keep my work based on reality, but with a sense of expression and imaginative abstraction incorporated,” said Whitney Ledesma, painter of the box at the corner of West Court and North Plain.

Caleb Thomas and Norma Gutierrez have helped spearhead the project. (Owen Zhang / Ithaca Voice)

She said she was inspired by Cayuga Lake and liked the idea of using the box’s cubic shape to depict a three-dimensional subterranean scene with depth.

“The lake is a prominent feature of Ithaca, and my brother always kept beautiful tanks of fish,” she said. “I decided to paint a sort of aquarium. . . . The liveliness and graceful movement of underwater creatures are elements that I hope will bring some life and grace to the mind of the viewer.”

Jim Garmhausen, in contrast, sought to portray a more whimsical scene. The design of his box at the intersection of North Cayuga and East Lincoln features 1950s-style sci-fi robots.

“I . . . thought of the function of the box itself, which is controlling the traffic light at the intersection—a simple but highly important function,” he said. “Those old sci-fi robots also had simple functions that, when altered somehow, led to mayhem and havoc.”

Another artist who painted a fantasy-themed design was Margaret Reed. Her design, “The Cat and the Devil”, alludes to a fable James Joyce wrote in a letter to his grandson. Painting the box allowed her to fulfill a goal she made nearly a decade ago.

(Owen Zhang / Ithaca Voice)
(Owen Zhang / Ithaca Voice)
(Owen Zhang / Ithaca Voice)

“About 10 years ago, a bookstore was going out of business in my hometown,” she said. “I found a children’s book that had truly awful illustrations of this letter; the story caught my imagination, and I’ve been holding onto it all this time thinking I would illustrate it myself.”

Most of the designs consist of a layer of primer topped by a combination of acrylic, spray, and other paints, according to Thomas. Some artists chose bright colors, while others stuck with clean black-and-white designs.

“There’s a large variety of styles,” said Thomas of this year’s boxes. “Some are . . . playful and meant to get a smile.”

But there are also boxes with more serious and thought-provoking themes. On the corner of East Buffalo and Stewart, for instance, is a box painted by Pamela Drix. Titled “Water Protectors”, it references the fracking controversy.

The Story

A few years ago, a small group of passionate local artist–social activists gathered around a table in a building in downtown Ithaca. Fervent discussion and brainstorming among these members of the Public Art Commission commenced. Over time, an idea was born.

The Commission had been working with the Board of Public Works to secure a package of city walls and other surfaces on which public art could be painted, according to Thomas.

“We had an image of an electrical box that had been tagged with graffiti,” he recalled. “We were requesting, ‘Could we use this box?’ and [the Board of Public Works] said, ‘Let’s give you permission for all the city-owned boxes.’”

The Commission secured funding—about one hundred dollars per artist—for the project from the Tompkins County Community Arts Partnership before placing a call for proposals about five months ago, according to Thomas. It kept submission guidelines and restrictions to a minimum to encourage a more diverse range of submissions, he said.

Artists quickly joined the effort. Many said they chose to participate after having seen and liked the 21 boxes from 2012.

The Artists

For some artists, participating in 21 Boxes was an opportunity to create something entertaining and playful.

Take, for instance, Marla Coppolino, a self-proclaimed “snail wrangler” and zoologist who specializes in the study of snail populations and their relationships with the environment. A large portion of her work involves creating biological illustrations for scientific publications.

“My biological illustration is usually a very straightforward, accurate depiction of a specimen, but I enjoy loosening up sometimes,” she said.

Coppolino’s box, located at the corner of North Albany and West Court, bridges her interest in snails with her interest in art, and consists of several colorful snails arranged along a spiral pattern.

For many artists, painting a box was an opportunity to express deeper, often concealed themes in an outwardly bold and colorful design.

“I often aim to combine a whimsical or humorous feel with a deeper, more challenging meaning,” said Ledesma, the artist of the box featuring the serene sharks. “At times, this effect is created subconsciously, with my interpretation unveiling itself as the painting unfolds.”

Garmhausen, who generally produces art in a style he calls “comic macabre”, echoed Ledesma’s sentiment.

“[Art is] quite therapeutic for me, and I find that people are drawn into the layers of my work,” he said. “Art is a perfect place to put your deeper questions and searches, and beauty isn’t necessarily the focus of art, as so many assert.”

“It is really that art is a conduit for whatever needs to come out of the artist, that isn’t met by conventional methods of communication.”


The Big Picture

Many community artists view their work as a catalyst for change within both individual viewers the community.

“My main hope is that my artwork is a vehicle for bringing some joy or peace to the viewer, while confronting the person with a rendering of truth and causing them to consider necessary questions,” said Ledesma. “My greatest reward is to know that one of my pieces made someone laugh, cry, or changed them in some small way.”

Garmhausen in particular spoke of community art’s unifying capabilities.

“It brings a vibrancy and resonance to public spaces, creates focal points, and increases civic pride,” he said. “It becomes an exchange of sorts: the giving of the art is influenced by the receptivity of the community, and it becomes a gift that flows both ways.”

Thomas and Gutierrez both expressed satisfaction with the changes that have occurred within Ithaca’s community of artists in the past few decades, but acknowledged that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“I would say we’re growing,” said Gutierrez. “We are bringing more attention to our youth, more attention to young artists, and really trying to support them, but I think we still have more to go, to bring more awareness . . . to really mark the diversity we have here.”

Those interested in participating in or supporting the Public Art Commission—whether through donating surfaces for public art, making financial contributions, or helping the Commission with public outreach—should contact Caleb Thomas at or (607) 273-5242.

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