New utility-box art project brings new color to Sunland-Tujunga
By Eddie Rivera, News Editor
They’re springing up like flowers in the desert now, all along Foothill Boulevard and other major streets—sunsets, portraits, flowers, animals, and abstracts. The long awaited Los Angeles Department of Transportation (DOT) utility-box painting project is now in full swing, though it wasn’t as easy as simply applying brush and paint to metal.
Gail Carlson, chairperson of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council (STNC) Beautification Committee, was walking through the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego a couple of summers ago, and that’s where she first saw a similar project.
“The boxes were so pretty, and they all had ocean themes,” Carlson said. “Actually, the streets were so trashy that the only thing that was beautiful were these boxes,” she recalled.
Carlson brought up the idea of a beautification committee at the next STNC board meeting, and the first project she envisioned, of course, was the painted box project.
“[Then-STNC president] Mark Seigel told me, ‘That’s a great idea. Let’s have a beautification committee, and you can be the president.’” Carlson agreed, and the project was on. This was in July of 2014.
The first committee meeting was in August, and Gail began conversations with Wesly Hernandez, who then was a field deputy for LA City councilman Felipe Fuentes.
“Wesly said, ‘Of course. We’ve done these all over L.A., no problem, it’ll be a breeze,’” she laughed, “And of course it wasn’t a breeze.”
Hernandez left Fuentes’s office in April of 2015, but the call for artists had already been announced the previous October. Artists had begun submitting their ideas. In three months, there were 69 submissions. The sketches and plans were submitted to the community for voting in two separate locations in January, one being the North Valley City Hall and the other at the YMCA in Tujunga.
Eventually, 129 people cast ballots, and a list of finalists was created. The original plan was for 10 boxes, but, according to Carlson, the balloting took so long and there were so many submissions that she expanded the plan to include all 21 DOT boxes in Sunland-Tujunga.
Carlson presented 22 art proposals to Fuentes in February, and he and his chief of staff, Rebecca Valdez, approved the project to go ahead.
“I love this kind of thing,” Fuentes said, according to Carlson. “I love this kind of community art project.”
Unlike in other districts, such as Jose Huizar’s 14th district in Eagle Rock, Fuentes would not agree to pay the artists. He did offer to pay for the paint, and Carlson agreed. There would be $2,100 available for paint.
But a nonprofit was needed to act as a fiduciary agent—to pay the money up front, and to agree to be reimbursed by the city’s Street Services Department. The Shadow Hills-Sunland-Tujunga Rotary Club was selected. When Fuentes brought the motion to the full City Council in March, it was approved as such—with the Rotary Club attached to the motion. But, said Carlson, no one ever spoke to the Rotary Club about their involvement. In April, Hernandez left Fuentes’s office.
“From there it took about nine months to bring the project back,” said Carlson.
Meanwhile, the Rotary Club was presented with the 32-page formal agreement to act as the financial agent for the project. One of the stipulations of the agreements involved having an abundance of insurance on hand and, of course, fronting the money to the artists. The Rotary Club would not agree.
Carlson continued to update the artists on the status of the project, while the council looked for another agent. But finding another agent would involve changing the official City Council motion and getting the cooperation of several city departments. Again.
At a March 9, 2016, STNC meeting, Monica Rodriguez, vice president of the LA Board of Public Works, was asked by Seigel to assist the project moving forward. She agreed, and then met with Carlson that weekend. Carlson gave her a zip drive containing all of the specifics of the project, from artists’ names and sketches to cost information.
On March 22, Rodriguez had the project approved by the Department of Cultural Affairs, and she reported to Carlson that the motion was being transferred back to Fuentes’s office and to the Office of Community Beautification. A nonprofit that the city often used for similar projects—Northeast Graffiti Busters—had been selected as the new fiduciary agent.
The project was back on track, and art is now blossoming up and down Foothill and other streets. About 16 artists have begun working, and all 21 will eventually be working through May to complete their projects, said Carlson. The first project began at Fenwick Street and Sunland Boulevard and will continue east and west as far as Tujunga Canyon Boulevard and La Tuna Canyon Road.
A number of the art project locations were chosen directly by the STNC Beautification Committee to more suitably fit their surroundings. A project near Day Street, for example, sits near where a herd of deer gather each evening and morning. Another salutes the peacocks who live near the corner of Scoville Avenue and Foothill.
It took a year and a half, but art has no calendar.