Manchester Project Turns Utility into Art

Think Outside the Box is the city's latest public art endeavor



NHIA instructor James Chase is among the participating artists.

Courtesy photo

If you spent any time in downtown Manchester this summer, then you may have noticed an unusual sight. Scattered among the sidewalk café tables and bustling pedestrians, five artists set to work over the past two months on canvases you’ve probably seen but never really noticed: the city’s traffic signal boxes.

The green structures control the stoplights around the city, and, normally, that’s their only claim to fame. Thanks to a two-year-old civic initiative, though, the bland boxes have also become vehicles for urban renewal.

The Think Outside the Box project got its start last year, when Studio 550’s Monica Leap approached Intown Manchester with an idea for public art. In its first year, three artists participated; this year, that number has grown to five. 

Each of the participating artists is assigned to a traffic signal box downtown and was given the months of June, July and August to decorate it according to the designs they submitted when they applied for the program. Four of the artists are painting their designs directly onto their boxes, while a fifth, Sam Harrington, has created a wrap to be attached all in one piece. The designs vary widely, from a lunch counter full of hungry patrons to angular abstract shapes inspired by the ebb and flow of the city.

“We love the art that was submitted,” says Sara Beaudry, Intown Manchester’s executive director and one of the lead organizers of Think Outside the Box. “Such local talent is incredible.”

When the organizers put out the call for submissions early this year, the primary requirement was that the artists be New Hampshire-based. Around a dozen applied, and local creatives Harrington, James Chase, Jyl Dittbenner, Jasmyn Gray and Anthony Williams were selected as the final cohort.

Chase’s box, located outside Market Basket near the corner of Elm and Auburn Streets, is just a few minutes from the New Hampshire Institute of Art, a longtime nexus of the artist’s career. Chase, a Manchester native, attended NHIA and currently teaches there as an adjunct instructor in printmaking.

“I am honored to have been commissioned by the city to help give back,” Chase says. “And, in the notion of artists helping artists, I wanted to help pass this act of kindness forward to future artists.”

Several of Chase’s former students assisted him with his box — the latest act of community engagement for Chase in a career that includes a stint as a Manchester arts commissioner, board membership at the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts and a position last month as a judge for the National Arts Program’s local “Art on the Wall at City Hall” initiative.

“I believe art builds community,” he says. “Think Outside the Box not only highlights local artists but helps the evolving appreciation for public art. I hope, as this project continues to grow, even more transformation will happen downtown.”

According to Beaudry, more transformation is exactly what’s in store. Intown recently introduced the “Keys to the City” street piano program, in which a piano (decorated by local artists) has been placed in Manchester’s Victory Park for residents to stop by and play at their leisure. “The more public art, the better!” Beaudry says.

Chase’s piece, entitled “Flux,” was inspired by the notion of a changing Manchester. The stark industrial colors and patterns of the design represent the empty storefronts Chase recalls from his childhood, while the box’s bright colors reflect the city’s new energy and promise.

“I feel like we are on the cusp of bringing new life to the city,” Chase says. “So the colors and vibrancy of my piece [are] supposed to show that vitality is coming back to the city.”

If the utility-boxes-turned-artwork are any indication, urban vitality is officially here.

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