Unexpected Art

Midtown Association initiative beautifies everyday objects

By Jessica Laskey
August 2022

You probably walk by utility boxes every day without noticing. But if that utility box is splattered with vivid colors and a woman’s piercing stare, her head crowned in wildflowers, you might stop and stare.

Beautifying everyday objects to bring art into public spaces is the goal of Midtown Association’s Art in Unexpected Places initiative. Launched in 2016, the program has covered 21 trash receptacles, 13 utility boxes and six dumpsters across Midtown.

“The intent of all this is to create this really beautiful community moment, for neighborhoods to feel welcoming and present the best they have to offer,” says Emily Baime Michaels, executive director of the Midtown Association. “The artists have taken that and brought it to life.”

Baime Michaels and colleagues envisioned the project as a way to spruce up Midtown’s alleyways. They started with a dumpster behind 16 Powerhouse, a Bay Miry development at 16th and P streets.

“This activation piece was personal to me,” says Andy Duong, the artist whose work graces the large metal receptacle. “I had an apartment that looked into the alley and down at that dumpster. I thought, if I can change my view, why not change it with something I can make beautiful?”

Duong was designing marketing materials for restaurants, bars and nightclubs at the time, so when building owner (and longtime friend) Miry came to him with the project, it was a perfect fit. Duong wanted to create something fun and “Instagrammable” that paid homage to Sacramento’s natural beauty.

“It’s a dichotomy of trash and refuse being notoriously ugly and making that more beautiful, so I went with watercolors,” he says.

Duong’s two designs—one watercolor nature scene and a rendering of bike chains and hearts—were a hit, and led to similar projects for him at other Miry developments, including The Hardin at 7th and K streets.

“As artists, we naturally want our work to be front and center and be seen by as many people as possible,” Duong says, “but sometimes in life, some artwork should be a glint of happiness, something beautiful that pecks at you and makes you smile.”

Following the success of the dumpster wraps, Midtown Association turned to another mundane object: utility boxes. In 2021, the association approached artist Brandon Gastinell about wrapping electric utility boxes at Winn Park. The digital pop artist had recently completed a large-scale vinyl wrap mural at 16th and J streets for Wide Open Walls, so he was familiar with the process and jumped at the chance.

“It doesn’t happen often for digital artists to have a permanent spot for their art—that’s usually reserved for painters,” says Gastinell, whose work incorporates collage and images of pop icons, including Sacramento favorite Bill Murray. “Street art and art in the public space will never go away no matter how far along tech goes. Public art is still important.”

No doubt Melissa Uroff agrees. She was one of the first artists to participate in a local wrap project in 2015. When Midtown Association asked if she’d be interested in wrapping electrical pedestals in Fremont Park, she was excited to have a platform to celebrate female artists.

“I thought about how many times I’d go to that park with my creative mom crew (friends she made pre-pandemic who were pregnant around the same time) to plan out our next moves,” says the North City Farms resident. “All the women on the boxes are moms who work in creative fields and know how hard it is to be a mom and an artist. I think it’s so fun to think about their kids going down the slide and saying, ‘That’s my mom!’”

In February, the Midtown Association completed Love is in Our Roots, a series of sidewalk utility box wraps in Lavender Heights showcasing local produce painted by artist Jodie Miller. There are plans for more projects, and Baime Michaels is toying with the idea of wrapping every dumpster across Midtown. Time—and funding—will tell.

“We hope there’s a time people find themselves wandering through Midtown and see a huge mural or art on a trashcan in a park and get excited about it,” Baime Michaels says. “These forgotten spaces can be a canvas for art that represents Midtown’s vibrancy.”

For more information, visit exploremidtown.org. Check out the artists on Instagram @andylikedthis, @brandongastinell, @jodiecreates and @melissauroff.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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