Reading, MA – Birds mid-flight. A collection of diverse faces. An oncoming train, whistling past an old blacksmith shop.
These are just some of the new images you can see on a series of utility boxes downtown as part of Reading’s Outside the Box Mural Program, the town’s first major public art program. The project, spearheaded by Reading’s Staff Planner Andrew McNichol, is one of the newer attempts to encourage foot traffic and economic development downtown. The utility boxes selected to feature these new art pieces are located at key gateways across the downtown area, including the common area at the Salem Street and Harnden Street corner, the corner of Haven Street and Main Street, and Elm Park at the corner of Washington Street and Main Street.
“While this project was originally underway prior to COVID, this initiative is even more important today. This program was initiated as an economic development opportunity because public art encourages visitors, foot traffic, and economic growth. Our local businesses and artists need us more than ever and we are excited to be able to launch this initiative at this time” said Erin Schaeffer, Economic Development Director for the town of Reading.
Interested local artists were encouraged to submit as part of their application a sketch of their proposed design, as well as if they had a preference for which utility box would showcase their work.
“Proposals were judged on creativity, community pride, originality, relationship between the location of the utility box and its surroundings, and suitability for all ages,” said Schaeffer.
The seven artists chosen to be featured as part of the project were Catherine Johnson, Kim Garrity Matthews, Megan Coram, Ruth Clark, Matt Baynes, Ethan Bennett, and Steve Greco.
“I grew up in Reading so when I think about community in the town, I tend to think of the important role the schools have on community pride. I chose to use the mascots from the public schools in Reading and combine them into an environment where they can cohabitate. These mascots include: Reading Rockets, Coolidge Comets, Parker Panthers, Killam Koalas, Birch Meadow Bears, Joshua Eaton Jaguars, Woodend Wildcats, and Barrows Shining Stars” said Johnson.
“My design is based on a theme that considers composition of both colors and shape with the goal of allowing the viewer to walk around the box completing a thought, or a moment.
It represents a reminder of our once thriving wild spaces” said Greco.
Steve Greco’s Mural. Photo by Julia Corbett
“I spent a lot of time in an art class this spring drawing in one-point perspective, so that’s kind of where my mind was artistically. I’m also a big fan of trains, and I think train tracks in perspective can be very striking and give a lot of depth. So, I took the opportunity to do an homage to the MBTA – I think the close connection to Boston is one of the best things about this town” said Baynes.
“In the application, we were asked to include some element of town pride in our design. One of my favorite things about Reading is its wildlife, especially the birds. I chose to paint black-capped chickadees specifically because they’re the state bird of Massachusetts, and because they’re super cute! The tree is loosely based on the state tree, the American Elm” said Coram.
“I usually go for a radically stylized image when it comes to my work, for the most part, mainly inspired by street art and contemporary nonfigurative art. I named it Diversity because after it started to take shape on the page, I liked how the different characters started to fit together even though they are all different shapes and colors. I also like that in choosing my artwork, it shows progression in the community, I never thought Reading would pick such a progressive design and I was pleasantly surprised” said Bennett.
“When I think of Reading, I think of the four generations of my family that have lived here, the town’s history, and my own memories of growing up here. Each side illustrates a time past and present. One side represents the celebration of Veterans Day during World War II. Another side shows the old boathouse that used to be on Franklin Street. along with the old Reading water tower in the 1970s and 1980s. Imagination Station was a staple of my childhood in the 1990s, so I couldn’t leave that out! And of course, downtown Reading with Old South church lit up at night during Christmas time. All of the sides are tied together with trees during the different seasons” said Garrity.
“My oldest daughter Carolyn, who normally lives in Los Angeles but is here with us right now because of COVID-19, is helping me with my design on one side of the box. The design for this mural is part of a project I started as part of a painting for Reading’s 375 celebrations. I was looking through the At Woodend book, and I found a picture of houses on Green Street from over a hundred years ago and I had heard that these houses were the first affordable housing in Reading. If you elevate yourself high enough in that area, you’d be able to see the Post Office as well as the Old South Church. A friend of mine said that there also used to be a blacksmith shop in that area, and so I wanted to include that as well to showcase the history of the town. You can also spot Limpy the turkey outside of the blacksmith shop on the corner facing Haven Street” said Clark.
You can check out the artists in action downtown now, or you can stop by later in August to see the finished murals.
Interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.var _ctct_m = “b1883dcbd4bfe8717cce18dcf96223c4”;