Making Ugly Utilities Attractive

An interview with Christos Hamawi, a painter in the South End of Boston, about his recent community arts endeavor painting utility boxes around Boston for the Boston Art Commission’s “Paintbox” program.

In the words of the Boston Art Commission:

“The PaintBox program, organized by the Boston Art Commission, is geared towards the recognition and celebration of local artists. Through PaintBox, artists are asked to paint City of Boston utility boxes with original designs. Once professionally painted, these utility boxes in neighborhood business districts will contribute to the vitality and attractiveness of the urban streetscape and deter graffiti.”

Hamawi's paintbox, titled "Urban Wilds" in Copley Square. The plants that have been painted are wildflowers and grasses that are common throughout the streets of Boston. Photo Courtesy of www.bluebrickstudios.com

High Contrast Review:  Tell me about the Paintbox projects in Boston- how did they come to be? How long did they take?

Christos Hamawi: I was informed about the PaintBox program by the Mayor’s liaison to the South End, which is a neighborhood in Boston where I live. She was familiar with my artwork and encouraged me to apply to the program. As an active member of my neighborhood association, I thought it would be an even better way for me to contribute to my community, so I submitted a design for one of the utility boxes right in my neighborhood, and the design was approved.  I completed that first Paintbox in April of 2009.  After I painted that one, I applied to paint another in Downtown Crossing and one in Copley Square. Both of those designs were also approved and the projects were completed in the autumn of last year.

Hamawi at work on his second paintbox project, titled "Urban Renewal" on Summer Street in Downtown Crossing, in front of Macy's and near the Washington Street Intersection. Photo courtesy of www.bluebrickstudios.com

The first box I painted is located on Massachusetts Avenue by Boston Medical Center and it took 2 days to complete, a total of about 20 hours.  The inspiration came from a patch of wildflowers and grasses that were growing up through the asphalt in a vacant (soon to be developed) lot about a block from where the utility box is located.  I painted it from the perspective of lying down on the ground and looking up at the sky, so the grit and chaos of the busy city street is lost to the peaceful images of nature, surviving against the odds in such an unforgiving urban environment.  That mural is titled “Urban Oasis” which I thought was an appropriate theme for that busy area near the hospital.

The second box I painted is in Downtown Crossing, a vibrant shopping district in Boston that has recently gone through revitalization.  That was more detailed and took 4 days to complete, a total of about 35 hours.  For that, I chose to adapt an image from one of my original oil paintings called “Weeping Cherry”.   I painted the entire box with weeping cherry branches and leaves, cascading all over the box on all sides and changing color.  I titled it “Urban Renewal” based on the renewal that takes place with leaves every year, while alluding to the revitalization that was taking place in that urban area.

The third box I painted is in Copley Square, adjacent to the Boston Public Library. This was the largest and most detailed, and it took 7 days to complete, a total of about 60 hours.  I took my cue from the actual weeds, grasses, and wildflowers that were growing all around the utility box itself and the many other traffic fixtures within the square. I titled it “Urban Wilds” after a similar oil painting I made of clovers and dandelions, and also to emphasize a City of Boston Parks Dept. preservation program called “The Urban Wilds Initiative” which is a program that works to preserve the remaining natural ecosystems within the city of Boston.

High Con: What does community art mean to you? What do you hope to accomplish by being involved with community art projects?

Hamawi: Community art to me is about having pride in your city and wanting to share your vision, your passion, and your ideas with others.  Community art has the potential to provoke thought, inspire new ideas, and add to the cultural diversity and richness of any city.

I would hope that my involvement and my public art projects inspires others to think about things they may have otherwise never considered and encourages other artists and individuals to get involved in their community.

High Con:  What else do you like to do besides paint? What do you do when you aren’t working?

Hamawi: I love to Travel. That is probably my absolute favorite thing to do outside painting.  I love exploring new countries, new cultures, new landscapes… it is so inspiring.  I’ve been to many different countries and hope to see many more in my lifetime. I also love animals and visiting zoos, as well as botanical gardens, and art and natural history museums.  I love almost everything they show on the national Geographic, Science, and Discovery channels.  I also love to garden, work on home improvements, go hiking, skiing, camping, swimming, snorkeling, and probably almost anything you can do outdoors.

High Con: What projects do you have planned for the future?

Hamawi: I’m currently working on a very large mural for a well known Boston Hotel.  It will be my largest work of art to date, well over 1000 square feet.   Although this will not be considered public art, since this mural will be in a section of the hotel meant for the staff,  and as such it will not visible to the general public.

I’m also working on a new series of 12 paintings that will be collectively titled  “Urban Wilds” that will be very similar in theme to the PaintBox I completed in Copley Square.  I hope to have them completed and ready for an exhibition in late Spring of this year.

Hamawi working on his "Urban Wilds" paintbox in Copley Square. Photo courtesy of www.bluebrickstudios.com

High Con: How do other aspects of your life affect your work- for example, does your heritage influence your work? Do you have a special interest in native plants?

Hamawi: I’ve been traveling to many beautiful and exotic places as a result of my ethnic heritage.  My Mother is Croatian from Zagreb and my Father is Greek from Africa, and as a result I’ve had the privilege of visiting Croatia, Greece, and Africa many many times since my birth.  The exposure to these amazing and diverse landscapes and cultures definitely contributed to my love of art and nature and inspired me to want to paint and capture those things in life that fascinate me the most.  Right now, that happens to be the natural world, but I’ve also completed architectural paintings (paintings of historic buildings, etc) and will likely revisit that theme in the near future.

View more of Christos Hamawi’s work at his website www.bluebrickstudios.com

Have you seen ornately painted utility boxes around your city? Take a picture and send it to caroline@highcontrastreview.com

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