Thanks to a generous grant from the Belmont Cultural Council, I was 1 of 5 artists awarded stipends to paint a transformer box! When I received the good news, I was super excited about diving into my first public art project and creating something that would beautify our community. But, I was also a little ambivalent because I had never painted anything this large. With a lot of guidance and encouragement, I found my way to the finish line!
Transformer Box Proposal
The “Transforming Belmont” Public Art Project is a venture initiated and managed by the Belmont Art Association (BAA). This program is supported in part by a grant from the Belmont Cultural Council.
My proposal centers around the flowers we see in our neighbors’ gardens, yards, and town venues. I walk and/or bike daily and see the ever-changing colors and shapes up close. Just last week, I was biking down Bright Street and was beckoned to stop and admire a group of bright, cheerful roses. A few days earlier, quite unexpectedly, I came upon a cluster of deeply saturated, purple Siberian Irises on Grove Street. It is these moments of pure joy that I hope to share in my transformer box design.
The flowers I’ve chosen cover 3 of the 4 seasons: spring (daffodils and tulips), spring/summer (irises, lilies), and summer/autumn (echinacea).~ Anne S. Katzeff
Transformer Box Photos and Materials
I was a novice with acrylics and had very few supplies. I had to purchase nearly everything! Paints, brushes, gesso, varnish, rollers, you name it. Reach out to me if you want specifics.
My transformer box is located at the intersection of Brighton and Cross streets, in Belmont, MA. Inside the box are the controls for the traffic lights. You see these utility boxes everywhere, but probably don’t notice them due to their mundane, solid color. As you can see in the photo, the box I painted was grey.
The intersection is a really busy corner. Heading north on Cross Street is easy access to a major highway and a neighboring town, Arlington. Just one block away, heading south, is an elementary school; go past the school and you’re in Belmont Center. The east-west route is also well-travelled. So, there’s a LOT of vehicular and foot traffic.
I began painting on the morning of Tuesday, July 27. The trunk of my car, packed with most of my materials, became my traveling studio. One of my big concerns was having enough water for various purposes: clean-up, diluting, and hydrating the paints. I filled a 5 gal. bucket with water to serve as my sink for rinsing brushes, rollers, pans, and plastic containers. A spray bottle and gallon jug were added in to cover all of my bases.
When I arrived at the site of my box on the first day, I realized I had forgotten the jug of water! I drove back home to retrieve it and returned to the site. Phase 1 could now officially begin: I cleaned, sanded, and primed the surface with 2 coats of white gesso.
A torrential rain came through that evening. I prayed my box stood up to it. The next morning, I biked over to check it out. The box looked fine! There was just minor dirt at the base.
Phase 2 – Background Color and Sketching
A couple of days later, I cleaned the surface of the box from the debris of the downpour. In my project proposal, I envisioned a solid background of “Kelly” green. However, when I was ordering my paints, I came across a premixed “Bright Aqua Green” and decided to use that instead. It was pretty intense straight out of the bottle, so I mixed it with gesso and water to tone it down. I wasn’t sure how much surface the 2 oz. bottle of paint would cover. I was able to apply 2 coats to the large front side facing the street, and 1 coat to a side panel. Pretty good coverage!
My next step was to sketch in the daffodil on the top and the echinacea on the front side. The plan was to transfer all of my sketchbook drawings freehand to the transformer box. Oops! I left my sketchbook at home! What’s going on? Two days in a row I had forgotten something. This was such a new experience, I hadn’t yet developed a routine. Fortunately, Meredith was setting up her video equipment and watched my supplies while I drove home to retrieve the sketchbook.
Once I returned, I sketched in the top and front panels with pencil. It was easy to erase if I made a mistake, and light enough to hide with the paint. Up close, some of the pencil marks are still visible, which is OK with me.
Phase 3 – Painting the Transformer Box
The transformer box is almost as tall as me, so the average passer-by won’t be able to see the daffodil on the top panel. For this reason, I simplified the design and blocked in one huge daffodil with large brushes (3″ and 1/2″ flats). Later, I went in with my #36 mural brush to paint in the nuances and make it look like an actual flower.
I got comfortable with my brushes pretty quickly. The mural brush was very versatile and I used it for blocking in the echinacea as well as adding depth and texture to large areas on all of the panels. Details were achieved with smaller brushes (#14 and #8 rounds). I tried small flats, but abandoned them because I couldn’t master the control I wanted.
Each day brought a new challenge, and it felt like my head was spinning with everything that I was learning! I got a good feel for the viscosity of the paint, how much water to use, mixing colors, and layering. Cleanup was a breeze, thanks to a friend’s suggestion that I use paper plates. At the end of my day’s session (usually 3 hours), whatever little paint was still on the plate I simply let dry. I rinsed my tools in the 5-gallon bucket of water and emptied that bucket into a drain near the box. When I got home, I cleaned brushes with soap and water.
I hadn’t expected how much people would express appreciation. Neighbors walking and jogging were enthusiastic about the change. Drivers called out endorsements from their cars. A school bus driver stopped, opened his door, and told me what a great job I was doing. Bicyclists paused to praise. What wonderful support!
Fixing the Echinacea
I’m my own worst critic though. One area on the echinacea panel bothered me: the stem at the bottom of the largest flower was at the wrong angle. In an attempt to fix it, I painted in a new stem with leaves, yet that caused a criss-cross of stem chaos. I let it go temporarily, knowing that I would redo it at some point.
Several weeks later, towards the end of the project, I mustered up the courage to obliterate the troubling stems with 2 layers of white titanium. Once that dried, I applied 2 layers of the background aqua green. Finally, with great care, I redrew the stem and leaves, then repainted. I am much happier now!
The Iris panel went very smoothly and only took a couple of days. I did a lot of glazing (thin layering) to capture the folds and color subtleties. Getting the correct scale was tricky. After all, the panels are about 10 times the size of my sketch! For the Iris, a couple of adjustments were made:
- The initial sketch was actually much lighter in tone. In order for it to pop out from the background, I darkened the hue.
- The bottom half of the flower was a bit too short after the first day of painting. It made the Iris feel top-heavy. To fix, I lengthened the petals during the next session.
The lilies were the most challenging panel and took the longest to paint. The aqua green background showed through the orange, resulting in a muddy hue. It took several layers of orange, each one a bit brighter and lighter than the previous one, to achieve the “clean”, cheerful orange I had in mind.
By the time I got the the last panel, I had learned many things and applied that knowledge. Notably, I blocked in the tulips with titanium white. When I covered the white with the reds and pinks, the colors were fresh and lively!
The transformer box meter sticks out on the tulips panel. I had to figure out what to do with the protrusion. I decided to paint one tulip on top of it and continue the form underneath. It adds a quirky visual effect to that panel.
From Sketch to Final Painting
I liked how the background color unified all of the panels on the transformer box. To tie everything together even further, I added blades of grass at the bottom of each panel. The grass also helped ease the sense of floating and grounded the flowers.
Early on in the project, a man driving by suggested I put a bee on the echinacea panel. I told him I thought it was a fabulous idea. In the ensuing weeks, he drove by again and asked “Where’s the bee?” I shouted back “It’s coming, stay tuned!” One of the final touches I added at the end of the project was the bee.
Another addition was the butterfly I painted on the lilies panel. My mother had loved butterflies and the color purple. So that personal touch was a tribute to her.
Let’s Take a Tour!
I put together a short video of the final transformer box. Check it out!
Huge thanks to:
Belmont Cultural Council and Belmont Art Association for the grant;
Adria Arch, Dari Paquette, Mary Hart, Jeanne Williamson, family, and friends for their generous support, advice, and recommendations!