Wild birds. An octopus stretching his tentacles within a claw machine. A Capitol dome replica filled with red, blue, and gold, among other lively designs.
You may have noticed recently that downtown Harrisburg appears more vibrant, more cheerful, certainly more colorful.
For that, you can thank the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District (DID) and Sprocket Mural Works, the outfit perhaps best known for mounting the 2017 Harrisburg Mural Festival.
Over the summer, 14 artists, including the two founders of Sprocket, painted traffic light electrical boxes throughout the downtown in “Art Outside the Box,” a project sponsored by the DID.
Before, most of the boxes were a dull gray, covered in graffiti, peeling paint and leftover stickers. Todd Vander Woude, DID’s executive director, saw the boxes as an opportunity to brighten the city.
“We can really make the corners look more colorful and really use artists through Sprocket Mural Works,” he said.
DID matched each piece with a location that they thought would best represent the message of the art.
So, a box painted with a bag full of groceries was placed outside of Provisions, the new grocery store inside of Strawberry Square. The Capitol painting sits on 2nd and State streets, just down the block from the big, green dome itself.
Though there was no overall theme, most of the artists took this project as an opportunity to show what Harrisburg meant to them.
“The feedback we received has been really positive,” said Sydney Musser, DID’s social media coordinator. “People notice these boxes now. You kind of saw them before, but they were covered in grime and different things. And now you notice them in a different way.”
Sprocket announced their call to artists through social media earlier in the year. Artists then submitted drafts and sketches of their vision for the boxes. Sprocket founders Jeff Copus and Megan Caruso filtered through the submissions and chose the pieces that represent the community and DID’s desire to highlight the great things in the city.
“For projects like this, we think it gives an opportunity for new voices to be heard,” said Copus. “We don’t want all of these projects to be about us, but about the people in the community.”
On the first day of working on her box, artist Jessica Singer painted in the blazing sun for five hours straight. This is the first public art project for the elementary art teacher and Harrisburg native, and she couldn’t wait to get started.
Her design, at N. 2nd and Pine streets, is based around the words she felt represented Harrisburg. There are words like “community,” “entertainment,” “capital” and “love,” interlaced with bright blues, yellows, reds and greens with white outlines and shapes. She even had some onlookers add a few words.
“I had the time of my life,” she said. “I enjoyed having people, as I was working on it, talking to me about it. I got to meet a lot of different people who work in the city everyday and live in the city, and I thought that was so cool.”
Singer was so excited about her piece that she brought the kids she nannies over the summer to see her work and take a tour of the other boxes downtown. Now that school has started, she plans to take her elementary students on a little box tour.
“I’m just very proud and honored to have a piece of artwork that is going to be there,” Singer said. “I teach so many little kids. I feel like they can look up to me and I say ‘Look! This is something you can aspire to. If art is your passion, follow it. You can do something like this.’”
Painter Shane Gallup is no novice to the Harrisburg art scene. Gallup has participated in gallery showings and body-paint exhibitions through his nonprofit, Artcan. Last year, he was involved in the mural festival, painting two hands reaching out for each other under the pedestrian underpass at Strawberry Square.
In a similar style of patchwork colors, Gallup created a painting of two kids: a girl holding tomatoes over her head and a boy grinning while eating a watermelon. According to Gallup, the piece was created to strike a conversation over what children put into their bodies.
“I wanted to encourage dialogue about what kind of foods are accessible to kids and their perceptions around them,” he said. “I think it’s a conversation that people have been having for awhile, and I think my piece adds something to it.”
These conversations are some of Gallup’s favorite things about creating public art. While painting his box, people came up to him asking questions about the project, his piece and what it meant. Though not all conversations were pleasant, they all started a dialogue, which was what he hoped for.
“It’s been great doing the boxes because it’s inviting,” he said. “There’s so much walking traffic downtown that I got a lot of engagement.”
This was not the first collaboration between Sprocket and DID. The two worked together on the duck sculptures that invaded downtown last year, the painted planters back in 2016 and the mural festival.
“With any of these public art projects, I think it gives people a reason to come into the city,” said Copus. “Whether people are already coming in for a baseball game or coming in for dinner, it gives them a reason to explore the city and just leave with a really good feeling of what they saw.”
For more information the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District, visit www.harrisburgdid.com. Follow Sprocket Mural Works on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @sprocketmuralworks and visit their website at www.sprocketmuralworks.com.