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August 21, 2014

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Wrapped in Zap! Artists adorn utility boxes with masterpieces

The corner of Desert Inn Road and McLeod Drive has been covered by taggers.

There is graffiti on the Rite Aid sign, graffiti on a nearby fence, graffiti on a wooden electric pole, graffiti on a metal light pole and graffiti on a speed-limit sign.

Taggers have marked the bus shelter and a utility box behind it, then headed up the street to leave more marks, which will be covered by the city, then tagged again. But amid all of this there is another kind of mark.

There is, for example, a retro-style chrome toaster painted on a utility box where an appliance store once stood. There is a collection of television sets from different eras painted onto utility boxes in front of the Starbucks on Eastern Avenue and Desert Inn Road.

Across the street are Aztec images painted on metal boxes in front of a CVS store. Down the road, artist Jose Bellver is dabbing green paint onto a folkloric design that he painted on utilityboxes in front of a Mexican restaurant.

Lifting his head briefly, Bellver looked around and explained the influence public art has on a community. It's a simple connection that can give meaning and depth to a neighborhood, he said.

"All of this creates a line of connection," Bellver said, gesturing toward his simplistic representations of water, landscape and sky, which he refers to as a simple "concert of design" that picks up the color of the signs in the area.

"Art is basically order, purpose, intention, meaning," he added. "Everybody needs art. Art has a very positive influence in the lives of humans. Objects, colors and things can have such a vital role in the lives of people."

Though mostly a studio painter, Bellver, an artist from Madrid who teaches at UNLV, has painted murals in Las Vegas and other cities. On Desert Inn Road, in front of Lindo Michoacan, Bellver is one of 10 local artists participating in the public art program known as Zap!

The Zap! program, funded by the Clark County Department of Parks and Community Services and the Las Vegas Centennial Committee, has artists painting utility boxes in the Winchester Park area between Desert Inn Road and Eastern Avenue to McLeod Drive.

Zap! had requirements similar to the Centennial Mural project.

Each artist was paid $2,000 and received $250 for supplies. More than 60 artists applied. The finalists were selected by the public art committee of Winchester, and this weekend the boxes will be dedicated.

"The theme has to have some connection with the past, present and future of Las Vegas, and we told the artists that if they want to use the colors of Las Vegas, they can," Gaffey said.

Part of the hope is that the art will help deter taggers.

"It generally does," said Clark County Cultural Supervisor Patrick Gaffey, who is involved in the program. "Utility boxes are everywhere and hideously ugly.

"They can be eyesores. The graffiti was covered with a slightly different shade of grey, then it gets covered in graffiti and is painted again with a different shade of grey. Eventually you have this hideous patchwork -- and there's still graffiti on it."

Subject matter

Artist Anthony Johnson painted portraits of families and of past and current Strip entertainers, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Wayne Newton. Shan Michael Evans painted mechanical-looking surreal cartoons on a group of boxes across from the Winchester Community Center.

Erin Stellmon's painting of the first train to come through Las Vegas is wrapped around a utility box next to her painting of the proposed division map that would separate Clark and Lincoln counties in 1909.

Jorge Catoni's abstract piece, located at McLeod Drive near Winchester Park, speaks of money and its influence on humanity. Dolores Nast's produce, painted on boxes and posts in front of the Winchester Community Center, represents a farm that once operated in the area.

K.D. Matheson's cylindrical Aztec paintings in front of a CVS on Eastern Avenue and Desert Inn depict Orion and Cassiopeia and connect "The City of Lights" to the night sky.

"It gives people a chance to reflect or think a little bit on their daily commute," said Russell Davis, member of the Friends of Winchester and aide to County Commissioner Myrna Williams.

"This is a good example of the community and a community making a positive impact on a neighborhood," Davis said. "We thought it would be a great idea, a great concept to identify the area as the Winchester area."

Neighborhood resident Belinda Zapata, whose front yard features a utility box painted by artist Susanne Forestieri, said she is happy with the painted utility boxes, including the one in her yard.

"All of these are beautiful," she said. "We love it."

"We didn't know it would be like that," said her husband, Danny Zapata, pointing to the portraits of young boys painted on the utility box. "It gives color to the neighborhood. This box used to be just covered in graffiti."

For the masses

Graffiti aside, the program -- which began in the Winchester area because it already had the support of Friends of Winchester, a group committed to public art projects -- was a way to present art.

"It's just a great way to bring art to the community," said artist Marty Walsh, whose retro Proctor toaster represents not only the former appliance store, but also the extreme summer temperatures in the Mojave Desert. "I hate the way people think it's for the privileged. That it's an unapproachable, elitist thing."

An artist who lives part-time in Ireland, Walsh said that she had a small fan club that formed when she was out painting.

"They would come every morning and see the progression and would talk about it," Walsh said. "And they learned a lot about painting."

As a public art project, she said, "It did what it was supposed to do."

Suzanne Hackett-Morgan spent her 10-day vacation on Eastern Avenue and Desert Inn painting the televisions, which feature local TV icons.

"A project like this completely inserted the artist into people's everyday lives," she said. "... The whole thing was just so very novel."

That's not such a surprise considering that, aside from a handful of murals around town, sculptures by Steve Ligouri and the Claes Oldenburg flashlight at UNLV, public art is scarce in Southern Nevada.

"What I like about it is the fact that it will be there indefinitely," Nast said. "At least until they remove the boxes."

Working outdoors

This isn't the first project to involve Friends of Winchester, a neighborhood volunteer group working in partnership with the park and community center.

In 1999 the group created a xeriscape garden. Last year it received a $25,000 grant from the Nevada Division of Forestry to expand the garden and trees nearby.

It is currently assembling a history project of the Winchester neighborhood, which helped inspire some of the artists' ideas for the boxes. Other ideas came to artists when they first saw their sites.

"I was open to doing whatever the community wanted me to do," Hackett-Morgan said. "When I looked at my location, it just struck me -- 'Oh my God. TV sets!'

"Part of my thinking -- my husband grew up kind of in that neighborhood -- was that in the '70s there was a lot of desert really close in. My husband would find abandoned TVs out there and make (photographic) sets out there.

"What was really intriguing to me was not imposing an image on these boxes but creating an image that was believable, that was really there. They read pretty good from the street."

Other television notables in Hackett-Morgan's work include Nancy Merle Bunker, aka "Miss Cinderella," who had a "Romper-Room"-style children's show; Frank Rosenthal and Frank Sinatra talking on "The Frank Rosenthal Show"; KTNV Channel 13 meteorologist Nate Tannenbaum; and Count Cool Rider, an Elvis-like biker/vampire who hosted horror movies.

"He was just hilarious," Hackett-Morgan said. "He was my favorite -- and he's just a character."

Working on such a busy street, Hackett-Morgan said that she expected hostile drivers to harass her, even throw things at her. She experienced nothing of the sort. In fact, she said, it was the opposite. Drivers got out of their cars and came to talk with her.

"The worst thing that happened is that somebody spilled a Slurpee on Nate this morning," Morgan-Hackett said.

Gaffey said he is hoping to organize a similar public art program in other areas of the Las Vegas Valley and is looking for ways to encourage neighborhoods to apply. He's not too concerned about damage being done to the artwork.

The boxes will be protected by a transparent layer to protect the paintings and make graffiti easier to remove.

Also, Gaffey said, "The general rule is that graffiti artists consider themselves artists and they respect other artists' work.

"Since these pieces have gone up, new graffiti has gone up next to boxes, rather than on the boxes."

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