Arts March 13, 2017

Art and a Sense of Place

Treasures hidden in plain sight

As you wander through downtown Boise, each turn of a corner, glance into a side alleyway or gaze up the side of a building might surprise you with a piece of imaginative, colorful, quirky public art that you weren’t expecting to see.

Like treasures hidden in plain sight, Boise’s public art is everywhere. It can be as small as the delicate bronze leaf sculpture embedded in the sidewalk on 9th Street; or expansive as the 50-foot-high, lighted River Sculpture crawling up the side of the Grove Hotel; or diverse as the whimsically painted traffic boxes that pop up like colorful surprise packages on street corners throughout the city.

“It’s about engaging the community in the places that they live,” said Karen Bubb, Public Arts Manager with the Boise City Department of Arts and History. “Public art brings out what is special in the location, either based on the history of that site or a story about someone who lives, or lived there. It’s certainly about telling our stories and also those of the environment, or the geography and location.”

Art Welcomes Us All
The minute visitors arrive in Boise they are greeted by public art, from the neon lit Boise Wings that encircle the top of the airport’s parking garage, to the blown glass fish swimming through textured steel panels at the security exit; the large terrazzo map on the first floor of the airport; and the Welcome to Boise sign posted at the entrance to the city.
But more than just art, dotting the city are diverse installations that also explain the distinctive history and culture of Boise, such as the immigration of the Basques from Spain, the businesses built by a large Chinese community in the past, and the history of Mexican mule packers.

Boise began building its public art presence in 1977 when then-mayor Dick Eardley appointed a committee to develop a visual arts plan for the newly constructed City Hall. That working group soon transformed into the Boise City Arts Commission, and then in 2008 it became a full city department. That led to the movement that solidified Boise as an emerging “art town.”

A major step in the evolution of Boise’s public art program came in 2001 when the City Council and Mayor passed the Percent for Art ordinance mandating up to 1.4 percent of the construction cost on any new municipal capital projects to be spent on creating public art at city facilities, fire stations, libraries, the airport and the city’s magnificent parks. As a sign of its success, the city’s public art collection has grown from just five pieces to more than 200 pieces today.

Creating a Sense of Place
One of the most noticeable and popular public art collections is the 143 vinyl-wrapped traffic boxes on street corners throughout the city. The formerly bland, grey metal boxes are now covered in four-sided art that might be polar bears, Koi fish, dogs, jellyfish, animals riding bikes, a mermaid, a trapeze artist and elephant, the Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick Tonto and more quirky, original art from local creative minds.

The traffic box project began in 2009 as a successful response to the problem of graffiti and illegal postering. Each box has a budget of $2,500, with $1,000 going to the artist and $1,500 going toward material, sign-making and installation costs. “Individually the boxes are a small investment, but it’s our most visible collection of work that really showcases the diversity of talent in Boise,” Bubb said.

Opportunities for Artists
Local artists Marianne Konvalinka and Pam McKnight have both created public art for the city. Konvalinka has two traffic boxes, a piece in the city’s Digital Art Collection and, with co-artist Lynn Fraley, an installation at the Foothills Learning Center. McKnight created a traffic box for the cities of Boise and Ketchum and has taken advantage of the Public Art Academy offered by Bubb that helps artists take that first step into creating public art.

“There is something really cool about knowing my art is exposed to so many people,” Konvalinka said. “It’s wonderful to live in a city that makes public art a priority and provides so many opportunities. The city’s programs are what made it possible for me to be a public artist.”

McKnight offered, “Public art is so cool in that it’s accessible to all and really livens up a community. As artists, it’s our hope that our work connects with citizens and encourages ownership and pride in our community.”

Bubb noted that more than 75 percent of the artists in the Public Art Program are residents. “The art gallery community is somewhat limited here so artists have to find opportunities in different sectors, of which public art is one,” she said. “The more opportunities for artists, the more artists can stay here and work in our community. I think of artists as small business people. They are professionals and it’s important for us to engage that population with opportunities.”

Art That’s Interactive, Musical and Relevant
Down Grove Street in Boise’s Linen District sits the “Bicycle Trio,” three stationary bikes that play music from an organ pipe, drum and xylophone when the bike is pedaled, braked or the handlebars are turned. The bikes—a cruiser, a delivery bike and a kid’s chopper—crank out different beats and notes that can change octaves or rhythms depending on the rider’s movements.

The artists researched the area and discovered there was a large bicycling community that meets at the local coffee shop in the Linen District before they go on their rides. In addition, the nationally-known Treefort Music Festival is held in this small six-block area each year, leading the artists to create the bicycle theme and incorporate a musical component to help build on the area’s identity.

Bubb said that is what Boise’s public art is all about. “We want to have things people can learn from, and that create a sense of place, with meaning that’s unique to Boise and that helps tell the story about why Boise is a special place,” she said.

A Story of Place
“Think about going into someone’s house, looking around and noticing the pictures on the wall and what the furniture is like, and how you get a sense of the feel of the home and who the residents might be as people,” said Bubb. “I think of public art in the same way, in a civic setting, because it gives both residents and visitors an idea that culture and conversation is important to us. It provides us with these shared landmarks that we can talk about and identify our community with. And, just as important, the art is made by creative people who are looking at our community and thinking about, ‘how do I tell the story of this place?’”

This article appears in the Spring 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.