You’ve probably looked past the green transformer boxes and fenced off substations. With an industrial hum and dull color scheme, energy infrastructure doesn’t exactly elicit images of sublime beauty. But now, some of Puget Sound Energy’s boxes and buildings are getting another chance at love thanks to local artists in a new pilot program.
The ARTility project is a collaboration between Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and teams of Washington artists designed to give industrial spaces a colorful facelift. The spaces often invite graffiti and tagging, which unfortunately can be more destructive than artistic. By having teams of artists intentionally beautify the spaces, PSE hopes to encourage community engagement and discourage tagging.
Nicholas Hartrich, PSE’s Project Manager for the ARTility renovation, believes the project is twofold: it beautifies public space and discourages vandalism. Hartrich explains there are often two types of graffiti: street art and tagging. “Those who consider their graffiti as an artistic expression are less apt to disturb another artist’s installation out of respect for their work,” Hartrich explains. “Meanwhile, a tagger is looking to have their message put in a visible location. If an industrial box is now covered with a color and pattern, it’s less appetizing a location for their tag.”
The project is experimenting with a myriad of different materials and styles to see what will last over time. Some boxes will be covered in vinyl sticker sheets printed with the artist’s design. This new surface will make any subsequent spray paint easier to clean up.
Another group of artists are working to address how vandals cause damage to substation chain-link fences. In collaboration with The Bellingham Makerspace, they’ve developed colorful mosaic tiles of 3D printed resin that fit into the holes in fencing. The effect will be both a mural and a hindrance to fence climbing because the holes will be filled in.
“We’re rolling out this project as an experiment in what materials work, but we know from research and from other municipalities that bringing art in helps to discourage vandalism,” says Hartrich.
Local muralist, Gretchen Leggitt, submitted her proposal for a mural on the side of PSE’s long warehouse building at the end of Cornwall Avenue. Leggitt is collaborating with her friend and fellow artist, Max McNett, who has 15 years of experience.
When Leggitt first saw the wall – which is about two football fields in length – she worried about the massive scale of the project. “I asked Max if he thought it was possible,” she recalls. “Once he convinced me it was manageable, I was all in.” Her mantra through the project has been, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Their image is of a mountainous landscape in undulating blue waves. The artists are overlaying the swaths of blues and purples with dark line work. The braiding lines invoke the movement of the ocean and wind. At the far end is a cluster of painted wind turbines, to give homage to the new sources of energy worth pursuing. “We’re working with an immensely long wall; it’s so solid and stagnant,” she says. “I wanted my work to be the exact opposite— always in motion.”
This isn’t Leggitt’s first public mural in Bellingham. Her work adorns the Herald Building, Ciao Thyme and Vital Climbing Gym. And she will have upcoming mural installations in Seattle and Bellingham.“I’ve gotten a lot of these projects by being an active member in the art community,” she says. “My whole objective is to make a positive impact on a space – engaging the public and sharing about what it’s like to be a working artist.”
While working on the wall, Leggitt sees ARTility’s effect on the community first-hand. In her experience, the most engaged group of onlookers so far have been homeless youth. “I had a group of teens come up and ask me how I get to tag a building all day,” she recalls. “I had the honor of explaining to them that this isn’t tagging, it’s an art installation. There’s so little public art in general, especially the kind that people can identify with.”
For Leggitt, the wonderful thing about street or public art is how accessible it is to all people, not just the limited number who have access to galleries.
The PSE ARTility project is still in its pilot stage. The hope is that once they have a good understanding of which mediums hold up best, there will be more installations to come – instilling beauty throughout our community.