Artist brings color, whimsy to downtown Columbia traffic box

Monday, October 17, 2011 | 7:56 p.m. CDT; updated 11:17 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 17, 2011
Stephanie Foley paints on a traffic box on the corner of Seventh Street and Broadway on Friday. Foley, a local graphic designer, is painting for the Traffic Box Art Program, which aims to combat graffiti in the city of Columbia.

COLUMBIA — Standing at the intersection of Seventh Street and Broadway on Friday, artist Stephanie Foley turned up the volume on her radio and laid out tubes of acrylic paint.

"I hope it doesn't rain," Foley said as she gently squeezed the black acrylic paint on her palette and began to draw patterns on a traffic signal box.

Foley has been working on the traffic box for two weeks and expects to finish the project by the end of the month.

She was the fourth artist selected to participate in the city's traffic box art program. 

The goal of the program is to deter graffiti vandalism and help make downtown Columbia more attractive. Each artist is awarded $1,500 plus $500 for materials.

The program is a collaboration of the Columbia Police Department, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs and The District. It was a pilot project in 2007 and has since expanded into an annual art opportunity.

David Spear, Kate Gray and Dennis Murphy were the first three artists to paint traffic boxes in The District.

Spear painted musicians and instruments on a box at Ninth Street and Broadway, and Gray did a collage of downtown's architectural elements at Tenth Street and Broadway.

Murphy played with depth and dimension, creating the illusion of looking through the box to the opposite side on a traffic box at Broadway and Hitt Street. 

Foley is using bright primary colors to draw children of different ethnic backgrounds playing together.

"Children and animals are just something that I paint a lot. I guess it's just cheerful and positive to look at in the end," she said, looking at the little boy she had painted in a Superman suit.

"They are playing and being empowered," she said. "It's just happy."

Certain Columbia landmarks such as the Flat Branch Park Sprayground are also being incorporated in Foley’s project to make it site-specific.

Foley grew up in Kansas City and received her bachelor of fine arts degree at MU with an emphasis on printmaking and painting. She now works as a full-time graphic designer for Ragtag Cinema.

She said it was exciting to be notified in April that her proposal was chosen from 12 other applicants, despite having to revise her work to meet the committee's suggestions. 

"I love being part of the traffic box artist community; David Spear, Kate Gray and Dennis Murphy, all of them are great artists," she said. "I think Columbia is really bustling as far as the arts go."

Foley said she applied last year to contribute art to the Historic Wabash Station 100th anniversary renovation project but was rejected. She learned about the traffic box program in February.

Originally, she intended to start painting in June, but that plan was postponed by an unexpected heat wave that threatened to prevent paint from adhering to the metal traffic box. 

To transfer her work from paper to the metal box, Foley first scanned and proportioned it, then printed a draft the same size as the box. Then she taped the draft to the box and replicated it.

Foley said she hopes potential vandals will appreciate the art enough to keep from defacing it.

"I think graffiti artists are artists, too," she said. "They will respect this, once there's art already."

The finished traffic boxes are sealed with a clear coating that protects the design from peeling. So far, no vandalism has occurred to damage any project. 

Sarah Skaggs, program specialist of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said the four traffic boxes in The District display different characters and style, but integrate as a collection.

"They're all graffiti abatement that are well-designed and fun to look at," she said. "They're not magnets for posters, stickers or graffiti."

Skaggs said Foley's work successfully demonstrates the friendly side of downtown.

"It's very whimsical and graphic, which suits her style as a graphic designer," Skaggs said.

The Office of Cultural Affairs is already in the process of looking for the next suitable traffic box to paint and hopes to have more than one artist working next year, she said.

Another goal is to have the program well-established enough to stand on its own so other communities and states can look at it as a reference in their future programs, Skaggs said.

"It's a well-received project in the community, and artists get a lot of attention so it helps with their career," she said. "It's sort of a win-win for all of us."

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Sally Willis October 18, 2011 | 8:38 a.m.

Maybe they could look into having local students do some art work. I have seen some of the work done by our high school and even jr. high students and it's amazing. It would involve the youth and make them feel like more important citizens.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks October 18, 2011 | 8:52 a.m.

$1500 is a tad much but I like the idea in general.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders October 18, 2011 | 12:23 p.m.

I don't understand how a Sprayground painting at 7th & Broadway can be considered site-specific, other than to be specifically at the wrong site.

This painting should've been at the corner of Providence & Locust St. There it would not only fit in, but provide a relevant, informational landmark. Instead it stands out like a sore thumb.

(Report Comment)

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