fb-pixel Skip to main content
RI ARTS

Who painted utility boxes in Providence? The story — and artists — behind them

Local artists transformed dull utility boxes into works of art highlighting their Rhode Island roots.

Artwork painted on a utility box in an ode to Providence's South Side Broad Street, with a bodega, a Dominican flag, and sneakers walking across a cross walk.  Several artists started painting utility boxes in Providence, all under the Avenue Concept, which is an organization that promotes public art throughout the city.
Artwork painted on a utility box in an ode to Providence's South Side Broad Street, with a bodega, a Dominican flag, and sneakers walking across a cross walk. Several artists started painting utility boxes in Providence, all under the Avenue Concept, which is an organization that promotes public art throughout the city.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Walk down certain streets in Providence and you’ll spot larger-than-life murals, hidden portraits of social justice fighters inside hollowed out structures, and small-scale sculptures that are scattered across city-owned properties.

Much of the the art is part of The Avenue Concept, a privately funded public art program founded more than a decade ago by Yarrow Thorne. In 2009, he pitched an idea to the city, urging them to turn dull utility boxes into works of art.

That vision was finally realized last weekend, when local artists — six of them BIPOC or female-identifying, some from a class at the Rhode Island School of Design — launched The Avenue Concept’s Utility Box Design Program downtown and in Upper South Providence. The project was made possible in part by a $10,000 Rhode Island Foundation Community Grant. Each artist came up with their own design that had to meet a small set of criteria but allowed them to tell their own stories.

“Providence is very diverse. But it doesn’t matter what language you speak, you can still appreciate art,” said Thorne, who said that each box will “belong” to the artist for the next year. Some artists can change their design each season, while others can keep the same design they started with.

Advertisement



The Globe spoke to a few of the artists about the stories behind their designs.

Ysanel Torres

Ysanel Torres paints a utility box in Providence.
Ysanel Torres paints a utility box in Providence.Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

Ysanel Torres says Providence has what New York and Boston are starting to lack: community, passion, culture, and an authenticity that can’t be created, but “just naturally exists.” Dominican eateries, vibrant storefronts, Spanish music coming from inside homes, and bodegas selling “everything you could ever need” line Broad Street, the South Side’s beating heart.

She looked to capture that feeling of home on her own utility box, with the bright yellow El Bombazo, the “king of bodegas” on Broad, a Dominican flag, and a pair of red and black Jordan Ones dancing along a cross walk with anchors in place of the Nike symbol. She wrapped “La Broad de Mi Alma,” which means “The Broad of My Soul,” around the corner of the box in a bubbly, cursive text.

Advertisement



“There will always be people that want to tell you what you should be creating, what you’re supposed to do,” said Torres, who was a public art fellow with the city in 2017. “But this, and what I will always do, is make what comes from my heart.”

Benny “Natural” Notorangelo

Benny Notorangelo, also known as "Natural," uses spray paint to decorate a utility box with a fighting fish.
Benny Notorangelo, also known as "Natural," uses spray paint to decorate a utility box with a fighting fish.Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

Benny Notorangelo has created murals throughout Rhode Island for more than 20 years. He grew up watching his father sketch portraits of his sisters, and easily picked up the craft himself. A multimedia artist who goes by “Natural,” Notorangelo has most recently focused on spray paint, with which he has done large-scale murals that depict imaginary worlds or fanciful animals, with a special emphasis on those creatures from the sea.

On Saturday, he hand-drew a beta fish to illustrate how he perceives people: trapped in a bowl, but continuing to fight through.

“They are more free than they think,” he said.

Lara Henderson

A white utility box with colorful diamonds on it painted by Lara Henderson.
A white utility box with colorful diamonds on it painted by Lara Henderson. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Lara Henderson, who teaches graphic design at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, has been wearing the same diamond ring that once belonged to her grandmother every day since her 21st birthday. It’s a family heirloom that’s been passed down from one generation to the next, and Henderson has worked for years to mimic the experience of looking into a diamond, wherefacets catch and refract rainbow-colored light.

Advertisement



The diamonds, first sketched with a pencil using a projector screen at night before spray painted with color during the day, shine in the sunlight and glow in the dark on Westminster Street.

Arthur Cayo

A detail of the artwork by Arthur Cayo who painted the Superman building and a skateboarder on a utility box.
A detail of the artwork by Arthur Cayo who painted the Superman building and a skateboarder on a utility box.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The same week that supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement hosted a peaceful rally in Providence last summer, a mob scene also broke out. People broke into the Providence Place Mall, looted stores, smashed windows of businesses downtown, threw rocks at police officers, and even set a cruiser on fire. Arthur Cayo, who lives in the Olneyville section of Providence, started painting heart murals on boarded up store fronts.

“It’s a universal message of peace,” Cayo told the Globe recently. “How could someone smash into a business that has hearts all over it? With so much destruction, Providence needed love.”

Cayo, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Haiti in the 1960s, said while some artists look to make political statements in their designs, he looks to unite people. On one side of his utility box, he painted two boxers hugging after a match, with the word “Love” spray-painted in lilac. On the other side, he positioned a skateboarder doing a trick up the side of Providence’s Superman building, which has been vacant for years and is only a few blocks from his utility box.

Advertisement



And on the top, which can only be seen from high up in a building above or by standing on a chair, he wrote, “Black Lives Matter.”

Keira Gonsalves

A utility box transformed by University of Rhode Island sophomore Keira Gonsalves.
A utility box transformed by University of Rhode Island sophomore Keira Gonsalves.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

University of Rhode Island sophomore Keira Gonsalves has incorporated pencil, charcoal, and acrylic paint into her work for nearly a decade, with much of her art crossing the bridge between pain and healing, the juxtaposition between the two, and “the reality of transformation.”

“We all have the ability and the tools within us to build and sustain our vision,” said Gonsalvez, who lives in Narragansett. “I really wanted to capture the feeling of empowerment that comes with this realization, especially after one has just finished being subject to this experience of growth and change themselves.”

Sara Breslin

Sara Breslin's piece is an expression of the Pagan holiday Ostra, which celebrates the Spring Equinox.
Sara Breslin's piece is an expression of the Pagan holiday Ostra, which celebrates the Spring Equinox. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Spring is the most powerful season, according to Sara Breslin. It is the bridge between darkness and light, arriving to pull society “from the darkness of winter” with warmth, bringing “life back into our lives.”

Breslin visualized the Pagan holiday Ostara, which celebrates the Spring Equinox. In the center of the mural is the Anglo Saxon goddess of Spring, Estara, for which Ostara is named, Breslin said.

“After more than a year of change, darkness, dread, and death, I welcome and am inspired by the power of Spring,” said Breslin, who said she hopes her design brings hope to those who pass by. “To embrace change, give new beginnings, and help us all to find the strength to rise up.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.