Utility boxes become canvases for public art in Minneapolis

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First look
Artist Carly Schmitt watches as her images are attached to a utility box in Minneapolis, Minn., on August 1, 2013. She took photos of items belonging to neighborhood residents and combined them via Photoshop to create the illusion of a curio cabinet.
MPR News/ Nikki Tundel

One neighbor comes with a stuffed skunk. Another brings a miniature canoe crafted from snakeskin. A third carries a Buddha statue he found in the rubble of a demolished meth house.

They gather in a tree-lined backyard in south Minneapolis and the evening quickly morphs into a community show-and-tell — with a purpose

As they talk over their treasures, artist Carly Schmitt photographs each item. On her computer, she'll arrange the pictures onto graphically designed shelves of virtual curio cabinets. The life-sized cupboards, filled with images of the residents' possessions, will be printed onto large sheets of vinyl that will wrap sidewalk utility boxes, making them look like three-dimensional display cases.

The result: public art covering some of the neighborhood's ugliest public structures.

See more photos of the Curiosities of Lyndale Project

"It's been a really interesting community building tool," Schmitt said of the Curiosities of Lyndale Project. "Having a piece that you brought that somehow is kind of the depiction of your soul in an object automatically opens up this conversation on a different level than if you were just talking about the weather."

Shelf
A utility box in Minneapolis, Minn., is transformed into a virtual curio cabinet. The "shelves" showcase items belonging to residents from the surrounding community.
MPR News/ Nikki Tundel

In Minneapolis and in cities around the world, what used to be magnets for graffiti are now canvases for paintings, mosaics and photographic images. In some neighborhoods, the stark metal utility boxes are helping tell the community's history.

In Lyndale, many of the images reflect the neighborhood's increasingly diverse demographics. There's the old Swedish songbook, the vibrant Mexican dance costumes, the traditional Somali water pipe.

"We've asked them to bring us unique objects that tell their story and their community's story" said Mark Hinds, the neighborhood association's executive director and a guy who's always working to bring people together.

Insulation
Neighborhood resident John Byrne found this magazine between the walls of his 1900s home, where it served as insulation.
MPR News/ Nikki Tundel

Resident John Byrne shared a pile of publications he uncovered while restoring his early 1900s home.

"They used magazines as insulation. I found them between the walls," Byrne said, leafing through the pages. "These ones are from 1895 to 1899. You're reminded of the medicine or lack of medicine and all of the quackery. I like to think about how the people who built this neighborhood read these magazines."

Elaine Brubaker brought some Bottoms' Up drinking glasses.

"It's wonderful cylindrical glass from the late '20s or early '30s that looks like the human form with its rump up," Brubaker said. "What I like about it is you can't tell if it's a male or female. A rump's a rump," she laughed.

Conversation
Artist Carly Schmitt talks to a young area resident about the prized possessions he brought to the Curiosities of Lyndale gathering in Minneapolis, Minn., on July 31, 2012.
MPR News/ Nikki Tundel

Within the eight-block radius of the Lyndale neighborhood, 27 utility boxes will be wrapped with images telling the neighborhood's story. That includes the box at the corner of Lyndale Avenue and 35th Street in Minneapolis, where Schmitt watched recently as workers unrolled her art.

"It's so exciting to see something you've looked at on a computer screen a thousand times over the past six months finally be actually printed out and being installed," she said.

The wrap includes countless Norwegian gnomes and a beaded jaguar head from Mexico, a centuries-old menorah, a pair of Irish step shoes and a mosquito coil - the neighborhood's story on display, narrated by the objects of its residents.