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Malden artists turn switch boxes into canvases

Greg Hampton displays his ‘‘These are the People in Our Neighborhood'. Greg Hampton displays his ‘‘These are the People in Our Neighborhood". (Malden Arts Photos)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2011

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Purple wine bottles stand scattered in silhouette against an empty ivory sky.

Some spew out lavender-colored plumes; others belch massive, billowy globs of c andy canes and peppermints.

Created by Malden artist Vanessa Ly, this paint marker drawing, “Candy Pollution,’’ is a saccharine-inspired commentary on smog and air quality.

But you won’t see it hanging neatly on a wall next to an artist statement in a museum.

The street is its gallery; a formerly drab, metal roadside switch box its canvas.

“When you have empty spaces, it’s great to just cover them with something,’’ said Ly, whose creation, sitting in front of a 7-Eleven in Malden, is one of more than 30 dotting the city’s streets as part of a multiyear public art project. “It makes the city livelier.’’

Launched in 2010 by the community group Malden Arts and modeled after similar endeavors in Somerville and Cambridge, Malden’s Switchbox Project aims to transform every street-side utility box into a work of art.

“We knew the talent that was in our community,’’ said organizer Naomi Brave, a volunteer project coordinator for Malden Arts, “and we thought, what a great way to get a more permanent expression of their art out on the streets.’’

All told, there are between 60 and 65 switch boxes situated at intersections across the city. Maintained by the Department of Public Works, the boxes control traffic signals. According to Brave, 32 have been painted since spring 2010.

Artists who either live or work in Malden submit sketches and a list of preferred boxes to a selection committee that pairs up designs and locations. The City Council has been involved throughout the process, with councilors lobbying for - and sometimes vying over, albeit good-naturedly, Brave said - their favorite artwork.

Ultimately, the undertaking fits into what some say is a sort of cultural renaissance taking place in Malden.

“It has been one of our goals to inject more artistic activity throughout the community,’’ said Mayor Richard Howard, adding that there is a very vibrant group of artists in the city.

He pointed to an annual window art exhibition put on by Malden Arts, mural projects, and the integration of art into public buildings; larger efforts, as well, including the overall rejuvenation of Malden Square and various subsidized and mixed-use artist housing projects.

“We’re really growing an artist community here,’’ agreed Brave, who designed and painted a switch box herself - a homage to Converse. “Our hope is to just bring art to the people.’’

And the people have certainly noticed, according to the artists who have taken to their temporary plein air, sidewalk studios.

The first day Marguerite DiBella started painting her creation, “Life Cycle,’’ in front of Ferryway School, she recalled more than 100 people stopping, honking, or calling out to her.

“I had one arm painting,’’ she said, “and my other arm was up in the air the whole time’’ waving to people and thanking them.

Lots of people stopped to ask questions, said Stephanie Mahan Stigliano, an art teacher and professional artist who has designed and painted two boxes, “Coffee’’ and “Trees,’’ the latter with her 15-year-old son, Raphael.

While scraping, sanding, wiping, priming, coating, painting, and sealing, lots of people also brought her coffee. Even an incident of vandalism was “strangely respectful,’’ she said: While it was in process, someone wrote the word “trash’’ on the “Trees’’ switch box, but on a section that hadn’t been painted yet.

Overall, she said she hopes the boxes “add a little bit of interest to the visual world [of passersby]. It’s something fun, instead of just something utilitarian.’’

Indeed, many of the squat boxes and rectangles, initially drab gray, green, yellow, or brown, and very often the target of primitive or crude graffiti like that experienced by Mahan Stigliano, have been transformed into three-dimensional landscapes, abstracts, and nature scenes.

There are tangled ropes; telephone poles in silhouette against a sunset-tinged sky; collections of faces. A classic blue Converse shoe is a reminder that the sneaker owes its sole to Malden; another box painted to look like a giant, red-and-white-striped cardboard popcorn container is a literal interpretation of pop art.

Then there is “Malden Eats,’’ sitting near Super 88 Market. It presents various plates set and ready to eat: clams and linguine; fried eggs over refried beans; sushi with chopsticks; dim sum.

The goal was to celebrate the diversity of Malden, said Paula Spizziri, an instructional designer and host of the Malden Access TV show “Neighborhood Dish,’’ who collaborated on the design and painting with her “Neighborhood Dish’’ cohost Karen Yates and artist Bill Filios. “The concept is all the different communities coming together to share a meal.’’

Meanwhile, in DiBella’s work, black-and-white, cone-shaped forms with round faces and open mouths are intertwined; a few wrap around themselves like cocoons.

The work is thick with symbolism, exploring the life cycle and self-love. DiBella, who lives in Revere and works in Malden in customer service, wanted her design to be in front of a school, to give children something positive to look at.

“I hope they’re able to see the story,’’ she said.

A similar positive thread works throughout Martha Ferratusco’s “Nature’s Expression of Life’’ in Linden Square: The words “family,’’ “community,’’ “dream,’’ and “love’’ float like bubbles around colorful flowers and plants.

The goal: to foster thoughts about charity and personal growth, according to Ferratusco, a clerk in Malden and co-owner of All Set Press.

And in the process, she’s been motivated herself.

“It exposes me - a lot of people didn’t know I liked to draw and paint,’’ she said. “It inspired me to do more.’’

A feeling others believe will be passed on.

“Hopefully when people see public art,’’ Ly said, “it will inspire them to pursue their own creativity.’’

To see the designs, visit www.maldenarts.com and click on “Switchbox Project.’’