Public art project sparks controversy

Painted traffic boxes face criticism for overlooking Black history

Eleven Shorewood traffic signal boxes recently received a makeover as part of the Shorewood Historical Society’s project “Signaling History.” What used to be plain hunks of metal now showcase local artist’s talent as well as snippets of local history.

A painted traffic box on the corner of Capitol and Oakland. This box is one of many in the project called “Signaling History.” (Evan Frank)

“What inspired [‘Signaling History’],” said Diane Buck, co-chair of the public art committee, “is that if you are walking around in any urban area and you come to where there is a traffic signal light, you realize that they are pretty ugly. And so we decided that we’d love to have an enhancement to those traffic signal boxes.”

Beyond simply adding color to plain boxes, the project aimed to showcase some of Shorewood’s history.

“We don’t have a museum so really the only way we can tell them our story is by taking it out to the public,” said Karen de Hartog, head of the education committee within the historical society.

The boxes are arranged in a trail that people can follow around Shorewood, starting at the corner of Wilson Drive and Capital Drive and ending at the corner of Menlo Boulevard and Oakland Avenue. The trail is a total of three miles long. 

“We don’t have a museum so really the only way we can tell them our story is by taking it out to the public.”

— Karen de Hartog, historical society member

Maps of the trail can be found at the starting point as well as the library. The map also gives information about each of the artists and the historical locations where the boxes are located. It was set up as a sort of treasure hunt, where people could search for the boxes that were “hidden in plain sight,” as the map says.

Of 24 applicants, 11 artists were chosen in January. The artists were each randomly assigned a box and told to create a design that reflected the location’s history. 

The historical society invited the selected artists to come into the archives to look at old photos, documents and newspapers to find inspiration for their boxes.

“We invited any of the artists that wanted to come to our archives, which is in the basement of the village hall, and tell us about what they had in mind. Then we looked to see if we had pictures or documents of whatever would be of use to them and about half of the artists did that,” de Hartog said.

Artists designed their artwork using whichever medium they felt most comfortable with. Some chose to physically create their design on paper, some produced theirs digitally and some used photography. Each design, no matter the medium, was then blown up and printed.

“Then it went to Confluence,” Buck said. “Confluence is the graphic arts business that took the design, whether it was a Word document or a .pdf, and they transferred them to a Three M product. And that product is like you see wrapped around busses. And then it was applied from there.”

Different styles of art are also a factor that set each box apart from another.

“And you may notice,” Buck said, “if you go around and look at them, these boxes, there’s everything from representational kind of art to very abstract. If you look at the one that’s at the high school, just as you go in the parking lot, it’s very abstract.”

In order to pay for the project, other members and organizations of the village helped to sponsor the boxes. The name of each box’s sponsor can be found somewhere on it. 

“We called people like the Men’s Club, the Women’s Club, and asked if they would be interested in sponsoring one of the boxes. To sponsor a box, they had to donate $2,000 and $1,000 of that went to the artists as their commission. And the other $1,000 went to apply it to all of the boxes, and also we had to have money in reserve so if something were to happen to the boxes that we could fix it,” said Buck.

Recently, there has been some discussion about the new artwork not reflecting the current social climate, specifically its ignorance of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

However, the project’s participants emphasize the timeline of the project.

“This call went out in January, in a pre-corona world. It went out in preparation for Milwaukee to host the DNC, before the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” said Rosy Petri, artist in an email. “…These images now exist in a different time and context. They exist in Shorewood, a community where a white attorney spat on a Black 17-year-old protestor who was marching for civil rights during a global pandemic. They exist in a state that is now a battleground for Black lives. And they exist as new relics contextualizing the history of a community that was never especially kind to Black people”

This call went out in January, in a pre-corona world. It went out in preparation for Milwaukee to host the DNC, before the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor…. These images now exist in a different time and context.

— Rosy Petri, artist

Some of the artists did create their piece with a specific focus on sharing examples of diversity in the predominantly white community, even before recent events. Petri, a Black woman, and Roongta, who was born in Africa to Indian parents, are two such artists.

“When I saw this call go out, I was excited to participate,” Petri said. “Most of my art is about history, specifically about Black Cultural history, and I hoped to create a work that was representative of that work in the project.”

“My art speaks to the diversity of the landscape, with the river on the west, the lake on the east, and then also the multicultural and multigenerational diversity in Shorewood,”  said Bela Suresh Roongta, artist.

The artists were told by the Public Art Committee in early 2020 that only two of the four panels of each signal box would be covered due to limited budget.  Before this was announced, John O’Hara, artist, originally designed his work to cover all four sides of his box, and the panels were intended to show the progression Shorewood has made, and the work that still needs to be done. 

“My concept was to visually describe the ‘Then and Now’ transition from the 1902 black & white, single room schoolhouse, with the 21st Century evolution. I included middle school students engaged in outdoor Ed ecology studies at Hubbard Park river, empowered, advanced science female students at the high school, graphic transitions from the black and white to the rainbow (coalition) in the upper and lower color bands. And, originally, a third large panel depicting the SHS Black History Celebration image of mine,” said O’Hara in an email.

The panel sharing an image from the Black History Month celebration was not one of the two panels ultimately chosen by the board. O’Hara says he would be more than willing to share his third panel and add it to the box if he got approval and funding. 

“I still feel adding this third panel to the artwork would be more representative, and artistically striking. I believe the printing costs were under $1,000 to sponsor the two-panel pieces. Not including the artist’s stipend. I would be more than happy to provide my finished artwork to add this third panel art if we can figure out covering the printing costs, and if adding this “missing” panel completes the art, and the Village agrees.”

Though this project focused on the history of Shorewood, many of the artists would support adding a second installment showing the inclusive future they hope to achieve.

I think there’s a lot of work to be done in Shorewood, and I think there’s a lot of people who are wanting to do that work.

— Bela Suresh Roongta, artist

“I have suggested that the other half can be designed to accommodate & reflect art depicting the Village’s attempts at a more diverse and inclusive current ‘history,’” O’Hara said.

Many of the artists involved in this project have said that they are also interested in using public art as a medium to support current events as well.

“l genuinely look forward to an opportunity to share in, and help facilitate, what comes next with public art in Shorewood,” said Jenny Heyden, artist in an email. “I am working to break down systemic injustice, learning from students and leaders, and doing what I can here to bring more transparency and diversity to the process.”

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done in Shorewood, and I think there’s a lot of people who are wanting to do that work and wanting to be engaged in that work,” Roongta said.