Sungmin Bobyak expected that painting a ladybug mural on a utility box near the Trolley Square fountain plaza would be a solitary experience.
Drivers honked and yelled compliments out of their windows as they drove by. People who were walking by stopped to talk, some thanking her profusely for creating the public artwork.
“I thought I would go there and I would pretty much be ignored. I’d just do my thing and leave,” Bobyak said. “It was so much more about community than I thought it would be.”
That sense of community is exactly what organizers want to enhance.
The artwork on the utility boxes range from a pair of gold eyes staring at you out of a abstract painting by James Wyatt to a portrait of nearby Rockford Tower by Lelane Rossouw Bancroft to a Gogh Trolley Square incorporating bits of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night by Karen Yarnall.
“Our goal is to grow Wilmington as a creative and artistic capitol, to add some new creative energy and to kind of increase excitement about living and working in Trolley Square and in the broader city of Wilmington,” Field said.
He got the idea after seeing it done in other cities and states and thought it was perfect for Trolley.
Trolley Square is a little over a mile west of the center of Wilmington. While many people associate it with young people who live to live nearby so they can walk to bars and restaurants, there’s a thriving community of all ages there.
“We’re so much more than a bar scene,” said Lisa Johnson, president of the civic association. “I think we’re more calm and collected, a place to come to relax and have fun.”
Launching Trolley Square project
Field and Johnson sought help from experts before launching the project.
Tina Betz, director of Wilmington’s Office of Cultural Affairs, embraced the project and offered advice about strategic planning and pitfalls to avoid. Delaware Art Museum Executive Director Molly Giordano and Curator Margaret Winslow also offered advice and helped put together a call for artists when the time came.
“That’s been a big factor in how the project has gone smoothly,” Field said.
First, the group needed to get permission from Delmarva Power Co. to paint its boxes. Narrowing down where they wanted them required traveling the streets and paying attention to where the boxes were.
Now Johnson has her own peculiar brand of radar: utility-box-dar.
“Before I started this project, I knew they existed but paid no attention to them,” she said. “Now I can’t drive down the street without seeing utility boxes everywhere.”
To pay for the project, Field and Johnson received a grant from Betz and the city and donations from Incyte Corp., Capano Residential and Tsonias Management for a budget of about $20,000.
When the association put out calls for artists, the board was surprised to get 130 responses for the 18 slots. The board members decided to make the judging blind, looking only at the suggested designs.
When they whittled it down to the 18, they were pleased to see that most of the artists lived in Trolley or close by. The artists were paid $800 to $1,000 each, including a stipend for supplies.
Bobyak became a wait-list success story. She didn’t make the top 18, but moved up when an artist had to back out.
She chose ladybugs because she likes them, her daughter always loved them, the ladybug is Delaware’s State Insect and the Ladybug Festival is in Wilmington, she said.
Bobyak thinks she spent about 40 hours painting the box in four and one-half days.
A fine-arts major in college, she usually works in smaller sizes, painting portraits of dogs, among other things. Utility boxes are large canvases for her.
Remi Poindexter of Newark also was surprised at how long it took to create his Delaware Avenue bubblegum machine.
“I thought it was gonna take a lot less time,” he said. “I ended up spending two weeks on it, but wow. It was pretty fun coming every day, though.
He can normally be found finishing his PhD in fine arts at the City University of New York. He’s home for the summer staying with his parents in Newark, where his mom is a French teacher at the University of Delaware.
“I love finding out all these little stories about the artists,” Johnson said.
Poindexter got bachelor degrees in fine arts and Spanish at the University of Delaware, but jumped start into the CUNY PhD program, which he says has “been a lot.”
The artist normally would be found painting 10-by-12-inch landscapes in White Clay Creek State Park, when he’s not working on his thesis on depictions of the French Caribbean in the 19th Century.
He and his partner, Katie Yost, both submitted designs and both were chosen.
His ‘Bubble Gum Machine’ is at the intersection of Delaware Avenue and Rodney. Her Secret Garden is about a block down at Delaware and North Broom.
Poindexter said he studied the shape of the utility boxes.
“I really wanted to think of something that would use the shape of the box,” he said. “Then the little slot on it reminded me of a vending machine slot, so I decided to do that.”
Field likes that it also serves as a landmark.
“You know, instead of somebody saying. “Meet me at the intersection of Delaware Avenue and Rodney,” they might say, ‘Meet me at the bubblegum machine,'” Field said. “That’s kind of what we’re aiming for.”
Bobyak said she did get a few self-appointed neighborhood watch officers questioning her legitimacy.
“They seemed to think I was just randomly painting,” she said.
But enthusiasm far outweighed suspicion, and Bobyak said she wouldn’t hesitate to do a similar project.
“It was so much more about the community and making it a little bit brighter, happier environment for people who live there and who works there,” she said.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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