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Artwork ‘pops’ up around Birmingham

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 26, 2019

 The utility box outside of the Birmingham 8 Theater was revamped recently by the Birmingham Public Arts Board to look like a box of movie theater popcorn.

The utility box outside of the Birmingham 8 Theater was revamped recently by the Birmingham Public Arts Board to look like a box of movie theater popcorn.

Photo provided by Anne Ritchie

 The painted piano in Shain Park has been such a hit this summer that its stay has been extended through the end of the year.

The painted piano in Shain Park has been such a hit this summer that its stay has been extended through the end of the year.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

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BIRMINGHAM — What is life without a little bit of whimsy?

If you’re a Birmingham resident, you don’t have to find out.

The Birmingham Public Arts Board has been busy this summer maintaining and adding artwork to neighborhoods around the city, and one piece downtown that just popped up has created a lot of buzz.

Just outside of the Birmingham 8 movie theater at South Old Woodward Avenue and Merrill Street, a utility box was built last summer containing all the gadgets and wiring needed for the newly installed downtown streetscape.

The Public Arts Board wasn’t about to leave a utility box where it could create an opportunity for a sculpture.

“The City Commission asked us if we would do something with the utility box outside the theater, so the board deliberated, and the popcorn box was what we all agreed on,” said Barbara Heller, the chair of the board. “It was this dull green, which is actually ‘Birmingham green,’ but they thought we could do something.”

Heller, who also serves as the director and conservator of special projects for the Detroit Institute of Arts, said the board wanted to create something “fun” on the utility box, something that didn’t necessarily promote any of the merchants individually. Sure, the movie theater is a business, but it’s also a historical venue nearly 100 years old.

“That theater is an iconic landmark. The theater with the marquee is Birmingham,” Heller explained. “We thought it would be fun to turn it into a box of movie theater popcorn.”

Local artist and Public Arts Board member Anne Ritchie volunteered to create the box with her husband, John. The reaction from passersby even as the project was progressing kept the work exciting.

“I can tell you, other than the 95-degree days, it was a fun project,” Ritchie said, noting that the theater accommodated the pair with plenty of hydration and air-conditioned breaks.

“Each time we were out working on it, we were inundated with questions and kudos, along with suggestions for other projects. Just about every person said the box made them smile. Or hungry.”

Just a few minutes before Ritchie spoke to the Eagle, she had finished painting the popcorn onto the top of the box. With that project in the bag — or rather, box — the Public Arts Board can move on to the next utility box, at North Old Woodward and Oakland Street.

“We’ve got some proposals to present to the commission for that one, and we’re kind of excited. But because it hasn’t been approved yet, I can’t really share what we’re planning,” Heller said. “People can see what ideas we’ve had for the boxes on our Pinterest page.”

Along with refurbishing the utility boxes, the Public Arts Board hopes to add some pizazz to the new charging stations that were created along Old Woodward during last year’s road construction.

“People don’t realize what the charging stations are. They’ve been using them as ashtrays,” Heller said.

Add to those projects the Public Arts Board’s biannual Yarn Bombing event, two new sculptures to be added this fall, and the outdoor piano placed in Shain Park — which has been a big hit, Heller said — and the Public Arts Board has had a busy 2019. There’s no intent to slow down yet.

“In Birmingham, art is very important to us. Not just for the sake of having art, but for placemaking,” she said. “These become conversation pieces or landmarks so (visitors) can navigate and say, ‘Meet me by the popcorn box’ or, ‘I parked near the statue outside of the library.’”

The piano endeavor, which is composed of painting a donated used piano to be placed for public use under the covered pergola in Shain Park, has been so popular that Birmingham Director of Communications Kevin Byrnes said the piano’s residency has been extended beyond the summer as originally planned and through the end of the year.

“One person told me that when her kids come home from school, they always want to stop at the piano,” Heller said.

For more information on the Public Arts Board and opportunities to get involved, such as the Yarn Bombing project, visit bhamgov.org.

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