Urban Art Is Changing Downtown Streetscapes

Artsy Alleys under construction. Source: Susan Kellum, Wilson Downtown Development Corporation, Wilson NC.
Artsy Alleys under construction. Source: Susan Kellum, Wilson Downtown Development Corporation, Wilson NC.

By Kay Whatley, Editor

Adding art to cityscapes not only allows people to enjoy seeing unique art pieces on their daily travels, it provides an opportunity for artists to share their talents and make an aesthetic difference in their communities.

Across the country, cities are opening opportunities to artists and reaping the benefits of art installations on existing, not-usually-attractive, pieces of downtown areas. These include adding art to fire hydrants, dumpsters, and unsightly buildings.

While some NC locations have small pieces of art — such as the New Bern Firemen’s Museum decorated fire hydrant — North Carolina cities like Wilson are making great strides in beautification.

Wilson NC — Downtown Streetscapes

The Historic Downtown Wilson is overseen by the Wilson Downtown Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization “created for the purpose of promoting historic preservation and combating community deterioration.”

Downtown art installations and streetscape projects are overseen by Susan Kellum (Downtown Marketing & Communications), Ellen Hoj (Senior Planner/Urban Designer), and others within the nonprofit who organize City of Wilson projects from design to street lighting to artist recruitment and installation. Two of their active projects are Paint-A-Hydrant and Artsy Alleys.


On May 20, 2017, fire hydrant “adopters” gathered in downtown Wilson, North Carolina, to beautify fire hydrants around downtown. Artists and teams had applied in advance, providing a draft design with their application and $100 hydrant-adoption fee.  Those selected were assigned a hydrant and special paint used to create art throughout the city. According to the organizers’ website:

Twelve teams painted their approved designs on hydrants in sweltering heat but with high spirits in the downtown Municipal Service District. Hydrants were painted all along Nash Street, around the Whirligig Park and Conservation Headquarters as well as in the residential area on Green Street.

Painting day included activities for community members who turned out to watch the hydrant transformations. The fire department brought out one of their trucks and Sparky the fire dog, among other activities.

Proceeds from Paint-A-Hydrant go to the public art project and the North Carolina Fallen Firefighters Association.

The next Paint-A-Hydrant event is being planned for Spring 2018. For updates on the Wilson NC Paint-A-Hydrant events and applications to participate, visit www.historicdowntownwilson.com/paint-a-hydrant or visit the Historic Downtown Wilson Facebook page.

Artsy Alleys

Five alleys in downtown Wilson have been selected to art installations under the Artsy Alleys project.  One alley has been completed.

This week, Carrie Nobles (Visual Art Teacher) and art students from Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education are in the process of painting the second side of the Heritage Mural in the alley behind P.L. Woodard & Co. (agricultural store), the second Artsy Alley in the series.

Three additional alley projects are planned. The official call to artists — requesting qualification details and a design concept — is expected to go out in early October 2017 and be available for download (soon) via www.historicdowntownwilson.com/artsy-alleys. Watch for updates and the official Call to Artists via that website, or the Historic Downtown Wilson Facebook page.

Chapel Hill NC — Cultural Arts

The Town of Chapel Hill’s Cultural Arts Division provides artist opportunities year-round. According to the town website, Chapel Hill’s “Percent for Art Program Ordinance” sets aside 1% of eligible capital project costs for art.

The Division’s calls-to-artists are posted on the town website here. While projects accepted may cover a broad range, art installation projects have included murals, sculpture, and more. A list of completed arts projects may be found here.

Wadesboro NC — Fire Hydrant Adoptions

As part of the Uptown Beautification Project, the Wadesboro Fire Department is inviting organizations and citizens to adopt a fire hydrant. Those interested may choose a hydrant, present a proposed design to the Fire Chief, and if selected may paint a hydrant. Adoptions last for a minimum of one year, and there are rules regarding the art content.

Adoption applications for 2018 are being accepted; painting for 2017 is completed. See details and a downloadable form at www.uptownwadesboro.com/fire-hydrant-adoptions.html.

Asheville NC — Public Art Project

The City of Asheville NC is celebrating “the community’s century-old storefronts and architectural treasures” through their Lexington Avenue Public Art Project, in partnership with the Asheville Downtown Association Foundation and the Public Art & Cultural Commission.

Click, this link for information released October 18, 2017 on this Asheville NC art project and the corresponding presentation.

West Jefferson NC — Murals and Pedestal Art

In 2011, the town’s streetscape improvements included installation of sidewalk lighting mounted on 14 concrete pedestals, which were painted by the Arts Council. The theme of the concrete pedestal art project was “wildflowers of Ashe County.”

West Jefferson art installations also include over 15 murals throughout the downtown area, all designed and painted by local artists. A walking tour map may be picked up at the Ashe Arts Center & Ashe Chamber of Commerce.

See more on these beautification projects at visitwestjefferson.org/arts-district.

Outside NC — Honorable Mentions

Denver CO — Dumpster Art

Outside of North Carolina, but worthy of mention, is the IMAGINE 2020 “cultural plan” in Denver, Colorado. This plan involves city agencies, cultural institutions, businesses, civic leaders, neighborhood organizations, and community-based organizations and residents working together to ensure arts and culture are a part of the city. According to the IMAGINE 2020 website:

In Spring 2013, Denver’s community gathered to provide a strategic vision and future platform for arts, culture and creativity in the City that became IMAGINE 2020 – Denver’s Cultural Plan. IMAGINE 2020 is Denver’s first cultural plan since 1989 and reflects the vision, goals and aspirations of everyone who contributed ideas through the planning process and will help guide resources, support and direction for the City’s arts and culture in all their many forms.

As part of their IMAGINE 2020 projects, the city of Denver is adding urban art projects throught the city, including a project that allows approved artists to turn dumpsters into whimsical works of art. Grants are available.

One part of the dumpster beautification is the Quigg Newton Art Dumpster Project, which will hold a special ribbon cutting on September 30, 2017, 11am. For those close enough to attend, the ribbon cutting includes refreshments, music, a raffle, and a chance to see the art and meet local artists and project coordinators.  The event is planned at the Quigg Newton Homes Management Office, 4407 Mariposa Way, Denver CO.

Quigg Newton Dumpster (Art) Project photo. Source: Denver Arts and Venues
Quigg Newton Dumpster (Art) Project photo. Source: Denver Arts and Venues

Quigg Newton Homes are part of the Denver Housing Authority, providing subsidized city housing.

Columbia SC — World’s Largest Fire Hydrant

This final entry is in South Carolina, but worthy of mention. According to the Strange Carolinas website, a fire hydrant / art installation in Columbia features a 40-foot-tall “fire plug” weighing in at over 675,000 pounds.  While it is not painted or decorated like in the cities mentioned above, it is still a form of Urban Art — and a tourist photo opportunity.


Ed. Note: UPDATED October 18, 2017 — Asheville NC arts information added.

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About Kay Whatley 2309 Articles
Kay Whatley serves as Editor and Reporter with The Grey Area News. Kay is a published author with over 20 years of experience in the publishing industry. Kay Whatley is wife to Frank Whatley, founder of The Grey Area™ newspaper and The Grey Area News online news website.