It’s windy and quite hot out on Indian Avenue in Desert Hot Springs. But Yudit Ecsedy doesn’t mind, as the artist paints a traffic-signal control box as part of the city’s Art in Public Places program.
The idea is to turn the ugly green roadside utility boxes into works of art, painted over by local talent as part of an effort to beautify the oft-troubled city.
Ecsedy, a native of Budapest, Hungary, came to the United States as a child. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in art history, and in 2011, she retired to DHS, a place where she had been vacationing since she was a student.
“My parents and I started coming here in the winter for at least a week years ago,” she said. “The place helped my mother’s arthritis. The view, the atmosphere, the healing waters and the ‘time out’ all contributed to creating quality time for our family. I continued this tradition with my husband and four children—and now I’m part of this town.”
The Art in Public Places fund was created by the city in 2008, according to Janice Gough, president of the nonprofit Art Foundation of Desert Hot Springs.
“With utility boxes being the lowest-costing way to bring art to the city, we started getting some of these boxes painted,” Gough said. “There are 111 boxes in DHS.”
Ecsedy became involved with the project in 2013—and the City Council did not like some of her proposed works, because they had religious themes.
“I handed in my designs, some with representations of angels,” she said. “In January 2014, the City Council, after seeing my designs, brought in a law prohibiting any public art with wings. A lawyer from Virginia flew out to sue the city for forcing artists’ subject matter. I chose not to sue the city, being aware of its bankruptcy situation at the time.”
DHS has a Community and Cultural Affairs Commission which evaluates the control-box art applications. In January 2014, Gough became a CCAC commissioner—and things started moving forward. Ecsedy also agreed to do other works that did not involve wings.
“I was allowed to … start on my designs. I have painted one box so far, and have commission for two more,” Ecsedy said.
Ecsedy’s first box was commissioned for $500, and the box on Indian Avenue was commissioned for $1,200. Gough said the financial resources are accumulated thanks to a fee assessed on commercial builders, earmarked specifically for the program. However, the money is not the only motivation for artists like Ecsedy.
“What motivated me is simply helping beautify the town that I love,” she said. “To have my paintings on public display here for years and have local citizens and vacationers see them and respond to them is a special gift in my life.”
It took Ecsedy two months to paint her first box, she said, not counting weeks of preparation as she created the design on paper. The materials used are steel primer, acrylic paints and an anti-graffiti coat.
“The winds there were brutal, and often I had to come home after only two hours of painting because the paint would dry before I could apply it to the design,” Ecsedy said.
Renowned local muralist John Coleman has also painted traffic boxes throughout the valley. One of his creations can be seen on a box on Dillon Road, and though painting a traffic box is not as big of job as a mural, he said it wasn’t an easy task.
“The weather can and does make painting traffic boxes a little tricky at times,” he said. “I don’t mind the heat, but the wind is the most challenging—blowing tools, drop cloths and ladders around constantly.”
He said the reception he receives while painting the boxes is overwhelmingly positive.
“Passers-by often honk and tell me that I’m doing a great job,” he said. “Some folks stop to talk and take photos.”