“The Good Hug,” by Janet Zepeda, is located on the corner of Highway 111 and Oasis Street.

Art is a vital part of the fabric of the city of Indio; it’s known as the City of Festivals, after all.

The importance of the arts in Indio extends all the way to … traffic-signal boxes? Yes, traffic-signal boxes: Indio just revived its Traffic Signal Box program, paying local artists to feature their work on traffic boxes in the city.

“The Traffic Signal Box program is not new to the city,” said Debra Alleyne, the city’s management analyst of public art and historic preservation. “I’ve only been here since 2019, so I don’t have all of the information about the genesis of the program, but from what I can see in the records, they’ve done it before, in 2015. … The boxes that exist right now have been weathered, and the community has had the opportunity to enjoy that artwork, so we just want to take this opportunity to switch those out, and be more intentional about giving opportunities to local artists.”

The first two boxes—“The Good Hug,” by Janet Zepeda, and “Conclave in Eden,” by Jaye Elle—have already been finished.

“We’re starting to get some applications and starting to get some calls and inquiries about it,” said Alleyne. “The first two artists that we’ve used are in the local art collective, so I know that (artists) are aware of the opportunity. It’s a really good opportunity for emerging artists and professional artists alike, and people who just really want to get the opportunity to put their art out there.”

Alleyne said 16 signal boxes will eventually be completed, and that her team will review applications on a rolling basis. Each artist will be paid $750.

“One of the things that the (city’s Public Arts) Commission has been talking about is being really intentional about having some sort of opportunity for the community in each area of the city,” said Alleyne. “Right now, a lot of art is concentrated downtown, which is normal for most cities. We really want to provide arts and culture for everyone in the city, so our ad hoc committee, a committee derived from the Arts Commission, wants to make sure that there are at least a few (painted signal boxes) in each community or sector of the city. So first, we’re going to deal with replacing existing boxes, and then we’re going to try to branch out from there.”

Alleyne said the city wants to see the arts treated like a vital part of Indio’s economy.

“I think it all climaxes around the idea that arts and culture are an industrial sector,” Alleyne said. “A lot of people don’t think about it like that. People do like to think about the arts as this extra thing that people do, but being an artist is a job. … The U.S. has identified that it brings in billions of dollars to the country every year, so when we think about our individual cities, and how we’re providing that sort of landscape for artists to thrive, we need to think about it as a sector, and not just as an add-on. When we think about it in that holistic way, we see opportunities like the Indio Food Park, where you’re blending culinary arts with local artists. One of the things that the commission has realized is that we really want to provide more opportunities for local artists, and start building that base within our city and the valley as a whole for art opportunities. By doing that, we’re providing jobs for local artists, as well as creating social and cultural vibrancy for our city.”

“People like to think about the arts as this extra thing that people do, but being an artist is a job. … The U.S. has identified that it brings in billions of dollars to the country every year.” Debra Alleyne, indio’s management analyst of public art and historic preservation

Alleyne said the arts, as an industry, needs support now more than ever, as the world recovers from (what was hopefully) the worst of the pandemic.

“I love the arts,” Alleyne said. “When the pandemic happened, I knew it would be devastating for the sector, but I also know that they are huge when it comes to revitalization. After 2008, there was a lot of small community art, and you started seeing a lot of individuals create like a gig economy, but with art, and create small experiences for their community. I saw opening up as an opportunity for the same thing, because people will be devastated financially in so many ways. Artists, by design, are creative, so we don’t need to tell them what to do; we just need to provide opportunities for them to do what they do, which is create.”

Alleyne hopes that there will be more opportunities for art to flourish in the near future.

“We’re just hitting the ground running right now,” said Alleyne. “We have to sort of return to projects that we were hoping to do. During the shutdown, access to materials and personnel just became slim, and we didn’t want to create something where we made a bunch of people sick. Now that things are opening up again, some of those projects that are on ice might be coming back.”

One of the first artists to participate in this revived project is Janet Zepeda. Her work is on the corner of Highway 111 and Oasis Street.

“I was very fortunate,” said Zepeda. “I have a friend who actually recommended me for the box. She sent me an email telling me that the city of Indio was looking for artists, and asked me if I’d be interested. I was very fortunate to have someone recommend me. … This would be my first official time I worked with any city.”

Zepeda said she gave the city an entire portfolio of options.

“This one was actually an old design I already had,” Zepeda said. “They actually chose it out of my portfolio. I told them to take a look, and it came down to that one. I’m super-surprised, but I guess it has a good message.”

Zepeda said “The Good Hug” is influenced by Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights.

“The quote is, ‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same,’” she said. “I thought about that a lot. With COVID happening, a lot of people lost a lot of family members, a lot of loved ones, a lot of friends. It made sense to make something like that. Even though they’re gone, there’s still a piece of them behind.”

Zepeda said she feels honored to have her art included in the Traffic Signal Box program, but she has her sights set on the future.

“I really want to work more with local shops and make bigger walls and things,” Zepeda said. “Getting hired to make murals would be my next step, and I’m very fortunate to know the guys at Flat Black Art Supplies, who have always helped me get opportunities in the graffiti world. My next step would be murals and probably out-of-town stuff—but this piece is really nice, because Indio is my home. It is very rewarding to see my art being displayed in one of my favorite places.”

For more information on the Traffic Signal Box program, visit www.indio.org/tsb.

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...