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City Art Movement Turns The Utilitarian Salt Box On Its Head

Juliet Ames had noticed that the yellow salt boxes that sit on some Baltimore City corners were looking even more weathered than usual last December. After all, they had been sitting outside for more than a year. The city Department of Transportation, which usually picks them up in mid-April, let them sit during the hectic early days of the pandemic.

They looked “extra naked and sad,” she said. She could no longer sit on her years-long desire to spiffy them up.

So despite her fears of getting in trouble for vandalism, Ames ventured to the corner of 36th St. and Roland Ave and drilled a yellow plywood panel with decorative letters made from blue and white porcelain spelling “SALT BOX” onto the front of the eponymous sodium chloride holder.

Ames snapped a photo and “put it out on Twitter, kind of jokingly like, oh my gosh, someone put graffiti on this box,’” she said. “Everyone knew it was me.”

A few hours later, the salt box art movement was officially born after DOT replied with an official verdict: “We love it! … I think this calls for a challenge competition.”

There are about 700 salt boxes throughout the city. Around 175 of them now have art panels, designed and installed by dozens of city residents. Ames herself has transformed around 35 boxes.

“I'm focusing on Baltimore, highlighting people and things that make Baltimore special,” she said. “They're like my little love letters to the city.”

There’s the box in Mid-Town Belvedere that celebrates jazz legend Cab Calloway. There’s the Bolton Hill box that reads F. Salt Fitzgerald, for the famous author, who wrote Tender Is The Night while he was living in Baltimore. A box across the street from the Baltimore School for the Arts honors one of its most famous alumni, Tupac Shakur — or, as the box says, Salt Pac.

Of course, there are a few so-called art boxes inspired by Baltimore’s own John Waters, the seminal and perennially weird director. He approves.

“I think it's hilarious,” Waters said. “I think if somebody is stuck in the snow and the fact that they saw me on a box... I’m like an alternative road aid. Just call me AAA gone bad.”

One salt box references Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos, with a depiction of a famous scene in which the drag queen Divine fires a gun. Bold letters next to her riff on her movie character’s honorific: instead of the "Filthiest Person Alive,” she is the “Saltiest Person Alive.”

Waters said he’s hesitant to have Divine pointing a gun down Eastern Avenue these days.

“I always joke, maybe she should put a circle on a line through it like no smoking on guns, because I don’t want Divine shooting anybody in East Baltimore,” he said.

Waters filmed his sister, Patricia Waters, playing in an “open government salt box, with a shovel and a bucket like she was in a real sandbox playing,” in his second film, 1966’s Roman Candles. “I have a history with noticing salt boxes and their weird behavior,” he said. “If there's ever a [city art movement] sequel… I think it should be the trash cans.”

Water also suggested that artists should try to push the limit and see just how filthy they can make a salt box. The city, on the other hand, wants contributors to keep it clean.

“I’m happy to have them put things that are salt-related or city-related on the salt boxes,” DOT director Steve Sharkey said.

Sharkey has given the DIY art panel installations his blessing, so long as people refrain from using profanity or turning the salt boxes into advertisements.

The agency is working on a plan to preserve the art boxes after they get collected for maintenance next month, Sharkey said. They are scheduled for pick up on April 11, though it takes a while for city workers to collect all of them, he said.

In the meantime, Ames is thrilled the movement she kick-started has momentum. Dozens of boxes in, she has her process down to a science: she gets 20 plywood panels at a time and paints them a color called OSHA Safety Yellow that matches the rest of the box. Then she uses a computer app to create her design, which she prints onto permanent vinyl that sticks to the panel.

“I’m an artist who can't paint or draw,” she quipped. “So this is my solution.”

But artists can use any medium, Ames said, as long as it’s weather-resistant.

One of her latest pieces honors the 12 O’Clock Boys — a group of city kids who perform daring dirt bikes stunts. The panel shows a boy on a bike, hitting the sharp wheelie that gives the group its name.

“They always give me a heart attack, but it’s always a thrill,” she said.

Finding salt boxes for the installations can be tricky: the city doesn’t maintain a public map of their locations. But Robert Atkinson does.

When he first moved to Baltimore 12 years ago, “I, of course noticed the soapboxes because they're not a thing that other cities have,” he said. “I found them interesting, as if they were urban decay art.”

In 2018, Atkinson started anInstagram page dedicated to displaying the salt boxes in all their weathered glory. When the art box movement took off, he asked the page’s followers to send him locations of salt boxes in their neighborhoods. Between 20 and 25 people heeded the call — “which is kind of amazing, that people would actually answer questions around salt box stuff,” he said.

Ames sometimes consults the crowdsourced map before she heads out to install her latest panels, which are usually neighborhood specific. Other times, she and her partner, Jason Morrison, just cruise around a neighborhood by car and hope they’ll get lucky.

On one March afternoon, while searching in Reservoir Hill, they found a salt box almost immediately.

“Look at this one — and it doesn’t even have anything on it!” Ames exclaimed. The box, which sat on Eutaw Place, was bare, with not a coat of paint.

The couple jumped out of their car and approached the box. Ames set her art panel in place and Morrison drilled it on — “not all the way in, so that people getting salt don’t get nicked,” he said.

The panel in question is a homage to multimedia artist Joyce J. Scott, a native Baltimorean and MacArthur Fellow known for intricate jewelry and beadwork that offer distinctive commentary on social issues such as racism, violence and injustice.

Ames recreated “Blue Face” — a 2006 Scott bead necklace designed to resemble a woman’s profile — by gluing around 2,000 beads to the panel. Beside the beads are the words Joyce J. Salt.

“To have my name immortalized in a condiment... I mean, you know, I'm happy about that!” Scott said.

The saltbox art movement exemplifies Baltimore, the artist said.

“People call us quirky and I see that as a compliment,” she said. “And part of the reason is because we'll take opportunities for making art in unusual places. I think that's really a kind of community social activism in the sense of making the environment in which you live sportier, happier.”

Public art — that is, art that’s not sponsored by institutions but made by and for community members — provides a specific kind of spiritual nourishment, Scott said.

“Our elders used to say, ‘make way where there is no way and make something out of nothing’ And the idea of making taking something that is utilitarian, and something that you might kick if you're mad when you walk past it, and glorifying it in some way, making it comfortable within this neighborhood — I think that’s a very smart way of dealing with things,” she said. “Because when your neighborhood's not doing well, these little bright, glistening signposts really give you a wonderful feeling, even if it's for a second.”

That’s why Ames created the first art box, she said.

Ames thought she’d just make just the one — but the infectious joy it spread made it impossible to stop. And after transforming a few dozen salt boxes, Ames said she’s thrilled to see other artists carry on the work.

“I don't want to take over much more real estate,” she said. “I'm going to leave it for other people to do.”

Scott said she hopes it lives on as well.

“That stuff really makes a kind of a difference to you subliminally, when you're walking around and something just grabs you for a second and you feel better,” Scott said. “So I say keep doing it, hurrah!”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.