Tahoe gets a splash of color

Susanne Haala and Dylan Silver
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Provided to the Tribune

One utility box, one Dumpster and one wall at a time, South Lake Tahoe is getting a little brighter, a little more colorful and a lot more artsy.

Over the past three years, a South Lake Tahoe family and a youth art group called the Sphere of Influence have been painting dozens of the bland green boxes, trash bins and concrete walls. Their vibrant designs are now noticeable on the sides of many city streets.

“You’ve made such a difference in our town,” Mayor Claire Fortier told Matt Kauffman, who runs the Sphere of Influence, and two participants, Dakota Jensen and Bernardo Ayon, at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “It makes me smile, driving by when I see those pop up.”

Scott Blumenthal, his wife, Christi Olmstead, their daughter, Laura Rivera, and son-in-law, Abner Rivera, under their family company Dreams and Visions Art Co., have painted about a dozen utility boxes on a contract with the city.

While the Sphere of Influence boxes revolve around spray-painted action sports scenes, vivid graffiti-style portraits and landscapes, Dreams and Visions Art Co.’s feature acrylic hand-painted pictures of wildlife and seasonal changes around Lake Tahoe.

“I really like to use bright colors,” said Abner Rivera, who does a lot of the painting and design. “I like it to just go ‘slap!’ as you walk by.”

Responses to the new artwork have been positive.

“I think it is very beautiful and the way they cover up the graffiti,” said Mike Roberts, who works in the Heavenly Village Center near several of the paintings, said “It is real artwork and very Tahoe-orientated.”

In fact, the Sphere of Influence originally started painting the boxes in 2009 as a way for the city to avoid scrawls of graffiti. And, so far, with just five of the more than 100 boxes being tagged over, it seems to be working.

“It changed my perspective on graffiti and urban art into a positive thing,” Ayon told the council Tuesday.

Dreams and Visions Art Co. was contracted by the city to paint the wall in front of “The Hole” along Highway 50, but liability became an issue. The city offered the utility boxes as a substitute canvas.

The paintings spread throughout town have been complimented by countless community members, said city assistant planner Judy Finn, who’s helped implement the Public Art Initiative in South Lake Tahoe. The Sphere of Influence has received support from organizations including the Tahoe Art League, the Ski Run Business Improvement District, South Tahoe Refuse Company, Caltrans and Lake Tahoe Community College’s art department. Their work is done on a volunteer basis.

“This program is a win-win for all concerned,” LTCC art department chairwoman Phyllis Shafer said in a letter addressed to the City Council. “Residents and visitors enjoy a creative response to an otherwise unattractive urban reality. Conversely, artists benefit because the final realization of an artist’s work is public exposure.”

Dreams and Visions Art Co. is nearly finished with its boxes. They’ve been working on a couple private murals, including the sprawling tree on the building next to Patient-to-Patient Collective. They hope to find some larger public places to paint.

“We want to go after the big stuff here,” said Blumenthal, gesturing to the massive fading photographs on the outside walls of the Heavenly Cinema.

Sphere of Influence is constantly searching for things to paint, Kauffman said. But with all the Dumpsters and utility boxes they don’t have to look too hard.

“We’re not running out of projects anytime soon,” Kauffman said.

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