Reno is big on public art. It’s probably the only city in the world whose City Hall is guarded by a gigantic “Space Whale,” after all.
Megan Berner, the city’s arts and culture manager, coordinates the city’s Public Art Program, which manages more than 200 indoor and outdoor art pieces around Reno—including the painted electrical signal boxes you see at intersections all over town. The boxes are part of the Art Signals program, which the Reno Public Art Committee started in 2008. The goal is to highlight local artists and to give color to otherwise blank infrastructure. It began on a small scale, with only a handful of artists recruited to decorate a limited area.
“They started with a very core area of downtown, so there were probably about eight that first year,” Berner said. “And then we turned it into an annual program, and it’s grown to include over 50 signal boxes all over the city. We expanded into the north valleys, south Reno, and other neighborhoods because it was so popular.”
As the scope of Art Signals grows, so does the number of artists wishing to participate. The call for artists typically happens online, in January to February, with applications and proposals reviewed during the spring, and painting taking place by early summer; artists receive $500 upon completion. This year alone saw 45 applicants—the most ever—but with only 13 boxes to paint, it looks to be a competitive selection process.
Art Signals is designed to be an introductory-level program, so those with no experience in public art are encouraged to participate. In the past, some artists would apply each year and paint multiple boxes, but now, with so many applicants, a lot of new faces are coming forward.
One of these faces is Ruby Barrientos, a Reno local and first-generation Salvadoran-American artist. Barrientos is Reno’s current City Artist, a position created in 2019 to honor local visual artists who, in turn, represent the city, engaging the public with art, public talks and curated exhibitions. Experienced in a variety of mediums, she painted a signal box at the corner of Wells Avenue and Vassar Street.
“When I applied, it was during the pandemic,” Barrientos said. “They had to put a hold on it for a minute, and then they reached back out to me. I ended up changing my design to something else. … It’s a mix of my Salvadoran and Mayan roots. There are both of (those cultures) in there that I’m showing through my work.
“I felt it was important to have a box on Wells when they offered it to me, since Wells has always been a Latinx community. I felt it was important to have that representation on Wells, especially with the gentrification that’s happening here.”
She pointed out that the very coffee shop we sat in during our chat was formerly a boutique that sold quinceañera dresses. (It moved across the street.) Her box stands proudly against its monotone concrete and brick surroundings, featuring a bright and intricate mosaic of totemic designs that pay homage to the peoples and cultures that make the neighborhood what it is.
The memory of her last visit to El Salvador in 2017 was quite meaningful, Barrientos said, and she wanted to bring part of that everyday culture back to the Wells neighborhood.
“Part of it is my own characters and things that I normally draw,” Barrientos said. “And then the other part is me touching on all the Salvadoran art that I would see done by artisans in the community when I visited, but in my own style, so that was me fusing my culture and bringing it here and putting it on Wells.”
A box at Keystone Avenue and Fifth Street, near the new In-N-Out Burger, depicts two sinewy red horses tearing across the surface, frozen in some kind of apocalyptic struggle, with their hooves tangled in thorny briars. This is the work of Reno-based printmaker and muralist Nathaniel Benjamin. A seasoned public artist, Benjamin also runs Laika Press, a local nonprofit printmaking space.
Like Barrientos, Benjamin had seen the painted signal boxes around town and applied five or six years ago when the city put out the yearly call for artists. He’d done a few smaller murals around town in before, and he adapted his technique to the three-dimensional shape of the signal box fairly easily.
“It was interesting, because you are very exposed to the whole world,” Benjamin said. “With this particular signal box, it’s at a very busy intersection, so a lot of people were talking to me as I was painting, and giving their opinions of what I was doing or being excited about it. There was one guy who was coming by repeatedly, being offended by the fact that I was painting it.”
Benjamin explained that a lot of people don’t realize that these are pieces commissioned by the city. He said he even had to explain himself to the police at one point.
“When you’re in a public place painting, it’s like you are putting your voice out there in a way that not everyone is able to,” he said. “So there’s a tension there, because not everyone is comfortable with you saying whatever you have to say. Maybe they don’t understand it, or especially when it’s in the process and they just see some blobs of color, it’s like, ‘What do you think you’re doing, you know?’”
Benjamin painted his horses to represent the various emotions people were feeling at a time with a lot of political tension. To him, horses are symbols of power and strength, breaking through barriers, but they’re also beasts of burden, representing the hard work and struggles of the masses.
“I have my own opinions, but I don’t want that to be necessarily what people bring to it,” Benjamin said.
Berner said that the Art Signals program is the most popular thing the Reno Public Art Program does.
“I think that it contributes to this character and sense of place,” Berner said. “We have all these unique, original artworks on the corners that brighten up the neighborhood. They do deter graffiti. They kind of add some vibrancy to our cityscape—and originality.”
Barrientos offered some advice to local artists who may be considering applying to the program.
“Go for it,” said Barrientos. “It’s really not as difficult as it might seem. I think a lot of the time, applications and that whole formality deters people who maybe aren’t too familiar, and it can feel intimidating. But I would say: Just try to move past that. Reach out to other artists in the community who you’ve seen do these boxes, and I’m sure they’d be more than willing to help, like I would. So if there’s anyone out there who wants help, I can definitely support them in that way—and I’d love to see more artists of color doing them.”
Benjamin agreed with Barrientos’ advice to artists: Don’t be afraid.
“That’s No. 1,” Benjamin said. “It’s very manageable, and I think especially with the people who run the city arts right now, it is very accessible, and they do their best to include new artists. So don’t stop yourself before you give yourself a chance, for sure.”
For more information on the Art Signals program, visit www.reno.gov/community/arts-culture/public-art/art-signals. View the art of Ruby Barrientos and Nathaniel Benjamin on Instagram @ruby_jo and @nathaniel.benjamin, respectively.