Prince-inspired art coming to Southside utility boxes

Project Purple submission by Juan Reed

Residents of the Central neighborhood in Minneapolis will soon see a bit more purple, as Prince-inspired artwork is set to launch on select utility boxes next month.

The initiative entitled Project Purple was created and funded by the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization (CANDO), and has been in the works since Prince’s passing in April of 2016.

“The project is to honor Prince’s legacy on the South Side of Minneapolis,” said Project Coordinator Tina Burnside of CANDO. “One of the first things that we wanted to do was an art project to honor Prince. The City has utility box art programs where neighborhoods can put artwork on the utilities boxes. Since there was already a program set up through the City…we decided that we would do that.”

Last year CANDO put out a call for artists and a committee selected the artwork. “We opened it up to all levels of experience,” said Burnside. “Because a lot of times what happens when there are these public art projects is they usually end up selecting people who are experienced artists. So it’s hard for an emerging artist to break into a public arts program because they don’t have the experience.”

After the artists were selected, Burnside said they went through the long process of submitting the application to the City’s art utility box program. By the time that process was completed it was October, so the actual placement of the art wraps on the boxes had to wait until warmer months.

The art will be displayed on four utility boxes, with three appearing along Fourth Avenue and one on Park Avenue. “We wanted to focus on Fourth Avenue because that was the main street of the Black community back in the day,” said Burnside. “So we’ll have one on 38th Street right by the Spokesman. And then we’ll have one on 36th and Fourth, 35th and Fourth, and one on 38th and Park.”


“Sometimes they try to take art from the people and keep it to this elitist group. But public art is for everyone.”


The artists

Anthony Johnson

Anthony Johnson is the emerging artist of the three chosen for the project. “I’m the freshman of the group,” he said. “When I was younger, I always admired people who could draw and could do different types of art and express themselves, but I never jumped into that wagon.

“My approach to art was to kinda play with cutting hair. And I would draw pictures in hair…designs and all kinds of things. That’s how I got my artistic part out. A friend knew that I did art with hair and said, ‘You should try that on paper.’”

After being encouraged by friends, he submitted a freehand drawing for Project Purple. He was surprised and delighted when it got chosen. He recalled, “I came in on the tail end and that was my fault because I was kinda shy about doing it. I didn’t think I could do something like that.

“And the piece of paper that I actually did it on — it was all color pencil — was 18 x 24” paper,” he recalled with a laugh. “I don’t know why I decided to go that big. Again, it was just me being an amateur. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.”

Johnson, a North Minneapolis native and 28-year employee with Comcast, said he will continue to pursue art. “I’ve got the bug now. So I’m gonna try to find myself in art,” said Johnson, adding that he’s interested in making 3-D art.

Asked what he hopes people take away when they see his handiwork on the utility box, he replied, “If they just look at it and try to figure out what my interpretation is and how they interpret what I’ve created — that’s enough for me. I love just inspiring people to think about things outside of the box.”

Juan Reed

Juan Reed is a native of Cleveland, Ohio and founder of Dre One Graphics and Illustrations. He has over 20 years of professional experience as an artist, and is no stranger to utility box artwork — one of his other works entitled “Angels Among Us” is featured on a utility box on West Broadway in North Minneapolis. He described that work as a Black angel with an afro flying over the city.

Although he has a lot of experience, Reed said he has just gotten used to sharing his work with the public. “My brother’s a musician and he always wrote all this music, but he never let anyone hear it,” said Reed. “And it is the same with me and my art. I would never let anyone see it.

“Or should I say, I never thought anyone would see it through my eyes. Just like your kids… Nobody’s gonna treat your kids like you treat them or appreciate them like you do. But starting last year, I started showing my stuff.”

He said Prince has always inspired him because, “He wasn’t afraid to put himself out there.” He also said he hopes people see the detail and care that he put into the Prince-inspired work included in Project Purple.

Tammy Ortegon

The third artist chosen, Tammy Ortegon, is not only inspired by Prince’s artistry but also by his philanthropy. She owns the ColorWheel Gallery on 319 W 46th Street in Minneapolis; and once she found out who the other two artists were, she befriended them and began featuring their work in her shop.

She recalled how Prince influenced her growing up as a creative person. “Being a teenager in the ’80s here in Minneapolis, I was really inspired because he was unique and different and spoke his mind,” she said.

Ortegon has made Prince-inspired artwork since she was a teen, and after he passed, she created a Prince-inspired coloring book Rated P 4 Funky featuring drawings of her memories of the late artist. Part of the proceeds for the book goes to the Horizons Youth program at Sabathani Community Center, where Prince once went to school when it was Bryant Junior High.

Ortegon said she hoped Project Purple inspires more people to learn about the history of Central neighborhood. “With Prince going to school in the neighborhood and just the history of that community — the oldest African American community in South Minneapolis — it may cause people to ask, ‘Why is this in this neighborhood? Why are we honoring Prince?’ And maybe they can look into the powerful history of the community,” she said.

Ortegon added that she loves that Project Purple is a public art program. “Sometimes they try to take art from the people and keep it to this elitist group. But public art is for everyone. It’s free and everyone can enjoy it,” she said.

The community is invited to the launch of Project Purple, which includes a walking tour, a meet and greet with the artists, and light refreshments on August 11 from 6-7:30 pm at the new CANDO office on 3715 Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. The artwork will be installed on the utility boxes August 9 and 10, weather permitting.

“We want people to come out and meet the artists and hear from them about their work,” said Burnside. She added that this is the first installation of what CANDO hopes will be more public art programs in the future.

Visit Facebook/Meet The Project Purple Artists to learn more about the upcoming event. Visit for more information about CANDO.

Photos courtesy of CANDO.


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