Saltbox Art Recovery, 2022 Edition

Saltbox Art in a storage container at Baltimore DOT, Pulaski Highway

In what’s become an annual tradition, Baltimore DOT reached out to Juliet Ames (aka The Broken Plate, aka Salt Box Art Movement’s founder) about the pieces of art she and dozens of Baltimore artists have attached to the city’s iconic yellow saltboxes. DOT had collected saltboxes for routine maintenance and repair starting around April 15th, a date we’ve taken to call Saltbox Ascension Day (Saltbox Descension Day is November 15th). Among the boxes taken were art boxes. The DOT folks removed the art when possible and set it aside for Juliet and me to pick up.

This year was different. Last year in 2021, we visited a DOT facility tucked away on Holliday St. under I-83 near downtown and grabbed 28 pieces of art, which we took back to Juliet’s studio space in Mill Centre. We posted on Instagram and the rest of the socials about our haul, and Juliet graciously coordinated ways for artists to retrieve their work. 

Why did the DOT have 28 pieces of saltbox art in the first place? The story is complex, but here’s the spine of it. When artists first started dropping art on saltboxes, and DOT head Steve Sharkey publicly blessed the activity, there was no plan or thought given to what happened to the art when Saltbox Ascension Day rolled around in April. The story of what we and the DOT hashed out is documented here.

These 28 pieces being removed were “mistakes.” Art boxes were to stay put, and artists were supposed to be caretakers of their boxes. Word of this policy change didn’t make it down to all of the folks in the trucks doing the work, so art boxes got scooped up. Stuff happens.

This year there were many more art pieces, over 70, all in a separate storage container at the DOT facility on Pulaski Highway. Juliet and I were absolutely giddy. Some of these pieces were from early 2021 and part of the original burst of saltbox art after Juliet Ames dropped her first box and kickstarted this whole thing. This cache of saltbox art provided the answers to one of the most frequently asked questions I get: what happened to my art? In many cases (not all, there are some documented cases of pure saltbox art banditry), this storage container had the answer.

Michael, the DOT employee helping us, had done most of the work to remove the art, which was a challenge, to say the least, and in some cases, impossible. Some artists worked directly on the boxes, so the box is the art, not a place to attach it. Michael also wrote street names and intersections from which the art was removed on the backs. 

So why were so many art boxes taken up this year compared to last year? What happened to the agreement to leave the art boxes alone? 

I believe the most simple answer is a combination of two things: the non-official status of the saltbox art project and DOT attrition. To be clear, the DOT didn’t ask for this: extra attention, discussions, and meetings around, of all things, the saltboxes – a sub-set of a sub-set of DOT’s remit – and the DIY art that the citizenry suddenly decided to attach to them. There’s no official policy here, just people who have a lot on their plates dealing with a saltbox art-shaped curveball the best they can. Also, the folks we talked to last year about handling the art boxes are no longer with DOT, so whatever causal agreements we had left with them.

I suspect Michael’s setting aside the saltbox art pieces had nothing to do with a defined policy (we foolishly didn’t ask him). Still, he and his co-workers recognized that this art with worth setting apart and saving because, as I’ve written about before, saltboxes are made cheap and not to last. Any art on the boxes will be damaged or destroyed through the process of transport and storage, but this was an attempt at preservation, as was the noting of locations. Again, it is not his job to do any of this. 

Here’s what 79 pieces of saltbox art look like in the back of a Prius.

So Juliet and I had 79 pieces of saltbox art in my car, which, as is now tradition, we photographed and posted on Instagram and socials, along with the process for picking them up. Given the increased prominence of the saltboxes (thank you, The New Yorker, among others) and seeing a collection of those in one place, many people had great questions, comments, and ideas about all of this that I wanted to address.

I put these into two categories:

  1. Saltbox Art process questions – I’m hoping these were answered above, but I’ve also added them to the DIY page of this site.
  2. Why isn’t this stuff in a gallery, art show? Can I buy some of this awesome art questions – I’m hoping to answer these below.

Doing a Saltbox Art Exhibit 

First of all, heck yes. There’s been chatter about this floating around as soon as this all caught fire and turned into dozens and dozens of art boxes and saltbox artists. Having 79 pieces of saltbox art together in one place only drove the idea home. People want it. We need to figure this out. We have some ideas, but first, a little level-setting:

This is all DIY. Artists can do whatever they want out there. Given that this is a somewhat subversive activity – co-opting city property for the sake of art – I get a good share of messaging looking for permission or guidance on the rules. While Juliet did pull together some guidelines, it’s pretty much Don’t Be A Jerk.

The artists are the owners of the art. While I have dropped an art box or two in my time (RIP, Wordle Box), I just document what’s out there and share the art with my Instagram followers. Any public display of the art needs to done with the express permission and approval of each participating artist. 

Saltbox art as a commodity. Some folks have expressed an interest in buying pieces of saltbox art, which I totally understand. Again, if you like a piece you see in the wild or online, contact the artist. I will say this: there was a spate of saltbox art thefts that were not the DOT pulling boxes. Selling the art makes it a commodity, and I wonder if that increases the chances of theft. 

Exhibiting for fun or fun AND profit?

So we’d all like an art show or exhibit, but the art is sold or auctioned off for charity? All of my saltbox-related activities involving money are for charity (Moveable Feast of Maryland), so this appeals to me. I am also not a working artist, so it’s very easy for me to want to make this about charity when artists also deserve to be paid if they want to be. 

A few of us have been discussing all of this (Juliet Ames and Liz Miller – prolific saltbox artist of the Black Zodiac series – among others) and looking at the end of the upcoming season, targeting Spring 2023 after they pull boxes in April. This will give us enough time to figure out an approach and a process and get the pieces in place. 

If you have ideas on this or want to pitch in, please reach out to Juliet Ames at juliet@ibreakplates.com or myself at baltimore.saltbox@gmail.com.

Who Makes the Saltboxes?

The short answer is easy. His name is Pete, and he and the team he leads at the Baltimore Department of Transportation (DOT) Maintenance facility on the 6100 block of E. Lombard St. in Bayview turn lumber into saltboxes like a well-oiled machine. When asked how many saltboxes he’s made during his close-to-thirty years with the DOT, he laughs. The number is in the thousands. 

The saltbox is deceptively complex in its construction: 19 individual pieces of wood of 12 different sizes and 3 different board types held together with nails, screws, and hinges. Pete knows the measurements of each piece by heart, and for good reason: the current iteration of the saltbox is based on his tweak of the original design. Before Pete came along, the size of a Baltimore saltbox was 26 inches wide. The standard piece of plywood is 96 inches long by 48 inches wide. Pete was seeing a lot of scrap pieces pile up due to the 26-inch design and figured out that an adjustment of two inches would maximize the amount of wood used per sheet of ¾” plywood. Less scrap and less plywood used overall for the loss of two inches of saltbox seemed like a good tradeoff. Many years and many saltboxes later, this translates to thousands of dollars in savings for the city. Thanks, Pete!

The braces are mostly 2 ½” by 1 ½” boards pulled from a collection of scrap pieces from other projects. Saltbox feet are 1 ½” by 3 ½” boards, which is the same size as wooden barricades for street closures, so you’ll sometimes see reflective tape peeking out from under a box.

Pete and his crew often make hundreds of boxes per year. It’s a two-step approach:

  1. Measure and cut all of the tops, sides (these are tricky because of the angle, but Pete has a template for this), bottoms, braces, and lids for a run of saltboxes to create an inventory of the parts you need. 
  2. Build the boxes out assembly-line style. 

The size of the crew working on a saltbox build-out depends on what other work is in the queue. As the saying goes, many hands make fast work. Given the number of parts to assemble, Pete estimates that one person could build about five boxes in a single day, two or more people can knock out many more. 

The DOT Maintenance facility is a very well-stocked workshop with one major exception: no nail gun, at least not anymore. The nails, which come in strips or rolls like bandoliers, were too expensive, Pete explains, so we do it by hand. With each saltbox using at least 40 nails, Pete and his team get quite the workout, but at least there are power drills to help out with the screws. 

Another cost-savings measure comes with the choice of wood: saltboxes are made from non-treated wood versus treated wood. The price of building materials ebbs and flows with the tides of the free market, but treated limber is always more expensive, and for a good, obvious reason, it holds up significantly better to the elements. So why not use treated lumber instead? Would using a better, more resilient material be more cost-effective in the long run? The thick coat of OSHA yellow surely adds a level of protection, but the real rot is coming from the inside.

In theory, this idea makes some sense, but there are some other factors to consider. Would the hypothetical extra longevity of a saltbox made with treated wood be enough to offset the additional cost? Salt is ridiculously corrosive. Even the salt and sand mix like that used by Baltimore DOT is going to do a number on normal treated lumber. An even more expensive variation of treated lumber is made for marine use to combat heavy exposure to salt. 

What about a different material altogether? Other counties provide the grit boxes or sand boxes – I’ve seen them in Canada, Norway, and the UK – made of plastic. According to a member of Pete’s crew, Baltimore tried out plastic saltboxes at some point. This kind of box is available at your local home improvement store and runs a little over $200 apiece. Apparently, the issue with the plastic salt bins was theft. That some nice, handy plastic bins sitting on a street corner should take a walk shouldn’t be completely surprising. 

Providing infrastructure and effort to more closely manage the saltboxes is something that DOT is exploring. A public-facing saltbox map using GIS software that DOT already uses for construction projects is in the works. As a public service, online grit bin maps are commonly available via UK city council websites. What would it take to do this in Baltimore?

Currently, Baltimore saltboxes contain no unique identifier numbers that would allow for traceability and tracking of location, lifecycle, and usage. There’s no publicly accessible map to know where the saltboxes are, although there seem to be tracking spreadsheets with the DOT. When asked how many saltboxes are out there, the numbers the DOT provides vary from 900 to 1600. The truth is that nobody really knows. 

As assets owned by Baltimore City, the saltboxes seem to be treated as disposable. Pete and the team can keep making them for a reasonably low cost, they last maybe a few years, then new ones take their place. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Pete and his crew build the saltboxes, but they don’t paint them. The naked saltboxes get their yellow OSHA and stenciled letters back at the Pulaski Highway facility. Why the lettering style of those stencils seems to have changed over the years is a mystery for a different time. 

Where Do The Saltboxes Go?

Starting around April 15th of each year – Tax Day – the iconic yellow Baltimore saltboxes slowly start disappearing from street corners and sidewalks, leaving only a patch of dead grass or discolored square on the concrete. Mind you, not all of them leave us, but chances are, you’ll start noticing a little less OSHA yellow in your life as winter gives way to spring. That is unless you happen to find yourself on the 6400 block of Pulaski Highway at the Baltimore Department of Transportation Maintenance Division – the summer home of the Baltimore Saltbox.

The process goes like this: Maintenance crew supervisors oversee one or several of the four DOT districts. When saltboxes need to be removed, the supervisor provides a crew with a list of box addresses by intersection or cross-street in a district to be removed. This may be part of the seasonal cycle of pulling the boxes or it may be due to a buildup of requests through 311 or complaints to a city councilperson. Saltboxes suffer any number of abuses and misuses – car accidents, vandalism, and above all else, being used as a trashcan or storage. Time and the elements also take their toll. 

2020 was particularly bad for the saltboxes as COVID-19 restrictions and staffing shortages.The same workers that mow the parks and do landscaping pick up the boxes, so the saltboxes stayed baking in the sun while the skeleton crews did their best to keep Baltimore public spaces looking good. The mixture of salt and sand solidified in many boxes, leaving small boulders lodged inside that need to be removed. 

Finding the saltboxes on a list for pickup isn’t always easy. Like any other piece of moveable public property, the boxes disappear or migrate to other locations. One supervisor told me about a woman who claimed one as her own, chaining it to her fence and installing a padlock. Once a saltbox is found, it’s emptied. Trash removed and bagged up. Leftover salt is dumped out and shoveled into the truck to make the box lift lighter, if possible. It’s a two-person job, the classic lift-with-your-legs activity. 

The collected boxes are returned to 6400 Pulaski Highway and fall into three categories that roughly translate to:

  • Total loss: this is no longer a functioning box and will be crossing the Rainbow Bridge
  • Needs repair: this box has good bones, but need some maintenance team attention
  • Ready for storage: this box lives to serve another season and can go into storage

Saltbox storage is a little like the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, if the government warehouse space was divided among a mid-sized, rectangle building and several shipping containers and trailers. Maximizing use to the space is key here, and since nobody needs to access a particular box, they’re all placed on their sides and stacked in rows to the ceiling, feet facing out. The math works like this in the storage building: Length: 15 boxes. Height: 4 boxes, Width: 10 boxes. Equals: 600 saltboxes in the main storage building and rest in shipping containers, which includes the retrieved boxes, newly built boxes to replace the ones lost throughout the year. 

Around November 15th, the boxes end their slumber and return to the streets of Baltimore to serve another year.

The Saltbox Has Its Moment

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Saltbox on E. Fort Ave. & Webster St., Riverside

I grew up where snow came in two categories: real and lake effect. Don’t ask me to tell you the difference because I can’t. Maybe the flakes produced by the moisture coming off Lake Michigan are different than in your garden variety Alberta Clipper, but snow is snow, and we had a lot of it in southwest lower Michigan. Snow management is a way of life, a survival skill, and a point of pride in a place where the micro-climate may drop six inches on your house at any given moment for five months of the year.

I moved to Baltimore from the Midwest a dozen years ago with strong ideas about snow and what to do with it. Don’t get me started on dibs for shoveled out street parking spots or folks who leave piles of snow on their cars that fly off on the poor unfortunates stuck driving behind them. They’re closing schools because of how much snow? Really?

Which brings us to the Baltimore Saltbox.

For years, I don’t remember paying them any particular attention. We had one – I don’t even remember the style – directly across from our rowhouse in Hampden for years. Then, one day, I noticed it was gone, leaving only a square patch of dead grass. The saltbox never came back. Did we not use it enough? We have a parking pad in the back and bought pet-safe ice melt to protect our dog’s paws, so maybe someone needed our box elsewhere. Who figured that out?

Questions percolated. Why did some boxes stay all year while other ones were taken away? Why all of the different font styles? Shouldn’t they come with a little shovel instead of the improvised Royal Farms plastic cups people seem to use? Who designed these things, and when were they first used in Baltimore? Are they for use on the road or the sidewalk, or both?

A switch had gotten flipped, and I started noticing – really noticing – the saltboxes. Each is different depending on placement and exposure to weather. Each represents a battle between a corrosive (salt) and materials (wood, paint, and nails) that corrode. That tension gives each saltbox its terroir. I was smitten.

In 2017, I started taking pictures of saltboxes during dog walks around Hampden and posting them on my personal Instagram. I’m as good a photographer as an iPhone makes me. The OHSA yellow and its fading variations do what they’re supposed to and stand out, making for interesting contrasts.

In 2018, I rolled the saltboxes into their own Instagram account – @baltimore.saltbox – and at the urging of a few friends (Bob Wagner and Teresa Duggan), I started dropping the boxes into a Google map Bob had set up.  Bob pulled together a saltbox walking tour map of Hampden, and we spent a lovely afternoon testing it out. IG followers reached out with stories, lore, and the same questions I had. To me, like the Utz girl and Natty Boh Gent, the yellow boxes with black block letters are iconic Baltimore symbols and deserved to have their story told and the lore collected. I visited the Pratt and exchanged emails with representatives of the city, who seemed confused by my interest.

Enter Juliet Ames. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because in January 2021, Juliet Ames took a break from creating amazing jewelry from broken plates to cut the letters SALT BOX out of china, mound them on a board, and affix it all to a saltbox at the corner of W. 36th St. and Roland Ave. Baltimore social media fell madly in love, and more importantly, Baltimore DOT chimed in with its blessing. I opened up my Google saltbox map to the public and deputized a few dozen people to do updates, adding normal and art boxes.

Saltbox Art piece #1 by Juliet Ames, corner of W. 36th St. & Roland Ave., Hampden

The media attention around the saltboxes opened a solid line of communication with DOT, who had their plates more than full with COVID-19 restrictions and the everyday stresses and issues of a typical government agency. They hadn’t asked for the extra attention, discussions, and meetings around, of all things, the saltboxes – a sub-set of a sub-set of DOT’s remit – and the DIY art that the citizenry suddenly decided to attach to them. My interpretation of DOT’s policy on handling the art boxes, which all accounts took multiple meetings to hash out, is documented here. The implementation of this policy is a topic for another time.

Saltbox art themes include visual puns (the “Shoe Box” replaces the word with a shoe drawing) and mashups with iconic local brands (the “Old Bay Box” looks like a can of the spice that locals put on everything from popcorn to crabs). The “Salt Waters” and “Divine” boxes feature the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, and his muse Divine, respectively. Saltbox art also memorizes local historical figures like jazz greats Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, and writer Edgar Allen Poe. 

Over 200 pieces of incredible saltbox art produced by 65+ artists later, I still had the same basic saltbox questions. Luckily, I had an in with DOT now, and they let a few of us see where the boxes go in the summer and who makes them. More on this to follow.

The DOT Plans for the Saltboxes

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First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in this amazing DIY art project. As of April 3, 2021, there are 198 art boxes throughout Baltimore City created by 65 different artists. 

We have been in discussions with Baltimore City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) about what comes next. More details below but you will have two options:

  1. “Adopt” your box. That is, keep your art in place and take responsibility for maintaining the box. 
  2. Remove your art before mid-April (reverting the art box to a regular saltbox status). The city will begin picking up regular, non-art, saltboxes around April 15th. 

Background

First, a bit of background on the city’s normal approach to managing the saltboxes. 

Around November 15th, DOT begins placing saltboxes at key intersections and hilly streets identified as needing to have salt available. DOT then starts picking up the saltboxes around April 15th to repair them and build new boxes in preparation for the next winter season. 

Our little art project has changed the process, and we give full props to DOT Director Steve Sharkey for recognizing that they had something special happening and letting it flourish. 

So this is what is going to happen according to DOT:

Adopt Your Box: Art Boxes Are Staying Put (If You Choose)

In mid-April, DOT will be picking up all non-art boxes as per the normal process. These will be taken, stored, repaired, and prepped for duty in the fall.

Art boxes will remain. This is where you come in. DOT would like the artists to “adopt” the boxes they’ve decorated since they won’t be getting the normal repairs. What this means is a little hazy but will include removing trash from your box, making sure your art improves the box’s appearance and doing your best to keep the box intact. 

If your box requires a level of repair that you can’t do yourself, call 311 to report that a repair is needed. The box and its art will be taken by DOT, repaired, and returned, with your art in place. As this is a city service, this should be used as a final resort. Unless the wood itself has rotted away or pieces have gone missing, do your best to keep the structure intact. 

Remove Your Art: Revert an Art Box to a Plain Old Saltbox

If you do not want to adopt your box, you can always simply deinstall your box and return it to its normal state. This would allow DOT to take the saltbox back to be repaired and relieve you of the duty of maintaining a box. With boxes returning in the fall, you can always relive the magic of decorating a saltbox again.

If you do pull your art, let us know at baltimore.saltbox@gmail.

Art Box (and Normal Saltbox) Mapping Taken Over By DOT

Currently, we’ve been keeping a Google Map of each of the known art box locations with cross streets, date, title, artist, neighborhood, reporter, and photo. It also maps normal box locations throughout the past few years. DOT does not have a map of saltboxes but tracks their locations with a spreadsheet. 

Going forward, DOT will be using its GIS software to map the locations of BOTH art boxes and regular saltboxes. This will be a great public service and available to everyone like other city service maps. Examples can be found here.

This software is very robust and will allow for map features and details that Google Maps cannot support. We will be working with DOT and their GIS team on what information should be captured for the art boxes to ensure the work is properly documented and attributed, and any additional contextual information to help with the understanding of cultural significance. The GIS software will open up great possibilities like easily making walking tour maps and including QR codes on boxes, to name a few things we’re thinking about.

Once the data points for the map entries are defined, we will probably be reaching out to individual artists for help in filling in details. 

We know you probably have questions or ideas. Please reach out to both baltimore.saltbox@gmail.com and juilet@ibreakplates.com. And follow @baltimore.saltbox and @thebrokenplate_jules on IG for all things Baltimore Saltbox.

Thank you for making this all possible and bringing the magic!

Cheers,

Juliet Ames & Robert Atkinson