Public (utility) art: North Tahoe artists bring touch of color to Fallon’s history |

Public (utility) art: North Tahoe artists bring touch of color to Fallon’s history

Kings Beach artist Sara Smith brings one of Fallon’s gray boxes alive on West Williams Avenue with her artistic creativity.
Steve Ranson / LVN

Fallon has added a little more color to the city’s drab gray utility boxes.

North Lake Tahoe artist Sara Smith began painting historical murals on the boxes last summer and continued into the fall.

On one of those autumn days, Smith, who lives at Kings Beach, painted a traffic light electrical box on West Williams Avenue, and despite the backed-up traffic and curious motorists rubbernecking to look at her painting, she completed the box in a day.

“I’ve worked closely over the years with businesses, public entities, schools and individual clients to create imagery that reflects the sentiments, culture and needs of those involved,” Smith states on her website.

“It’s fascinating about the culture found in every small town.”— Sara SmithKings Beach artist

Throughout the Lake Tahoe region, she developed murals for the Incline Village library and Truckee Elementary and at many businesses such as the Village at Squaw and Intrawest California Holdings.

Since she began painting her first utility box of 10 north of the Slanted Porch, a restaurant on South Taylor Street, Smith has also completed other utility boxes in the downtown Fallon corridor. This is the second time, however, the city has commissioned an artist to add to the gray boxes. Annie Hooker, who lives and works in Truckee, painted historical scenes on the boxes in 2011.

“I know the artist who did the original work,” Smith said, as she preparing the paint for the Williams Avenue box. “She did a series of 10. The city decided it wanted to do more and reached out to Annie.”

Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford said his idea to paint Fallon’s utility boxes came from a visit to another city. He approached the Churchill Arts Council, which formed a committee, and then city engineer Jim Souba determined which boxes would benefit with the makeover.

“Jim identified 20 to 30 of these ugly transformer … the ones sticking up around the city,” Tedford said.

According to the mayor, the utility boxes were located in high-traffic areas affected by motorists or walkers.

“We sent out a call for artists to apply, and a committee comprised of Michon (Mackedon), Rachel Dahl, Christine Fey (who was then the head of Washoe County Arts & Culture) and myself reviewed the applications, and chose Annie Hooker based on her portfolio and her previous experience painting outdoor murals,” Valerie Serpa recalled. “Annie worked closely with the museum, using historical photographs as a basis for the boxes she painted … the Founding Fathers, Native Americans, rodeo, the Dry Gulch, and so on.”


Tedford said the city council agreed with him and allocated $10,000 to complete the first 10 boxes seven years ago. He remembers when the project began, he received drafts of artistic renditions of what each box would reveal. He said Serpa and Mackedon sent him designs that were widely accepted by the community, and they have worked with Smith and also shared a book they co-authored during the state’s sesquicentennial, “Fallon (Images of America).”

“Sara is using historical images as a starting point for what she’s painting,” Serpa said.

Although Smith wasn’t born and raised in Fallon, she said working with Serpa, the arts council and the city has given her the opportunity to dig into the area’s history. She said the Fallon book has been a good source of innovation.

“It’s been fun to go through all the resources,” she said. “It’s been lovely to create these images from multiple resources and to put them on these boxes.”

Smith said Hooker was unable to accept the city’s offer for the latest project, so she recommended other artists who would be a good fit to continue the project. Tedford said Hooker did a good job, but the city waited to start the next 10 boxes.

“Time just slipped past us,” Tedford explained. “We had been waiting to see if Annie would come back down (to Fallon).”

Since Hooker had other commitments, she recommended another Truckee artists. Stepping up was Smith, who brings 21 years of being deeply embedded in art culture. The Lake Tahoe resident has actively worked with the Truckee Chamber of Commerce and that city’s cultural district.

Down memory lane

Tedford said the images painted on each utility box enhance the area’s culture while beautifying the city. One particular mural has caught Tedford’s eye. He said the baseball painting captures the city’s rich history 70 to 80 years ago.

“Baseball at any time played in Fallon could be depicted by that one painting,” Tedford added.

Serpa said each painting takes a trip down memory lane.

The project references the past of course, but embraces the present and the future,” she said. “People still enjoy each their company sharing a meal, the Lutheran Church provides a day care option for busy working families, and Fallon still loves parades.”

During the project, Smith has seen similarities between Truckee and Fallon and what she calls their western expansion story.

“It’s a story of how people integrated and of the immigrants,” Smith said. “It’s fascinating about the culture found in every small town.”

Hooker also remembers how rewarding the project became.

“The experience of painting the boxes was incredibly unique and satisfying,” she said. “Yes, it was challenging at times but only because of the elements of painting outdoors (no running water, heat, drying times …) and also being acclimated to painting on flat surfaces typically it was a complex puzzle to figure out how to make a whole painting work on the ‘box’ surface.”

Overall, Hooker said the experience was wonderful.

“I am an artist who is a history nerd with a huge interest in the American West,” she added. “Going to the historical society and going through their image files and learning about Fallon’s past was truly fascinating. I loved the project and am honored to have done it.”

Steve Ranson is editor emeritus at Lahontan Valley News.

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