“I love knowing that I’m part of this little unexpected burst of joy that brings public art when you’re walking around the city.”
We all dream of finding our true calling, to spend the rest of our life doing what we’re passionate about, but we also fear that when we do find it it’s going to be too late to pursue it.
Ellen Thompson was a 27-year-old employee at Berklee College of Music when she was inspired to find something that inspired her like music did for all the students and professors at her job.
After surveying many options, Thompson realized that through visual arts, she could find a break from stress. From there, she started taking classes at Boston Architectural School where she kept practicing. And despite struggling at first, she eventually found her way.
Now, at 32, Thompson has her own unique painting style and was selected by the City of Boston to paint one of the city’s typically bland-looking utility boxes. In turn, she saw the chance to demonstrate her creativity and took it.
The Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, through the project dubbed Paint Box, gives a stipend of $500 to select artists to paint utility boxes located in neighborhood business districts. The goal is to recognize and celebrate local artists while contributing to the attractiveness of the urban streetscape of Boston.
“When I heard that the City of Boston was giving these opportunities, I knew I needed to be part of this,” Thompson said. “I had no idea of how I was going to do it and was certain that I wouldn’t get chosen, but I had to try.”
The artist said that she’d forgotten about her submission, but by the end of summer she received an email announcing her election to paint one on Commonwealth Avenue.
“I was really excited and thrilled,” she said, “but then I got nervous because my specialty is watercolor. I had no experience with outdoor painting nor acrylic paint.”
Thompson’s finished piece on Comm Ave is a “childlike and cute” combo of citrus fruits with smiling faces on a white background inspired by her relationship with her partner.
“I have always been interested in citrus fruits because they’re colorful and refreshing and they’re like this beautiful little break from all the depressing cold winter months,” explained. “My partner Matt loves putting smiley faces on everything, and over time I started to put faces on my paintings, and it makes me happy. It’s silly, fun, loose and makes things less serious.”
Thompson’s minimalist watercolors are also mostly fruits, vegetables, and animals, as her inspiration comes from a connection to nature, which she said played a huge part in her childhood in upstate New York.
“Something that I really like about making art is that it is very connected to my childhood,” Thompson said. “It’s just this very fun, playful version of myself that kinda reminds me of being a kid. Especially during the time of the pandemic, my art became very playful and silly in a way.”
For an artist who started her career by looking outside of herself to find beauty in things, these days making art is all about empowerment, and knowing that she can create something in a matter of minutes that makes her happy without having to buy it or change her location. That her works can make other people happy as well adds an “extra level of satisfaction.”
Thompson said she loves seeing feedback on social media, especially now with the appreciation of her Paint Box.
“It’s been fun seeing the videos, tags, messages on social media about my box,” she said. “I love knowing that I’m part of this little unexpected burst of joy that brings public art when you’re walking around the city.”
Thompson encourages other people who, like her, are passionate about art to take a leap of faith and discover the journey.
“You don’t have to be good or perfect to enjoy art, especially at the beginning,” she said. “I was really bad at art for a long time, but you get better, you find your style, and it adds so much to your life.
Thompson is currently working at an architectural firm in Boston as a marketing manager and hopes to, in the near future, have the opportunity to paint a mural in the city where she can expand the theme of fruits with faces from her Paint Box. It’s a theme that both adults and kids can resonate with, she said.
“It’s really cool to make something that a lot of people can see, and hopefully bring joy to every one that is walking by for free.”
Coralys is a Puerto Rican journalism graduate student. Currently, she studies at Boston University and interns at DigBoston. In the past, she collaborated with the online newspaper Pulso Estudiantil, the radio program Miss Mundo Contigo, and WIPR.