Downtown Springfield portrait of Muhammad Ali makes comeback after vandalism

By Dan Glaun |
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on June 17, 2016 at 10:02 AM, updated June 17, 2016 at 10:08 AM
Like the legendary boxer himself, Springfield’s public art tribute to Muhammad Ali has made a comeback.

The portrait, one of 18 paintings made on downtown utility boxes in recent weeks for a project by the Springfield Central Cultural District, was vandalized earlier this week. Deep marks defaced the memorial to Ali, who died on June 3.

But John Simpson, the artist who painted the utility box, has already fixed it up, and a fresh portrait now looks out over the sidewalk between 1350 Main Street and Monarch Place.

Simpson, working on repairs in front of the Main Street utility box on Wednesday, said he arrived at the painting on Monday to find a vandal had carved deep grooves into the box’s surface, leaving long scars across the Ali tribute.

“I saw it on Monday morning. I had kind of worked on this on Sunday, and I came in on Monday ready to touch up his face a tiny bit more,” Simpson said.

Watch artists transform downtown Springfield utility box into art (video)

Watch artists transform downtown Springfield utility box into art (video)

Over a period of several days last week, Alberto Navarro and Karlos Torruella took on a mission from the Springfield Central Cultural District: to transform the utility box at the corner of Main and Worthington Streets into a work of art.

As Simpson was speaking, a Springfield police officer walking down Main Street stopped in his tracks.

“What happened to Muhammad Ali?” the officer asked.

“Someone attacked it,” Simpson answered.

“That’s horrible!” the officer said.

Simpson worked on Wednesday and Thursday to smooth out the surface of the box and repaint Ali’s portrait.

“They really gouged into the surface too. I had to get Bondo to fill it,” he said.

Simpson, like all the artists selected to paint utility boxes around the city’s downtown, was paid $200 for his troubles. He was making the repairs free of additional charge, he said.

More important, he said, was the message sent by the art.

“Can’t have it be depressing, because that would defeat the purpose of having done it in the first place,” Simpson said.

Simpson is a University of Massachusetts professor who has done other major public art projects in Springfield, including the mural of Wizard of Oz characters on a vacant former hotel in Court Square.

The utility box program began with a pilot last summer, with artists painting two utility boxes in Stearns Square. Last month, 18 artists decorated utility boxes across the district, from the intersection of Main and Worthington Streets to the corner of Maple and Chestnut.

The artists were chosen based on an application process that favored local painters, according to Springfield Central Cultural District Executive Director Morgan Drewniany.

“Most are from Springfield with a handful from the greater valley,” Drewniany wrote in an email. “We favored Springfield-based artists in the judging/selection process.”

Art in Springfield MA City Mosaic Evan Plotkin Artist John Simpson