Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Start of the Blue Box Initiative.

There are 27 Blue Boxes painted on the sidewalks in Downtown Orlando. These boxes were painted in an effort to control panhandling. Citizens complained about aggressive panhandling, so an ordinance was drafted making it illegal to panhandle downtown. The blue boxes were created to protect first amendment rights, of freedom of speech. They are referred to as Exempt Zones. The city's official position is that street performing is allowed in downtown Orlando as long a the performer doesn't block pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk and they are not soliciting. If the performer has an open music case or a hat, the police will assume that the performer is busking or begging. In Orlando there is no difference between a performer and a panhandler. The penalty for performing downtown outside of a blue box is 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

An accordion player I was sketching at Lake Eola was told that his performance was illegal because his accordion case was open. He was forced to move along. There are no blue boxes in Lake Eola, so the performer packed up and went home. These isolated blue boxes are hard to find, and few people know where they are. Most people are amazed that such an Orwellian idea exists. I thought the accordion music added a festive touch to the day. The best experiences I have had in traveling to cities around the world has been when I discover some astonishing talent performing on the streets or in parks. Disney hires artists to perform on the streets to give tourists a feeling of being in a vibrant creative place. It is a shame that Orlando claims to support the arts but artists who perform in public are treated like criminals.

I've been told to move along several times by police. I didn't have an open case, but my very presence on a sidewalk is considered a hindrance to the safe flow of pedestrian traffic. I am only two feet wide and I always make every effort to stay out of peoples way. Now if you have ever been downtown, you might realize that Orlando isn't bustling with pedestrians elbowing each other for sidewalk space. I've sketched downtown at rush hour, and the city seems completely deserted except for all the car traffic. Orlando natives drive to their parking garage and then drive home at the end of the day without ever stepping outside.

The Orlando panhandling Ordinance wasn't written for performers or artists, but the police tell anyone who is doing something creative to go to a blue box. Because of this I have decided to start the Blue Box Initiative. I plan to sketch 27 performers in each of the 27 Blue Boxes. I found a map that shows where each of these boxes are. Some are worn away from neglect, but I hope to sketch performances at each site regardless. My main objective is to show that artists are not beggars and that encouraging performers to perform in public would add a vibrant spark of life to the downtown scene. The blue boxes are however in isolated spots of downtown. It would be nice if creativity could flourish everywhere. Every sketch I have done in the past outside of a blue box could have landed me in jail. It would be nice to sketch without the fear of arrest.

The first performer to answer the Blue Box Initiative call, was violinist, Ariah Deason, who used to perform on Park Avenue in Winter Park,  before that city made it illegal to be creative on Park Avenue, Hannibal Square and New England Avenue. Ariah's mom Kristi explained that in one night last Christmas season, her daughter, made over $150 in one evening by performing on Park Avenue. Ariah is astonishingly talented. She has been playing violin since the age of five, and is now sixteen. She rehearses four hours every day. She is currently concert master of Florida Youth Orchestra's Philharmonia and has also played with the Ka Malinali band accompanying traditional Mexican folk music as well as original music. She is currently studying classical violin under Joni Roos at Rollins College and her future musical projects include a Persian music folk band, live performance for an original dance production at The Dancer's Edge studio in Winter Park and Irish fiddling. She is also passionate about art and photography and is hoping to integrate all of them into her life path. She regularly performs at weddings. The idea that Winter Park now considers her beautiful performances criminal is mind boggling. 

The Blue Box I met the Deason family at was on Colonial Drive at Lake Dot.  Unfortunately this box was already occupied. I spoke with Cheryl who occupies the box every day from 6am to 6pm. Once the sun sets, it is illegal to panhandle in Orlando even in a Blue Box. Cheryl is diabetic requiring insulin shots. She has applied for medical disability but has to wait 18 months for the paperwork to clear before she can be helped. I explained the Blue Box Initiative to her and she gave me advice on other blue boxes to look for. When the Deason' arrived, I asked Cheryl if she would like to share the box and she could keep any money raised. The ordinance states that there can only be one person per blue box. She said however that family or friends can share a blue box. She is used to being alone, so I met the Deason's one block to the east in front of the Salvation Army. I gave Cheryl several dollars for her help and advice. She is barely visible in the sketch wearing a pink shirt and seated on the sidewalk, a block away.

Ariah opened he violin case and began to perform. Her uplifting music blended with the rush of traffic on Colonial Drive. Several cars honked their approval. The family had blue checkered blanket and they sat picnic style on the Salvation Army lawn. Dad took pictures with his daughters SLR camera while the youngest daughter, Kristi joined me in doing an Urban Sketch. After watching her sister perform for a while, Tiva worked up the nerve to put her ballet shoes on and dance to Ariah's music. Tiva has been studying classical ballet in the Cecchetti method for five years at The Dancer's Edge Studio in Winter Park. She Participates in two production companies there. She also plays viola and is a member of the Florida Youth Symphony's Overture Strings Orchestra. Tiva wore a shirt with a giant heart on it. The Salvation Army sign pointed out, that, "Love isn't Love unless it is shared. Come join us." She was thin and graceful creating beautiful lines of action.

Pedestrians were rare. Several skate boarders rolled by, and Ariah was narrowly missed by a swerving bicycle. A man with red shorts lingered for sometime  talking into his cell phone. In the back of my mind, I imagined him being an undercover cop calling for backup to stop this flagrant display of art. A news truck rumbled by, but they were in a rush to get to an accident or murder. I never spotted a police car. As usual art celebrated life went mostly unnoticed. I fell in love with the entire Deason family. It was a beautiful day with inspired music and dance. For me it was the perfect way to start the Blue Box initiative. With one Blue Box sketched, I have 26 to go. The plan is to sketch one a week, usually on Mondays. If you know someone who would like to become part of project, please let me know. I'll add them to the Blue Box Initiative group page on Facebook. 

Although Ariah's violin case was open, no money was ever dropped inside. At most 5 people passed by on this deserted stretch of sidewalk on one of Orlando's busiest roads. I doubt Cheryl made much in her Blue Box that day. After we were done Kristi gave he youngest daughter some money to give to Cheryl. Excited, her daughter sprinted off and had to be called back. "Wait for us. We'll all go together." This family knew how to share the love.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at


The Critical Grumbler said...

I want to blue box!! Thank you for this Thor!!

Thor said...

The Critical Grumbler, look up The Blue Box Initiative FB group and I'll add you.