Storm drain art by local artist Sarahlaine Calva

Art All Around

In Buzz, May 2019 by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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April showers bring May flowers but, in Raleigh, they also bring bright, colorful storm drains. 

This month, local artist Sarahlaine Calva, in a partnership with the city’s stormwater management division, will complete her fifth installation in a series of vibrant designs on stormwater grates and surrounding sidewalk in locations across Raleigh. You may have seen art on stormwater drains in Nash Square Park, Peterson Street and at the corner of Sutton and Smallwood Drive near Cameron Village that Calva has already completed. Two more are slated for drains on North Hills Drive and Lenoir Street at Chavis Way. 

The purpose of the project, explains Kristin Freeman, a communications analyst in the city’s engineering services department, is to turn residents’ attention to keeping trash, pet waste, paint, grease, yard waste and other pollution out of storm drains; water that runs into the drains eventually flows into local waterways, including Raleigh’s major lakes as well as Walnut Creek and Crabtree Creek which, in turn, flow into the Neuse River. 

“All of this is to bring awareness in a fun way,” Freeman says. “Normally, you don’t notice a storm drain, so we wanted to do something that’s vibrant and colorful to bring attention.” 

Calva, a Raleigh native and self-taught freelance artist, uses Sherwin-Williams porch and floor enamel to paint her colorful fish, flowers, sunshine and raindrops. The 20-year-old artist was selected after responding to a request for design proposals from the stormwater division, which will pay her for her work. Before Calva paints, city workers pressure wash the sidewalks and dismantle the storm drain grates. They deliver the grates to Calva, who primes them and paints a base design before the grates are reinstalled and Calva can paint the surrounding sidewalk. 

“I tried to incorporate my style into each, to make sure it’s related to water in some way, and the environment, and came up with a bunch of sketches,” Calva says of her process. “I really like vibrant colors and using lines and geometric and linear shapes and evoking a cheerful feeling when you look at my art. I’ve gotten a lot of appreciation from the community. People are like, ‘Oh, thank you for doing this.’”

And the colorful storm drains aren’t the only artsy installations to look for this spring. 

You’ve likely seen artist Graymon Ward’s giant slice of pepperoni pizza on the pedestrian median where Wilmington, Salisbury and Peace streets intersect, or Leah Preiss’s tiny trash monsters protesting litter at the trash and recycling bins on W. Morgan Street, or Buffy Taylor’s colorful, happy lady in “Go with the Flow” at the corner of W. Lenoir and W. Cabarrus. 

These sidewalk murals comprise Raleigh ArtBeats, a collaboration between the city’s public arts office and the transportation department, with support from Artspace and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. By the end of June, a total of 15 artists’ murals will pop up within the 110 blocks of the downtown municipal services district. The murals range from the large—Chika Gujarathi’s colorful “Maze” in Nash Square or the aforementioned pizza—to the tiny—Preiss’s “Litter Critters,” Helen Seebold’s quilt blocks on Wilmington Street or Megan O’Connor’s “Flora and Fauna of Raleigh” at the corner of S. Person Street and New Bern Avenue. Like Calva, all 15 Raleigh ArtBeats artists were given free rein to come up with their designs and will be compensated for their work.

“It’s been exciting for artists who don’t normally get opportunities to do this,” says Kelly McChesney, the city’s public art director. “They’re taking each public art piece to really make it their own.”

Raleigh ArtBeats has been so successful that the American Planning Association recently named it one of the top 12 creative placemaking projects in the country. And there are plans to keep it alive for the foreseeable future, says Jen Baker, the downtown coordinator for the city’s transportation department; next year, artists will wrap city signal cabinets with vinyl.

The city’s goal, say Baker and McChesney, is to put a toolkit in place for artists to create in public- or city-owned spaces, no matter their vision. 

“It has been great to see these artists just take it and run with whatever their vision was for these spaces,” Baker says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Check out for links to maps with the locations of Raleigh ArtBeats and storm drain murals. Look for Calva’s storm drain artwork with the hashtag #raleighstormwater. Check out the city’s website for RFPs for projects seeking artists or to book an outreach specialist knowledgable about stormwater runoff for any school, community or business event.

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