Stamford Advocate
November 12, 2005

Splashes of Color
Work preserves artistic tradition

By Doug Dalena, Staff Writer

STAMFORD - Drive down the Exit 7 off-ramp from Interstate 95 north and you can see the Stamford skyline twice. There's the big one, looming over the highway and the Metro-North Railroad tracks; then there's the other skyline, the one Liz Squillace painted in black and yellow on the metal box on the corner that controls the traffic light.

Many of the 4-foot-high traffic signal boxes have been transformed by the artists who work out of lofts in the old Yale & Towne lock factory in the South End. The first was Anne Salthouse, who accepted a commission from the Springdale Neighborhood Association to make boxes there blend into the neighborhood. The latest is Liz Squillace.

She got her start working on someone else's designs. The first time Squillace (pronounced Squi-lah-chee) painted a signal box, she was working for Zora Janosova, who painted many of the designs downtown and in the South End before she died of cancer in May.

As her illness progressed, Janosova asked for help. Squillace, who grew up in Trumbull, attended the Rhode Island School of Design and currently lives in the Byram section of Greenwich has a studio in the old lock factory. She knew Janosova from the Loft Artists' Association and signed on as her assistant. At the time, Janosova already had plans for several boxes, so Squillace followed the dying artist's designs.

"I knew what she needed and just did it without imposing too many of my ideas," Squillace said. With Janosova's death, Squillace moved from the late artist's sketches to images inspired by them, to those from her own imagination.

Squillace's latest finished work, the dual-colored skyline at the bottom of Exit 7, presents a fish-bowl view of the city, with catenary towers, steel railroad bridges and whimsical versions of real and imagined downtown buildings. The bright yellow base coat shines through windows cut out of the black skyscrapers, which include a version of the Marriott's revolving restaurant and the inverse-pyramid-like First Stamford Forum.

"It kind of connotes nighttime and people working late hours," she said. Thin filaments of wire hang from the catenary towers, framing the highway in the foreground. "I've always been intrigued by the geometry of electrical structures," she said.

Viewed up close, the painting appears marred by imperfection: unfinished corners, imprecise outlines and varying thicknesses of paint. But from across the street, where a driver stopped at the traffic light would have time to look, all the imperfect elements blend to create a nuanced snapshot of the skyline: bold buildings popping out of the foreground, wires streaming away like the highway, and haze-blanketed structures fading toward the other end of town.

"That's one of the things Zora taught me," Squillace said. "You have to start painting from afar." Imagining the view from across the street, and painting quickly, helped Squillace focus on the look she wanted, one she said was inspired by surfboard and skateboard graphics.

For a different look, travel north to the corner of Adams Avenue and North Street. The crossing guard there will tell you how many schoolchildren from Hart Magnet Elementary and Cloonan Middle schools watched Squillace as she created a scene to reflect the lives of the people who see it every day.

Between the sidewalk and the fence around Dr. Jacob Nemoitin Park, a pigtailed girl in jeans stands on a wooden chair, holding a piece of chalk to a blackboard that wraps around three sides of the signal box. On the fourth side, pictures painted by imaginary schoolchildren, including one of the giant metal grasshopper in the park, hang on the classroom walls.

The blackboard is peppered with symbols, words, equations and the names of three schoolchildren (Brittany, Trudy, Markus) who came by one day and asked to make it personal. “We brought white-out," they told her.

The red in the little girl's turtleneck and blue in her jeans were  elements in Squillace's tribute to another artist. "I was reading a book about Norman Rockwell at the time," she said.

The equations on the blackboard combine the real and the fantastic. There is the formula for abscisic acid, the plant hormone in wheat grass believed by some to fight cancer, an equation that combines the infinity symbol into an artistic pattern and a fictional theorem that's shorthand for "I think, therefore I am."

Squillace painted a graph on the blackboard designed to inspire  children to study hard. It's the backwards-bending labor curve, which relates the amount of work they would have to do in order to work very little when they get older.

When she was painting the blackboard, Squillace thought about what she wanted  kids to think about when they walked by. She wanted them to realize that "those things they see in their books are cool" and care about what they were writing. One girl came by, Squillace said, and told her she had just moved from New York, a place she thought was "pretty cool." "But then I moved here," the girl told her, "and there's all this art around."