History calling: Baltimore artist adorns abandoned phone booths across the city

Artist who reimagined the city’s salt boxes has found a new place to display her work.

Published on: September 08, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: September 08, 2022 5:00 PM EDT

Juliet Ames pulled her blue hatchback into a Remington gas station, heading past the pumps to the far corner of the lot. There, scrawled with graffiti and streaked with rust, was her target: a pair of long-forgotten pay phones.

“I do this part in the car so that it’s a quick hit,” said Ames, 42, sticking a thick strip of double-sided tape to a sheet of bright yellow corrugated vinyl. “People don’t usually say anything to me. I’m actually normally a rule follower.”

With a quick glance to see if anyone was watching, Ames sprang out of the car and affixed the yellow sheet inside one of the phone booths. She stepped back to admire her work. The booth now framed Ames’ image of actor Lily Tomlin playing telephone operator Ernestine from the old TV variety show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

Ames snapped a few photos, hopped in the car and drove away, leaving Ernestine to catch the eye of passersby.

Since July, Ames, an artist best known for elevating Baltimore’s salt boxes into works of art, has turned her attention to pay phones. “They always look like an empty naked frame to put art in,” said Ames. “I always need to have a project going.”

Once you start looking for abandoned phone booths, you start seeing them everywhere, said Ames, 42, of Lake Walker. She counts 14 on the drive from her son’s school, Archbishop Curley in Northeast Baltimore, to her studio in Hampden’s Mill Centre, where she runs a business fashioning jewelry out of fragments of pottery, The Broken Plate Co.

It’s unclear just how many pay phones are in Baltimore or even who is in charge of them. While once they were crucial stops for anyone looking to call a ride or reach friends or family when away from home — there were some 2.6 million in the United States in the mid-1990s — they have grown obsolete, thanks to cellphones.

Baltimore’s Department of General Services announced in 2015 that it was removing pay phones from its minor privilege schedule, meaning businesses would no longer need to pay a fee to install one, according to the Daily Record. At the time, there was one working pay phone in the city. But fewer than two decades earlier, there were 1,200 pay phones in Baltimore and city officials ordered hundreds of them removed, saying they could be used by drug dealers, according to a 1999 Baltimore Sun article.

A general services spokeswoman said last week that the department did not oversee pay phones. A spokesman for Verizon said that the company did not currently have any pay phones in the city. Yet the dilapidated booths persist in alleys and outside convenience stores and gas stations, a vestige of a different way of life, much like hitching posts and coal cellar doors.

Working pay phones are in short supply across the country. New York City officials announced in May that the city’s last working pay phone was being removed, although a New Yorker reporter later discovered that a few functioning phones remained. The Payphone Project website tracks the locations of pay phones across the country.

Locally, the Baltimore Payphone Instagram account captures images of phone booths around the city, including many that Ames has decorated. The account is maintained by Robert Atkinson, a friend of Ames, who also runs a page devoted to salt boxes. The two have been collaborating since late 2020, when Ames first decorated a salt box.

It was in the midst of a gloomy winter COVID spike that year when Ames cut the letters “SALT BOX” out of blue and white pottery. She affixed them to what had been an unassuming wooden container on a Hampden street corner. Then she tweeted a picture of it, coyly noting that someone had altered a salt box.

To Ames’ surprise and delight, the project caught on and even received the blessing of the city’s Department of Transportation, which places the boxes on street corners so residents can sprinkle rock salt on icy roads and sidewalks.

Ames decorated scores of salt boxes with images that pay homage to people and traditions unique to Baltimore, from Divine, filmmaker John Waters’ late collaborator, to actor Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from HBO’s “The Wire.” Other local artists joined in the fun and as many as 200 salt boxes have been adorned with her artwork, Ames said. The trend has sparked paraphernalia — there are salt box pillows, Christmas ornaments, and a publication, “The Salt Box Concern,” written by Atkinson. Ames has a salt box tattoo and sheaths her cell phone in a salt box yellow case. The salt box project even caught the attention of The New Yorker.

But once city workers packed away the salt boxes in the spring, Ames started looking around for a new venue for her guerrilla art. She realized just how many phone booths remain in the city, relics of a time when people needed a quarter to make a local call.

“It was one of those things that I thought about for a couple weeks and then I woke up and said, ‘Today is the day,’” said Ames, surrounded in her studio by stacks of pottery waiting to be smashed and photos, posters and articles about the salt boxes.

To create her latest works, Ames starts with the same mustard-colored vinyl that she uses for the salt box project. She draws a design on the computer, then prints it using a Cricut electronic cutting machine. Ames cleans the edges using a sharp knife, then uses a comb-shaped tool to transfer the design to the vinyl. She repeats this process for each color in the design, layering colors and lines to create a complete image.

The pieces fall into two broad categories: homages to classic works of art, such as Matisse’s “Blue Nude or Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” and phone-themed scenes from movies and pop culture. She’s created works featuring Kermit the Frog, Stevie Wonder (”I just called to say I love you”), and, of course, Clark Kent.

“I like to feel like I’m putting little delights into the world for people to discover,” said Ames. She has managed to make peace with the fact that her art works disappear, often within hours. She posts images of each reimagined pay phone to Instagram, where she explains the history of each art work and artist.

Ultimately, Ames is grateful to be able to create in Baltimore, where her art is celebrated and not removed by municipal workers. “I don’t know if I would be able to do this in any other city,” she said.

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