55-Gallon Gallery

This year, the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci's mysterious Mona Lisa found its way from the Louvre to the parks of Lower Paxton Township, Pa., appearing in the most unlikely of places: a garbage can. The Mona Lisa and other aesthetically pleasing images have been painted on refuse containers as part of the township park and recreation department's Trash (Can) To Treasure project, an initiative to introduce public art into the community.

Before the project, the 28-square-mile, 45,000-resident township of Lower Paxton lacked murals, sculptures or public art of any kind. As a result, Parks and Recreation Director Brian Luetchford says the department's arts council sought innovative ways to place art in the community. “[The arts council] thought [this project] would be a good thing since we only had these plain, green trash cans.” Luetchford says.

Just completing its third year, the Trash (Can) to Treasure project is open to community organizations and residents of all ages and skill levels, from the novice painter to the experienced artist. For a few weeks each May, interested residents come to the department to pick up their trash can for painting. Prior to painting, the 55-gallon drums are thoroughly cleaned, although new cans have been purchased for the project. The department also works with Public Works officials to make sure the trash receptacles can be taken out of service. Participants have 10 days to complete their project. The only requirement is that they use rust-resistant paint so the images will last over time.

This year, residents, including a local Girl Scout troop, adorned 15 cans with a variety of family-friendly themes. In addition to the enigmatic Mona Lisa, puppies and penguins peer out from some cans. Other cans depict pastoral landscapes or beach scenes. A graffiti-style can also was submitted, featuring various synonyms for “garbage” all over the can. “Everyone has their own ideas as to how to do this,” Luetchford says. “Creative things have happened all around.”

The new cans will be placed in 14 different area parks, adding to the nearly 80 cans the department has placed since the program began three years ago.

Based on the success of the project, the community is discussing other ways in which it might bring art to the community. But Luetchford says the project is about more than the garbage cans, the images painted on them or even beautifying the township's parks. It is, he says, a return to the core community principles of resident activism and interaction.

“In the past, its always been about a quiet community [where] we just want to mow our lawns and take care of our kids and go to bed,” Luetchford says. “Now, its getting to the point where we're getting more involved with activities and people. If [we're] going to expand into the arts in some way, let's get the community involved with it. [This project] is the people of the community being involved.”