MANCHESTER, NH – Jyl Dittbenner is a teacher and an artist. On a whim, she felt compelled to repurpose a useless public phone booth along Elm Street outside the Kenoco station into a colorful public art installation. She passed it frequently on her way to Studio 550, and decided to take action.
After getting permission from the business owner, she used her ceramics skills and fashioned a merry band of musicians from clay – the older gent playing the accordion was a nod to her grandfather. The process took her several weeks, but it was a labor of love. Once they were designed, she fired and painted them.
Then she set them up inside the metal relic of a phone booth, which she reimagined as a high-rise apartment complex. She painted windows with people and pets peering out. Friends helped her make a shield out of plexiglas, which they installed to protect the figures she’d made.
Her music box art was a colorful ode to many of the everyday things about Manchester people enjoy. It was a small expression of Dittbenner’s personal connection to the city, to music and art, to the place where she works and plays, and all the little things that can mean so much in a place where life too often registers in shades of gray.
The display lasted a week before someone vandalized it.
“I’m discouraged. It’s sad,” says Dittbenner, who met me a week or so after the vandals had cracked the bottom of the plexiglas shield and smashed up the figurines, leaving just a small shred of ceramics behind.
I told her I wanted to see the funky phone booth for myself.
It was joyful. I could see lots of work went into not only painting it, but the logistics – like figuring out how to make the figures stand upright, and fitting the plexiglas shield just so.
As disheartening as it was for Dittbenner to find her handiwork ruined, I was surprised to learn that she was equally determined to fix it.
As many times as she has to, she said.
She had brought along some of the replacement figures she was working on to show me, wooden ones this time.
Dittbenner is a Saint Anselm grad, who teaches at St. Casimir School on Union street. Art is her hobby. She loves the idea of public art, and believes Manchester is as worthy as any other city to have random acts of art. They brighten up the urban landscape. They also make a city feel more personal, more loved.
“These will be more durable,” she says. “I’m not going to give up.”
About a week later, Dittbenner sent me a photo of the rest of the musicians-in-progress. A few weeks after that, I was driving by the phone booth and stopped out of curiosity, to see if the replacement figurines were in place.
I parked my car at the Kenoco station, but before I even got out of my car I noticed a dad with his young daughter standing next to the phone booth. Rick Redman and his daughter, Mystic, 7, told me they were out playing PokemonGo together. They had just crossed Elm Street to get to the Kenoco to grab a drink when Mystic spotted the little wooden musicians inside the box.
She was mesmerized.
The two of them made their way around the phone booth, looking at all the people peering out from the apartment house windows.
“Check this out,” Redman said to his daughter, “It’s a cat.”
The two of them lingered a while as Mystic named the instruments she could see through the protective plexiglas.
“This is awesome,” Redman said, of the phonebooth. “We were just walking by and then I did a double-take. Totally unexpected.”
Mystic said she liked the cello player the best.
“I really like how the people are inside the box. It’s pretty,” she said.