Visual Arts Commentary: A Model for Urban Revitalization
By Mark Favermann
The Rose Kennedy Greenway’s Dewey Square mural program is one of the best in the world.
Created by Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs at the Dewey Square massive air intake structure diagonally across from Boston’s South Station, the wonderful mural Breathe Life Together was completed this past June. It will be on display for a year. It is the ninth temporary mural installation coordinated by a creative public arts program on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Murals are changed out every 12 to 18 months.
A visual artist and community organizer, Gibbs has been transforming the cultural landscape of Boston via graffiti art and murals since 1991. ProBlak’s work draws on Black experiences, Afrofuturism, and non-Western cosmologies to celebrate the intergenerational strength, collective imagination, and joys of American Black culture. This mural is one of the most pleasing that have graced the 70 x 76-foot wall since the program’s inception in 2012. Gibbs’s mural focuses on a beautiful little Black girl (his daughter) rising out of the grass, facing her neighborhood, ready to collaborate with the culture of past generations. She appears to ask the viewer to join the conversation about the past, present, and future of our communities in Boston.
The Greenway was developed from the highly controversial “Big Dig” project, which was carried out between 1991 and 2007. It was the most expensive highway project in US history, plagued by cost overruns, delays, and leaks, as well as engineering and design flaws. There were multiple charges of poor execution and use of substandard materials. Originally scheduled to be completed in 1998 at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion in 1982 dollars, $7.5 billion adjusted for inflation, the “Big Dig” was completed almost a decade later at a cost overrun of about 220 percent. Critics question how much the effort significantly lessened traffic, congestion, and pollution.
However, forgive the pun, but “the rose among the thorns” was the creation of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (honoring the Kennedy matriarch). Set in the heart of Boston, the Greenway is a roughly 1.5-mile-long series of linear parks and public spaces above the tunnel where I-93 was set underground. It was officially dedicated on July 26, 2004. I once had a barber who said that the difference between a good haircut and a bad one was about two weeks. Similarly, the difference between a rough-looking park and a good park seems to be about five to seven years. The critical jury was initially out on the Greenway Conservancy. But over time an unorganized landscape was transformed into a visual oasis populated by beautifully arranged gardens.
In 2012, the public art program of the Greenway Conservancy initiated a thoughtfully evolving mural program. Its first mural was as controversial as it was compelling. Created by Os Gemeos, Brazilian twin brothers, it was the image of a giant, yellow-colored character in brightly mismatched garb who appears to have squeezed himself in between the towering buildings that surrounded him. The character is among the pair’s iconic figures. The artists had hoped their mural would bring color and energy to Boston, inspiring curiosity, wonder, and imagination. But it generated a backlash.
Depicting their visions in surreal paintings, sculpture, and installations, Os Gemeos’ collaborative narrative work, conveyed through surreal paintings, sculpture, and installations, visually evokes the everyday lives of everyday people, often whimsically depicting the color and chaos of Brazil, its Carnivals, music, and folk art. Why the hostile reactions to the mural? The yellow giant was wearing an Arab keffiyeh, or traditional desert headdress. Many viewers felt this suggested a dark message, perhaps one of terrorism. The artists greeted the questioning with an ambiguous playfulness. This cavalier attitude sparked many public (online and in newspapers) debates during the mural’s yearlong residency. Compelling art? A rocky beginning? Good PR?
Following this fracas, it was predictable that a laid back mural, by British artist Matthew Richie, would be the next step. Remanence, Salt and Light drew on Boston’s past and present, evoking both science and scripture. Through line and abstraction, the artist examined concepts of memory, residue, and resonance. (The “Salt and Light” in the title refers to John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his use of the Sermon on the Mount.) This black-on-white drawing writ-large tapped (metaphorically) into the vast network of hidden forces and information that surrounds us in the modern world — it suggested multiple levels of experience and reality. The work pissed off nobody. The first two murals were curated by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
The third mural was an abstract work, Seven Moon Junction created by Shinique Smith. It was based on a detail from her 2013 painting Seven Moons. Unfortunately, blowing up a segment from an abstract painting was not a success. The resulting mural was awkward at best, visually questionable at worst. This was an example of an artist and the curators of the Museum of Fine Arts Contemporary Department badly stumbling out of their wheelhouse. Every studio artist is not a muralist. Every painter isn’t Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, or David Siqueiros, or even Shepherd Fairey or Keith Haring. And the fact is that many museum curators lack expertise in public art.
The fourth mural, curated by MIT’s List Center for the Arts, was an extremely weak entry by the late Lawrence Weiner, a conceptual art pioneer and New York-based artist. His awkwardly asymmetrical red block letter statement “A Translation From One Language to Another” on a sky blue background was more billboard message than art piece. The MIT curators loved the artist, but the public was underwhelmed. The fifth mural, by Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo, was titled Spaces of Hope. It dealt with dreamscapes, delving into nuanced speculation about the future, hitting notes of hope, fear, and uncertainty. The work was elegantly done, but it was too dark and too detailed to have significant visual impact — a surprising misstep for an experienced international muralist.
Curated by the De Cordova Museum, the sixth mural by Shara Hughes was yet another example of a successful studio artist who fumbled at coming up with a significant mural statement. In 2019, however, Dutch artist SuperA (Stevan Thelan) was commissioned. He uses traditional painting technique and skilled design to create compositions that employ familiar iconography shaped in ways to make provocative points. Walking a tightrope between fiction and nonfiction, he created the exquisite, hyperrealistic, yet puzzling Resonance, which depicted the escape of a beautiful bird from a glass terrarium display.
At the height of Covid in 2021, the Greenway Public Art Curator at the time made a rather strange choice. He asked a Brooklyn-based photographer and collagist, Daniel Gordon (known for his carefully made 3-D photographs), to contribute a Dewey Square mural. The result: a flat expression of densely packed grouping of fruits, flowers, and lobsters on various background patterns. Colorful- — yes; a good mural subject — not exactly. This was a very, very still life. Thankfully, Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs came to the rescue in 2022.
Even granting my aesthetic reservations, the Greenway’s Dewey Square mural program is one of the best in the world. The project welcomes a wide range of artistic expression and it adds considerable vitality to an urban setting. Though I would rank some of the murals as failures and others as mediocre, a few wonderful ones have been commissioned. The key to the program’s greatness is that its artworks are continually changing. Only a very few international projects have arranged for this kind of imaginative turnover. No other local or regional mural program proffers this kind of refreshing dynamism. Because of this, the Greenway mural program has become a transformative urban mural model. It takes its cue from Boston’s changeable weather: wait a little while and the mural in Dewey Square will change.
Mark Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes, and public art. An award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002 has been a design consultant to the Boston Red Sox. Writing about urbanism, architecture, design and fine arts, Mark is contributing editor of the Arts Fuse.
Tagged: Dewey Square, Mark Favermann, mural program, public art
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Thoroughly enjoyed reading this informative article !
Thank you for a good survey article on the Greenway’s mural program. Like the author, I like some murals more than others, but I always appreciate their presence. They give me something to enjoy, think about, and talk about with friends as I walk downtown.