Art For All: Finding Eye-Catching Works in Shared City Spaces

resa blatman“The Water Project/Rising Tide 3” by Resa Blatman hangs in the Cambridge Health Alliance Somerville Hospital. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

Suspended in a bright, open corner of Somerville Hospital is a 25-foot, wavelike structure. It wraps just slightly around the corner of the stairwell wall, with strains of blue and gold running through it, gently pushing outward from the wall and then sinking back.

Somerville artist Resa Blatman created “The Water Project/Rising Tide 3” by painting clear strips of Mylar plastic and pinning the pieces individually to the hospital wall. Surrounded by windows and set against a soft white backdrop, the installation serves an audience beyond the doctors and patients who pass beneath it every day. It’s visible even outside, 100 feet away, from the bustling street and sidewalks of Highland Avenue.

Somerville prides itself on its thriving artistic community, one that’s most visible when artists open their doors each year during Somerville Open Studios. But many artists collaborate with the Somerville Arts Council or with private organizations to create and display art in communal spaces, on sidewalks or in building lobbies, that’s accessible to anyone who might want to stop and enjoy it, 365 days a year.

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“Somerville, and the artist population here, I think we kind of have a reputation for being scrappy and finding opportunities to showcase art,” says Rachel Strutt, cultural director of the Somerville Arts Council.

Strutt and her colleagues serve as middlemen and matchmakers for artists in the city and help make encountering art an everyday occurrence. The Arts Council awards a number of grants each year, through which Strutt says a lot of public art has been created. The council publicizes calls for art from private organizations to an email list of local artists, arranges for painters to decorate the city’s switchboxes with their designs and organizes large-scale festivals and installations. Strutt says one project under consideration is a mural that would speak to Somerville’s identity as a sanctuary for immigrants: “Something that really can convey a powerful message about the political and social beliefs of our city.”

“I think some people are intimidated by museums and galleries, and they don’t know how they’re supposed to respond to art,” Strutt muses. “[But] when you see an installation in an old phone booth … It’s just you and the art one-on-one.”

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Blatman works out of a space in Vernon Street Studios.

The SAC also values community participation and engagement as keys to creating meaningful public art. “Inviting and encouraging the public to see themselves as art producers and curators is really important,” Strutt says.

A once-vacant, industrial Brickbottom lot has served up exactly that kind of opportunity for the Arts Council over the last year. Known as ArtFarm, the property has already hosted some community events while SAC staffers work in the background to create a long-term vision for the site—a community space where arts and urban agriculture meet—and a strategy to make it a reality. In the meantime, they wanted a way to liven up the site and signal to passersby that something big was coming. Siblings Andrew and Alyssa Ringler responded to the SAC’s call for art with a playful, on-theme vision: fruits and vegetables dotted along the chain-link fence surrounding ArtFarm. They liked the idea of using a human-made material, and settled on plexiglass as the medium for their representations of natural local produce. The SAC liked the idea, too, and selected their proposal.

“It was really fun to see it transform,” Andrew says. “It’s a very industrial location.”

From her studio in Brooklyn, Alyssa sketched designs and sent them to Andrew, who secured panels of plexiglass and laser-cut the patterns into larger-than-life, weather-durable strawberries, carrots and ears of corn. The plexi-produce was then attached to the fence with plastic ties, with more than 120 individual pieces total, according to Andrew’s estimate.

“It was exciting to have multiple processes attached to one drawing I made,” Alyssa says. “How far one drawing of a piece of bok choy can go!” The fence project installation was especially memorable. Volunteers were responsible for hanging the pieces without explicit direction, so Alyssa and Andrew were surprised by the final, community-sourced product.

As ArtFarm is developed over the next few years, the fence will eventually come down, something Andrew and Alyssa knew when they proposed their piece. They’re not sure what will happen to the fruits and veggies after that, but for now, they’re satisfied.

“People are stopped at that intersection all the time,” Alyssa says. “To look over and see a brightly colored strawberry, maybe that made them smile for half a second. I love being a part of that.”

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While the Arts Council seeks out and supports public art in many forms, there are fewer and fewer vacant lots and available spaces for artists—both surfaces to paint on and buildings to work in—as the city’s development boom continues.

“I think art is more important than ever,” says Rachel Strutt of the SAC. “I think art brings flavor and soul to Somerville, so we don’t want to lose that. Most important is that we don’t literally lose artists.”

The biggest threat to Somerville’s art scene is widely considered to be its lack of affordable artist spaces. So last year, for the first time in the city’s history, a new apartment building set aside some of its city-mandated affordable units specifically for local artists. At MillbrookLofts, a 100-unit development, there are five such live-work spaces tucked behind the main lobby and elevator bank, the walls of which are adorned with pieces by area artists.

Mixed-media artist Stina Simmarano knows how rare the opportunity is, given Somerville’s competitive real estate market.

“It’s forcing all kinds of artists to seek space elsewhere, which is really a bummer for the city,” Simmarano says. “I feel very fortunate to be living at Millbrook, because otherwise I would likely be on my way out of town, too.”

On a recent rainy night, a group of arts-minded citizens gathered at Artisan’s Asylum for a conversation on public art.

A panel of six artists discussed process, temporality, safety and community engagement, speaking candidly about what inspires and limits their work.

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Liz LaManche with her mural “The Soul’s Journey as a Series of Weird Old Cars.”

“We need to clear some of the constraints around artists—like where to do it and how to fund it—if we want to keep having vital art in Somerville,” said sculptor Michael Dewberry.

Freedom Baird, a Cambridge-based multimedia artist, told how one of her public installations—a punching bag wrapped around a tree in Worcester—had been vandalized and torn apart.

“It’s a risk when you make work for outdoors, for a public setting,” Baird noted. But she went on talk about how artists can embrace uncertainty, citing the artist William Kentridge. “I love the idea of being open to that provisionality,” said Baird, “and being able to see the punching bag ripped open as a new kind of piece.”

Somerville sculptor Ann Hirsch discussed her recent installation “SOS (Safety Orange Swimmers),” which engaged complex political and moral questions around the refugee crisis, and panelists spoke about the importance of climate change and environmentalism in their work.

“What is art’s role in provoking discussions that might happen in the political sphere?” Hirsch asked her peers.

Seeking exactly those kinds of provocative discussions, Somerville artist Liz LaManche recently dedicated herself to creating large-scale public art projects after a career in computer programming. “I wanted to put things out where they’ll influence our culture and start a debate,” she says.

LaManche has stained tattoo-inspired designs into a Boston Harbor pier, tracing the story of Boston’s nautical history and maritime connections with other cultures. She painted a wrap-around mural of faces and animals at Dorchester’s Bartlett Yard, the former bus depot-turned-street art haven, before the site was torn down to make room for new development. She’s eager to focus on inclusive, multicultural projects and to forge connections with other artists in the Boston area, which she says can be difficult.

Here in Somerville, LaManche’s work can be seen on a building near the Winter Hill Brewery, where her mural “The Goddess of Winter Hill” lives, and along the steps on Pearl Street, where she painted whimsical cars in a memorial to her beloved auto mechanic Al Riskalla. She calls that project, supported by the SAC as part of a fellowship grant she was receiving, “The Soul’s Journey as a Series of Weird Old Cars.”

“The Soul’s Journey” is painted on the front side of a series of steps, so observers can see the full piece from the lower level but only rainbow tire tracks from above. To make sure she got it right, LaManche and a friend snuck out to the Pearl Street site at night, using a projector to display a sketch of the mural onto the steps for tracing. She even brought a portable generator to power the projector.

“Hopefully, it gives people a little bit of lift, a little bit of zen,” she says, smiling. “Or if they just think it’s funny, that’s good, too.”

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Public art serves many functions: provoking discussion, providing opportunities for community engagement and bringing moments of levity into people’s lives. And in some cases, it’s an opportunity for meditation or reflection, like Blatman’s water-inspired installation at the Cambridge Health Alliance Somerville Hospital.

Doctor Brian Green was on the committee charged with selecting a piece of art for the space. It’s crucial to have art in medical facilities, he says, to help patients feel connected and grounded.

“When people come to see the doctor, they are often scared,” Green says. “So having art to help them gain perspective, get repose, is very important.”

Blatman, a CHA patient herself, first responded to the hospital’s call for submissions with a different concept—a large vinyl print of one of her paintings—but committee members were instead drawn to another project in Blatman’s portfolio: the serene, water-inspired Mylar piece.

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“We wanted something that would be visible to the public as you were approaching the Somerville Hospital from all angles,” says Mary Cassesso, the CHA’s chief community officer. “We were almost unanimously drawn to the boldness and the brightness and the excitement of this piece … It just seemed like it was meant to be.”

Blatman creates these works in her Vernon Street studio space by swirling paint around on large pieces of clear Mylar on the floor, letting them dry, cutting the pieces by hand and pinning them individually on her studio wall—a process which she returns to over and over, layering and tucking and then observing from a distance to see the effect.

“You can’t take risks if you’re worried about the floors and the walls,” Blatman says, a nod to the importance of accessible artist spaces.

Now, Blatman is at work on large-scale paintings inspired by the work of Martin Johnson Heade—stormy ocean scenes with rich dramatic waves—which occupy the largest wall in her studio. The Mylar pieces are more difficult to sell than the paintings, Blatman admits, and more complicated to display. So she’s been proud to see the positive response to her Somerville Hospital installation, which suits the space perfectly in tone and in shape.

Originally, the plan was to display Blatman’s piece for one year. But Cassesso and Green say the hospital has experienced such an overwhelming response to “The Water Project/Rising Tide 3” that they’re fundraising to purchase the piece.

“A lot of people in this building can’t imagine it ever being removed,” Cassesso says.

This story originally appeared in the March/April print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

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