In light of the recent decision by the MBTA to cancel existing contracts for permanent public art on the Green Line extension and to halt future projects, we're taking a break from our usual coverage of temporary public projects to bring you this first-hand account of permanent public art's influence on one young artist by guest blogger Elisa H. Hamilton.
Waiting by the light: One artist's account of riding the T
I grew up riding the red line trains of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). If you’ve been to a red line T station, you know that each one has its own unique experience. As a child, I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing was public art, but I know now that my relationship with the art in those stations intensely informed the person and artist that I have become.
Growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts, for some time we only had one car. My father worked in Waltham, so he would usually take the car, which meant my mom, sister and I would travel by public transportation. There were a few ways that we could get into the city via the MBTA, but the most common one for us was taking the 77 bus, which runs right up Massachusetts Avenue from Arlington Heights all the way to Harvard Square.
Sometimes we would ride all the way to Harvard Square, but to get on the subway, we would get off the bus at Porter Square. If you have not been to the Porter Square Station, you must go there to experience it yourself. As you descend down, down, down into what seem to be the depths of the earth, you are cloaked by a sense of profound wonderment that I have rarely experienced within the confines of an art gallery. I know now that feeling this wonder so regularly taught me about the powerful resonance public art can have, even before I knew what I was experiencing.
Twenty five years later, I am an artist. I work in several mediums, but all of the art that I create focuses on joy and inclusion. Having experienced it myself, I know that art has the ability to enrich our daily lives in a palpable, tremendous way. The art that I make reflects that experience. The art that I create for homes says “happiness lives here”, and the work I create for the public realm says “let’s have a meaningful, beautiful experience together.”
This past August I applied to have my artwork considered for several upcoming MBTA Commuter Rail Station renovations projects. I was elated when I was notified by the MBTA that I was a finalist in two out of the three projects(!!): Chelsea Commuter Rail Station, and Blue Hill Avenue Station in Mattapan. That chance to be a part of someone else’s meaningful daily experience at an MBTA station, if it came to pass, would be the true culmination of what I try to create with my artwork.
We 11 finalists were waiting for the ultimate decision on what artwork would be chosen as part of Chelsea Commuter Rail Station when we received an email from the MBTA alerting us that, because of Governor Baker’s veto of the Percent for Art Program, previously earmarked funding for the public art portion of these stations (totaling ½ percent of the full budget of these projects) had been revoked, along with upcoming Green Line extension projects.
Why it is when times get tight, art is always the first thing to go? Look around your home and tell me what’s on your walls; aren’t they things that make you feel good? Do you aspire for your home to be simply a vessel for your body, or do you want something more from the place where you live? Your home, the objects you place in your home, the things you put on your walls, those impact the way you see the world every single day. The choices that you make to beautify your space are inherent to your daily experience and, in that way, to your being. Art in the public provides that powerful positive experience to every one of us, regardless of who you are, where you come from, or how much money you make.
Public transportation is one of the great equalizers here in the Commonwealth - the artwork created for our MBTA stations is not only meant to beautify, but also to create a sense of place for people in every walk of life. The decisions we make now in renovating and rebuilding our MBTA stations will impact our communities for a very long time. Art in MBTA stations gives an otherwise utilitarian space a sense of soul, a sense of color, culture, and life, a sense of the communities that these stations represent and serve. It fosters a tremendous sense of community ownership - every time T riders see this art, it says to them, "you are home."
I have recently moved back to Arlington and still ride the red line almost every day, and I still take the 77 bus sometimes. Maybe you, too, have waited on the upper bus platform of Harvard Square Station. Did you know that the glass tile wall of that bus tunnel used to light up? I have childhood memories of waiting near that wall all aglow in blue and red, as if it was magically lit from within. Those colors are still vivid in my memory; maybe you’ve also felt that brilliance. I believe that the people in our communities deserve to have that light alive in our public spaces, and I believe that - with enough support - we can keep the light of public art shining in Massachusetts, so that we can all be illuminated in its glow.
Elisa H. Hamilton is a multimedia artist and a proud product of public education; she attended Arlington Public Schools, and went on to earn her BFA in Painting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She will be the Spring 2016 artist-in-residence at the Boston Center for the Arts exploring her project “Supermarket”.