Hey There, East Cambridge, So Nice to Finally Meet You

When I was applying to colleges, I started out by listing the cities that I was willing to live in and narrowing my search from there. Yet here I am, two and a half years later, and while I’ve been to the Museum of Fine Arts more times than I can count and I’ve gazed at the windows of the art galleries on Beacon Street, I still can’t really say I know Boston. It was only after I spent the past semester in Paris over just four months, visiting dozens of museums, galleries, arts fairs, and artists’ studios, that I realized how little I get out of Harvard Square.

It’s easy to put off sightseeing—“until it’s warmer,” I tell myself, “until I have less work.” Well, friends, it won’t be warm for months and work seems endless, so it’s time to stop making excuses, lace up those walking shoes, and soak up the local arts scene.

There’s no need to venture too far from the Sqaure to find plenty of interesting contemporary public artwork. Cambridge is the only city in Massachusetts with a law mandating that 1% of public funds spent on construction projects be put towards public art.

On a recent two-hour break between classes, I hopped on the T to the Kendall/MIT stop, where an art installation by Paul Matisse allows passengers to play mobile-like instruments hanging between the tracks. The piece, called “The Kendall Band,” is composed of three elements that you might mistake for part of the machinery: “Kepler,” an aluminum ring that hums for five minutes after being struck; “Pythagoras,” a 48-foot row of aluminum chimes interspersed with teak hammers; and “Galileo,” a large steel sheet that clatters when the handle is shaken. Ok, Gare St. Lazare it ain’t but you have to give the MBTA props for trying.

As I followed the Charles towards the Cambridgeside Galleria, it called back fond memories of strolling along the Seine. I then came across Lloyd Hamrol’s playful “Gate House” sculptures. “Gate House” is comprised of three pointed steel archways painted in red, yellow, and blue to represent the brick characteristic of Cambridge architecture, the leaves of the New England autumn, and the local maritime tradition, respectively. Among the best known creators of public art in Cambridge, Hamrol has had his work exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As I stood in the center of the three sculptures, looking up at the arches, I was reminded of standing in Notre-Dame. “Gate House” is less awe-inspiring, sure, but also less intimidating—like an outdoor cathedral for kids.

Just past the mall is Canal Park, where a number of public art works are installed. For his bronze “Tower of East Cambridge Faces,” sculptor James Tyler wandered the neighborhood with a camera looking for fifty distinctive mugs. One looked curiously like Drew Faust and I wondered if perhaps she had been in the area when Tyler was scouting his models.

On the other side of the park, under the gazebo, David Phillips’ “Beach Fragments” go almost unnoticed. The bronze medallions contain a mix of imagery drawn from marine biology, astronomy, particle physics, and even music, featuring a line from Debussy’s “La Mer.” But it is the nearby “Never Green Tree” which rightfully ends up stealing the spotlight. Former Graduate School of Design professor William Wainwright’s “Never Green Tree” is a unique and innovative fusion of art and science. It features dozens of cubic aluminium leaves, hanging from the steel frame, with prismatic surfaces that deflect the light into a rapidly changing pattern of color reminiscent of being under the disco ball at a club.

My final stop (and a welcome break from the cold) was the small Multicultural Arts Center at 41 Second St. The fascinating and moving photography exhibit, entitled “IRAN: Images from Beneath a Chador,” will be on view through March 19. The photographer, Randy H. Goodman, happened to stop by while I was there and explained how she wound up, at age 24, armed with only a camera and a degree in political economy, documenting the Iran hostage crisis. Aside from this particular exhibit The Multicultural Arts Center is definitely worth a repeat visit as it hosts a plethora of exhibits and events including jazz concerts and dance performances.

My expedition took a mere two hours but as I hopped on the 69 bus on Cambridge St. to make my way back to campus in time for my next class, I smiled, feeling like I’d managed to bring a little piece of the Baudelaire’s flâneur to Beantown.

—Columnist Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.edu.

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