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Tales of Public Art

By Cara B. Eisenpress, Contributing Writer

Come spring, Harvard Square is awash with people from tourists to students to locals. But through their omnipresent dark sunglasses, they often develop tunnel vision; in their focused quest for summer, they see sunshine, ice cream, maybe a daffodil or two––but not much else. Yet there is more to spring in Harvard Square for this morass of sun-seekers.

On days like these, when even the most devoted art lovers would flee the Fogg for the Charles’ banks, public art all around the square conveniently hatches from its snow-lodged locales, finally freed from the cold winds and eye-covering scarves that have hid them from sight since November.

The University has a mammoth collection of outdoor art––much of it readily recognizable. The city of Cambridge has sponsored works to beautify the Square, and private businesses have their own accessible art showcased; when taken all together, these pieces turn the Square into a veritable museum of public art—a museum, moreover, that is mostly outdoors, and totally free.

RESTFUL RUINS

If you go to Winthrop Park, also known as the green park space in front of Peet’s Coffee, on a spring day, it’s impossible to miss the mass of people occupying the wooden benches and the lawn, but not quite as easy to spot the piece of public art which sits in the middle of the grass.

This is because “Quiet Cornerstone,” a granite sculpture by artist Carlos Dorrien, also a professor of art at Wellesley College, looks as if it’s always been there.

Dorrien carved the words “Newtowne Market,” into two of the stone’s sides and a few steps into its back. On one side, however, the word “Market” is partially cut off and on the other part of “Newtowne”; the effect of this is to make the piece resemble the ruins of an ancient market.

“I like the idea of the remnant––many times I’ll go to architectural sites for inspiration,” Dorrien said in an interview.

Years ago, Dorrien, having won the competition to develop a piece for this specific site, brainstormed what he would do with the space. In the end, he came up with a two-fold idea: incorporate Cambridge’s history while creating a space that fit in with the current Harvard Square.

“In the old days, the marketplace and the church––and the pubs––were the places people could hang out. And now, every time I go there [Winthrop Park], there are people engaged with the piece. One time, I went to photograph and I saw a couple sitting on the ground and they had flowers and a jacket on it. Such a beautiful gesture that it goes both ways.”

In other words: don’t be afraid to touch, sit, or rest on “Quiet Cornerstone.” It is intended to be as much a part of the contemporary park as the grass or the benches––despite having the added intrigue of the artist’s hand and the historical he has created.

INTERACTING WITH THE LANDSCAPE

“Quiet Cornerstone” was sponsored by the city of Cambridge, but Harvard itself has created a great deal of public art itself. The most obvious of these is tourist magnet John Harvard himself, the statue by Daniel Chester French sitting in front of University Hall. But there are others scattered about the yard, including “The Onion,” a light steel sculpture at the entrance to Pusey Library, by renowned abstract artist Alexander Calder, and “Four Piece Reclining Figure,” a bronze figural abstraction in front of Lamont library, by the prolific public artist, Henry Moore.

Curator of University Cultural Properties at Harvard Emilie Norris says, “Personally, I think the outdoor sculpture is wonderful and adds to the life of the Square. If you’re walking around the yard, it can be really exciting to see the John Harvard or the Calder, in addition to all the buildings. … And they’re not all busts of dead men––there’s a lot more out there.”

Norris, who used to be a curator at the Art Museums until she realized how much art around the campus was left undocumented––and badly conserved––because it did not fall under any association’s jurisdiction, touches here on an idea very similar to Dorrien’s: Art in public places necessitates an interaction with the landscape, both natural and built. Unlike a similar piece in a white-walled museum, the conditions for public art are unsteady and changing––and this is what makes it exciting for both viewers and artists.

Dorrien presents an illuminating view of this relationship between the art and its location. “There is the aspect to be part of urban design. I love creating within a city. … I dreamed my pieces, I tried to imagine what would feel right in that place,” he says of his development of “Quiet Cornerstone.”

If you trek down to Peabody Terrace––which, honestly, is only three minutes past Mather away from Harvard Square––you’ll make out two enormous, irregular semicircles jutting out from Peabody’s garage. And while you may struggle to decide whether this is a primary-colored pimple on the already blemished architecture of Peabody or a sculpture by a famous artist, it does fit its surroundings.

In fact, Ellsworth Kelly, a postwar American Abstract Expressionist, created the piece, which is entitled “Red, Blue.” Kelly’s work includes both painting and sculpture, and focuses almost entirely on the hard lines of the geometric, but it is without the type of rigidity that characterizes the square terraces and windows of Peabody Terrace.

Especially if you creep behind the sculpture to where thick, white piping connects the semicircles to the building, the sheer enormity of the piece becomes evident. Although its forms seem simple, its size and its interaction with the building make it fascinating and complex.

IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK

Just as the sculptures around the Square are not all boring busts, the public art here is not all sculpture. There are several murals, inside and outside, which are deserving of attention.

If the movies at the Loews Theatre in Harvard Square seem to change quite rarely, the posters that adorn the theater’s façade change even less. These posters, one of Marilyn Monroe, and one an ad for Casablanca, are part of a mural which decorates the entire front of the theater. It was done by Joshua Winer, a 1986 graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the top while he was still a student here, the bottom, several years later. If you look up, above the ticket window and the marquee, you will see what appears to be the façade of a Beaux-art style theater. Winer is an expert of trompe l’oeil, a style of painting which tries to fool the eye into thinking it is real. Winer has painted murals all around Boston, including one on Newbury Street of another old-fashioned façade of a café or hotel with crowds of people streaming out.

Making an indoor stop now at the Charles Hotel on Eliot Street, there is plenty to admire in the well-furnished lobby. One painting––and its planning sketch––offers a chance to reflect on the connection between art and Harvard Square while simultaneously taking in the energy of the realist depiction.

The painting is a view of Massachusetts Avenue as it runs between Wigglesworth and the Holyoke Arcade done by Maine-based artist, Joel Babb in 1984. Though done in a realistic style, the scene feels neither old-fashioned nor cramped due to its lively coloring and the artist’s adeptness at capturing the Square’s life and constant movement.

“That painting is so wide,” Babb writes in an email. “It’s twenty feet wide, and when you’re passing by from the left it looks one way, from the right, another way. That painting has a perspective on it; as you walk through the lobby, the painting shifts with you. You sort of have to move through it as you walk past it.”

This connection between the painting and its surrounding, the lobby, echoes that of more traditional public art. And, like Dorrien and others, Babb spent a lot of time on site before creating.

“I camped around Harvard Square for a while,” he says.

Yet Babb, although intrigued by the proximity of his painting to the site it depicts, does have some reservations about public art.

“I’m opposed to works which drop a private vision into an environment which is alien, or upsetting or hostile to the expectations of the people who live in a place. … This works by shock and contrast rather than by harmony,” Babb says.

A FLICKER IN THE EYE

Katy Schimert, visiting professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, tends to agree with this view. She walked around to look at various pieces with me but found many of them uninteresting or worse.

“It’s very hard to get it right. … They did it so well in the Renaissance,” Schimert says.

When done right, however, Schimert sees a value in public art that comes from its constancy: it can be revisited on a regular basis, no matter how conscious the visitor may be of it.

“It becomes a flicker in the side of your eye––it lives there comfortably and then one day you notice it. It’s only when you live with it and see it everyday that it becomes extraordinary. That’s what public art is supposed to do.”

If you’re hungry now, and you get that way often, then the mural of a mermaid on the wall at Pinocchio’s has probably assumed the position of that flicker that Schimert talks about. You go in for some tomato basil, and while you devour it, a blond mermaid sits behind you in her sea-world, also munching on a slice.

According to the guys at ’Noch’s, about fifteen years ago, a regular––whose first name is Katherine but whose last they couldn’t remember––befriended the chefs and told them she was an aspiring artist. After making some sketches, she was permitted to paint the brightly colored and whimsical mural up on the wall. Apparently the mermaid on the left side looks just like the artist herself.

So whether or not you notice her, or the huge bronze piece in front of Lamont, or even John Harvard perched proudly in the Yard, this art is encompassing, ever present, and inescapable. If this seems a bit eerie, then be proactive: walk around, keep your eyes open, and take the extra few seconds to check out the museum that is Harvard Square.

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