Driving into Boston the other day, I noticed the 1971 Rainbow Swash mural on the side of a National Grid gasoline tank. This is not the first time I’ve seen the painting on the gas tank along the Southeast Expressway; however, this time its sight struck me with inspiration. Besides the fact that it made being stuck in traffic more interesting, it inspired me to look up other ways art is incorporated into the public landscape and what benefits it brings.
Art always reflects or speaks; especially when brought into the public sphere, the artist’s message is magnified to a much larger scale. Corita Kent, the art behind the Rainbow Swash, was highly criticized for her work when it first appeared. It was said that the mural featured a profile of Vietnamese Leader Ho Chi Minh’s face in its blue stripe. Kent was a peace activist and some believe she was protesting the Vietnam War, but Kent herself always denied embedding such a profile. Whether this was what she was trying to say or not, her work got people talking and commanded attention.
Photo taken by Steven James from Panoramio.com
After researching more public art, I thought a lot about the Cloud Gate. Commonly known as “The Bean”, Cloud Gate is a public sculpture by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor, that is the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois. Kapoor’s design was inspired by liquid mercury and the sculpture’s surface reflects and distorts the city’s skyline. It became so popular overnight that it is now considered the symbol of Chicago according to some.
Photo taken by Alierturk on deviantART
Now, not all public art is created by one soul artist. Some are interactive and involve a community effort. Candy Chang painted the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans, LA with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space. Her artwork became a powerful tool to restore perspective and remind her community of the things that make our lives meaningful. Her work teaches us that our public spaces are our shared spaces and at their greatest, they can help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.