A traveler’s guide to underground art

I didn’t pay much attention to the MBTA art either, until one day, walking down the Porter Station escalator, I spotted what appeared to be an abandoned glove slumped on the median. I went to pick it up, but upon touching it, I discovered that the glove was made of bronze.

What was the story behind the sculpture, I wondered, and what other art had I missed as I walked past trying to catch my train?

Turns out I had missed a lot – 99 pieces, to be exact, in each MBTA line. At the end of the 1970s, the MBTA became the first transit system to bring permanent artwork underground, with cities like New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles following Boston’s lead.

The first major undertaking was Arts on the Line, a partnership between the MBTA and the Cambridge Arts Council to install over $700,000 worth of artwork along the northwest extension of the Red Line. A similar project followed on the Orange Line in the 1980s; in the years that followed, dozens of other permanent pieces have popped up at other stations, from floor-to-ceiling stained glass on airport windows to the aluminum flipbook-style photo panel at Gare du Nord.

Subway stations in particular are “so feature-driven,” says Marggie Lackner, deputy head of quality assurance and quality control at MBTA and program manager for T’s art. The art in the MBTA offers “a humanizing element”.

To ensure the longevity of the art, most of the pieces are “integral”, that is, they are integrated into the architecture of the stations themselves. They need to be made of “something that’s as durable as the station, made of the same kind of materials,” Lackner says. Perhaps that is why the parts sometimes go unnoticed – they are camouflaged by design.

Art is also a vestige of another time. Currently, Lackner says, there is no new funding for artwork at MBTA stations. There is also no budget for specialist maintenance, which worries local public art officials, including Lillian Hsu, director of public art and exhibitions at the Cambridge Arts Council. In 2011, an overhanging piece of Dimitri Hadzi’s “Omphalos,” a granite sculpture outside Harvard Station, fell to the ground. No one was injured, but the piece was later removed.

“The MBTA, they have a pretty big public art collection now, and to maintain that, they need a really strong budget,” Hsu said. She noted that “there must be an appetite”, both among the public and among politicians, to prioritize and maintain the artwork “because sometimes then it will disappear.”

After several tweaks and starts, six new artworks are set to debut as part of the long-awaited Green Line expansion. The Green Line expansion was partially funded by former federal grants, Lackner said, which allows some of the budget for new stations to be allocated to full art. You can even take a look at two of them: Randal Thurston’s “Field Notes”, ceramic etchings of flora and fauna designs, which adorn the three glass elevators of the new station Lechmere, and Christine Vaillancourt’s geometric “Tour Jeté Series” is stuck on Ball Ascenseurs of the square station.

We’ve put together a map of all the permanent artwork owned by and on display in the MBTA – and highlighted a few favorites.


This map identifies each of the permanent works of art currently held by the MBTA. Note that titles, artists and descriptions have been taken verbatim from the MBTA Website. Room locations on the map are approximate; refer to the part description for a more detailed location.

“Glove Cycle” by Mags Harries – Porter Station

Passengers pass Mags Harries’ ‘Glove Cycle’ at Porter Square station on the Red Line.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Porter gloves have bamboozled commuters like me since the station opened. “I just remember when I was a kid trying to pull them out, trying to see if they were real,” said Jessica Dottin, who has lived in the area since childhood, before boarding the ship. his train.

But the play was not intended to deceive. In 1978, a blizzard buried Boston in snow. Sculptor Mags Harries began finding abandoned gloves crushed on city sidewalks, revealing themselves as the snow slowly melted.

She collected the gloves, pinned them up in her studio, and eventually made bronze casts of 54 of them to install throughout Porter Station in 1984. She hoped to create a narrative piece that would reflect the movement of the commuter , she said in an interview with CultureNOW. Along with the gloves attached to the middle of the escalator, there’s a pile of gloves swept up in one corner, and several are flattened into the floor.

“It shows that everyday thing – people lose their gloves,” said Sierra O’Mara Schwartz cyclist. “They took something that would be trash or garbage, and they created a beautiful permanent art installation out of it that kind of reminds us of our own humanity.”

“Celebration of the Underground” by Lilli Ann K. Rosenberg – Park Street Station

A train pulls into the station in front of ‘Celebration of the Underground’, a mosaic mural at Park Street Station. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

A 12-ton, 110-foot-long mosaic mural beckons from the Park Street exit tracks, where passengers catch the C or E trains. It’s an abstract microcosm of Boston, showing a trolley traveling along winding tracks in the sparkling city.

“There is a lot of detail, a lot of bright colors and inscriptions,” said Leslie Clairvil, a frequent commuter to the station, who pointed to the small T-signs scattered on the left side of the mosaic. “I think we should see more in Boston.”

To create the mammoth mural, which debuted in 1978 and was polished and brightened with new lights last year, the late Lilli Ann K. Rosenberg pressed a hodgepodge of objects into wet cement – wagon parts, construction tools, fossils, seashells, rocks, 19th-century wooden beams and hundreds of multicolored tiles, according to a 1997 Globe article.

Maya Miller, a horse rider who recently moved to Boston, saw the multimedia collage as a sort of map of the city. “It’s cool to see the parts that you recognize, like the port, and stuff like that,” she said. “It’s very organic – the train tracks feel like roots, like the roots of the city.”

Untitled murals by Hyde Square Task Force and MBTA Community Art Program with muralist Roberto Chao – Jackson Square station

A passenger walks past a column painted to look like stacked tin cans at Jackson Square Station.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Mackenzie Ensley finds herself starting with the series of pop-art style murals painted on pillars outside Jackson Square Station almost daily. His favorites are those depicting flora and fauna, but there are others stacked soup cans; play cards; and portraits of children.

“It reminds you of the people here,” said Ensley, a student at Bunker Hill Community College who is studying fine art. “Their culture, their creativity.

Teenagers from Jamaica Plain and Roxbury working with muralist Roberto Chao unveiled the colorful murals in 2005, a year after the station was the scene of a stabbing and sexual assault. The designs were meant to brighten up the orange line stop, both literally and figuratively.

When I spoke to Ensley on a Thursday afternoon, surrounded by vibrant 3D drawings, she was waiting for a bus, sitting on a bench next to her bag of art supplies.

“A few years ago I kind of gave up on art, I was exhausted,” Ensley said. “Watching these gave me a little bit of hope each day to keep going.”

Untitled Sculptures by James Tyler – Davis Station

Nikki, 2, explores the sculpture of a couple walking arm in arm outside Davis Station. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Outside Davis Station, 10 life-size concrete statues strike curiously human poses. Outside one of the T-entrances, a man peddles flowers, his mouth hanging open as if in mid-sentence. In front of the Somerville Theatre, an elderly couple walk arm in arm, weather-beaten faces.

These masonry figures have been in the neighborhood since 1983. James Tyler, the sculptor, based all of the figures (except one, a mid-performance mime) on real Somerville residents, according to a 1983 Globe article. He has modeled the elderly couple after the Mosho family, who ran a now closed fish market on Holland Street. The mime performs for teenager John Kenney, who was killed in Vietnam in 1969, and his mother, Mary.

“It grabs your attention to see a frozen scene,” said Tara Borgilt, who stopped to observe a stone family of four sitting on a bench outside the Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates building. “To get to walk there is really a strange experience.

“Kendall Band” by Paul Matisse – Kendall Station

A passenger pulls a lever of “Kendall Band”, a musical sculpture at Kendall/MIT station. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Designed by artist Paul Matisse, this trio of musical sculptures has gone through various states of disrepair since its installation in the late 1980s.

The three sculptures, suspended between the arrival and departure tracks, are intended to be “played” by commuters by pulling handles on the walls on either side of the station. When I visited the Red Line stop, twice, “Pythagoras” – 16 bells that all sing in B minor when struck by 14 teak hammers – was the only one of three it would still sound when you persistently pull the lever on the outgoing side. There were no levers for the other two: “Galileo,” a sheet of steel that creates a resounding roar, and “Kepler,” an aluminum hoop that hums an F sharp note. They still drag between the rails, but in silence.

“They ring like church bells, but even better than that . . . kinda like a wind chime,” commuter Bill Bennett said of “Pythagoras.” .”

The grandson of Henri Matisse, he often repaired the sculptures himself in the early hours of the morning when the trains weren’t running, according to a 1995 Globe article, but more recently MIT students banded together in 2010 – and again in 2017 – in an attempt to restore the sculptures to their melodious former glory. Despite its limitations, when “Pythagoras” plays, the passengers listen.

Brunel Innocent, waiting for an incoming train, said his colleague always rang the bells as they walked down the station together after work. “Just letting me know I’m on my way back,” he said.

Dana Gerber can be contacted at [email protected]

Bonny J. Streater