The Minuteman Bikeway passing through Arlington teems with activity throughout the day and into the evenings. Whether it is a cyclist racing to get to work in the morning, or a young child who is still finding their footing while on a walk with their family, the path sees a variety of usages and users. With Pathways, a presentation of five artists’ work along the bike path, the Minuteman now takes on a new role as a public art installation.
Presented by the Arlington Commission on Arts & Culture in collaboration with Arlington Public Art, Pathways opened this summer and is currently showing four artworks. I had the opportunity to explore the Bikeway with Adria Arch, a painter who has led Arlington Public Art since 2011 and who helped grow the Pathways project from its initial conception into its current realization, and Cecily Miller, Arlington’s Public Art Consultant and curator for Pathways. The installation stretches down a half-mile section of the Bikeway. The terrain varies from denser woodsy areas to landscaped sections that skirt Sky Pond. Similarly, the Bikeway’s role varies from a utilitarian road to a space for socialization, recreation, and reflection. The works activate the surrounding woods, the walls and fences that line the path, and the pavement itself.
Miller, Arch, and I discussed the selection and placement of the artworks as we walked down the path. Rhetoric of Opposites is a 25-piece series of words and their antonyms painted directly onto the path by Nilou Moochhala. City Fox consists of two stenciled prints of urban wildlife by London-based street artist Stewy. The butterfly swarm Flutter, installed by Claudia Ravischiere and Michael Moss, has migrated from its original position in Fort Point to a bridge on the bike path. Ripple is a collaboration of the Arlington Knitting Brigade and Adria Arch to wrap nine trees along the path in yarn sleeves. A fifth artwork, Currents, will be constructed in mid-October entirely with natural materials found on-site by Provincetown-based artist Frank Vasello. Vasello will collaborate with a group of students at the Ottoson Middle School on their campus to complete this work.
Miller and Arch see three main guiding aspects to this exhibition. Firstly, they wanted the exhibition to resonate with the greater Arlington community. Next, they wanted it to connect Arlington Center with East Arlington’s Capitol Square neighborhood as part of a wider effort to establish a designated Cultural District for the town. Finally, they wanted to celebrate Arlington’s green spaces and create opportunities for members of the community to engage with each other, communicating through or about the art presented on the Minuteman.
The works selected complement the bike path and the Arlington community aptly. They are accessible physically and conceptually. Information about the project and the individual artworks is regularly spaced on the path, giving credit and context where needed. The Minuteman is an active, and sometimes daily, part of many Arlington residents’ lives, and Pathways capitalizes on its natural beauty and energy. Viewers can enjoy the aesthetic of the works, and can choose whether to have a longer discussion or reflection on the artworks’ subjects and executions along the path.
Flutter is a collection, or swarm, of 60 plastic blue butterflies that have alighted on a vine-covered fence lining a bridge on the path. Working with the bike community, the Pathways team ensured that reflections from Flutter would not blind any cyclists. A larger version of this work was previously in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston. The butterfly is a rich symbol across many cultures for transformation, hope, and rebirth, thereby providing viewers with multiple access points to the swarm.
Rhetoric of Opposites consists of twenty-five pairs of words arranged on the path, facing oncoming foot and cycling traffic. The paired words are a study of polarizing linguistic and physical divides- true/false, black/white, us/them. After realizing the theme of the paired words, it becomes a game to guess what the opposite side of the path will say before trying to read it upside-down (a game made more difficult when speeding down the path on a bicycle).
The only work not directly on the path is Stewy’s City Fox- a fox and a rabbit wheat-pasted onto the wall of a covered pathway underneath the bike path. This tucked-away location aligns neatly with the artist’s focus. Stewy’s series on urban wildlife seeks to call attention to the animals that live around us in urban environments, whether or not we notice or care for their presence. Miller shared a further connection between the fox and Arlington in our conversation: the fox was the mascot of the citizen-initiated movement to save the Edith M. Fox Branch Library in East Arlington.
Ripple is a collaboration between Adria Arch and the 57 members of the Arlington Knitting Brigade. Nine trees along the path were wrapped in knitted and crocheted sleeves. The same five colors visually unite the works, yet the designs were determined by the individual groups that were working on each tree. Arch described this process as being particularly fruitful for community involvement and discussion. The members of the Arlington Knitting Brigade have varied backgrounds and identities in relation to art, and this project was an opportunity for people who may not identify as artists to create aesthetically and contextually engaging artworks to be enjoyed by their neighbors.
The conscientiousness in selecting and placing the artworks extends to their removal as well. Care was taken with Ripple to ensure that the knitted sleeves would not harm the trees’ health. Rhetoric of Opposites and City Fox will fade naturally over time. Ripple, Flutter, and Frank Vasello’s upcoming piece will be removed by a set date to avoid becoming refuse alongside the path.
For this project, “public art” means art for the public, with utmost care taken to ensure transparency and collaboration. These artworks may be a child’s first memorable experience with art, or someone’s first adult experience with professional art; as such, they needed to be well-executed. Pathways seeks to be just that- a path to discover art in new contexts, and a way to create a framework and standard for future projects of this nature.
Pathways also celebrates its physical surroundings. The artworks selected complement and celebrate how special and cherished this part of Arlington is. Visually, the works stand out from their surroundings without dominating the landscape. Frank Vasello’s upcoming work will draw from the pathway materially, as he plans to harvest natural materials from the area for his part of the project.
The planning and execution of the project started a larger conversation about public art in Arlington, and established an extant appetite for it. As with any installation, particularly those that are not housed in traditional museum or gallery contexts, the interaction and participation that the public has with Pathways will determine its ultimate role in the community.
Pathways will be on view through the spring of 2018.