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Beverly may answer life’s mysteries through oracle project

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)/ (right)Lexia Ortiz-Melo

In ancient Greece, pilgrims traveled from distant lands to seek the wise counsel of the Oracle at Delphi.

Artist Anna Schuleit Haber has imagined the oracle returning, but this time in digital form, speaking poetry on Beverly Common.

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“I wanted to work in a way that would bring an aspect of mystery to Beverly, through a project that would invite people to come and sit down on the common, to have an experience of poetry in an unusual place,” Schuleit Haber, 39, said in the soft accent of her native Germany.

The Beverly Oracle was born.

Schuleit Haber designed the poetry-based project for the city, Montserrat College of Art, and Beverly Main Streets as part of a National Endowment for the Arts public art competition.

The oracle — which has not yet received city approvals to be built on the common — would run on wireless technologies.

A glass pavilion, capable of changing colors, would be built. Once inside, a visitor would sit in what Schuleit Haber describes as a “single, strange chair,” capable of reading body rhythms.

Questioners ‘will receive a fragment of poetry or a riddle. The Delphi Oracle never gave a straight answer.’

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Like the ancient Greeks at Delphi, a visitor would ask a question. The answer would come from a digital library filled with the words of American poets and writers from across the country.

Adding to the mystery, the oracle’s answers — but not the questions — would be displayed on digital panels installed at four high-profile downtown locations: the train station off Rantoul Street, and corners of Cabot Street at Central, Dane, and Winter streets.

“The oracle will be filling the urban space with poetry and riddles,” Schuleit Haber said, reading from her project proposal.

Schuleit Haber, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, has a degree in painting from Rhode Island School of Design. She also earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College.

In 2006, she received a “genius” fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. In Massachusetts, she is best known for creating art memorials at old mental health hospitals.

In 2001, Schuleit Haber staged a sound installation at Northampton State Hospital, piping Bach’s Magnificat through the abandoned building. Two years later, she filled Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston with 28,000 live plants and flowers as a tribute to former patients.

Since September, Schuleit Haber has been an artist in residence at Montserrat. She has appeared as a guest critic in classes, but spends much of her time in the printmaking studio, where she has worked on the oracle’s design with help from six Montserrat interns.

“It’s such an interesting project,” said Christiana Lauzon, 21, a senior painting major from Augusta, Maine, who has built 3-D models of the oracle’s chair. “It’s not like people will just be looking at a piece of art. They’re going to experience it.”

Some interns may join Schuleit Haber on a cross-country trip this summer to collect answers for the oracle. She plans to drive her butterscotch-colored 1973 Buick Centurion to visit with writers and poets. Her dog, Finnegan, also will be along for the ride.

“It’s a mysterious way of picking them,” Schuleit Haber said of the writers and poets on her list.

Jane Brox, a Dracut-born writer now living in Maine, contributed the oracle’s first answer. Schuilet Haber declined to reveal it.

Schuleit Haber has made presentations about the project to schools — including at a Beverly High assembly where 1,200 students were given the chance to submit questions to the oracle — business, and civic groups. At the end of each talk, she asked people to write down a question for the oracle.

“I ask them to really ask themselves what’s important to them,” she said.

Some have asked, “How do I face my fading beauty?” “Is anybody really meant to be alone?” “Will I get into Harvard?” “Are you absolutely sure?”

Schuleit Haber promises answers of poetic mystery.

“They will receive a fragment of poetry or a riddle,” she said. “The Delphi Oracle never gave a straight answer.”

Stephen Immerman, president of Montserrat, hopes The Beverly Oracle will become a signature piece of public art.

“We want something world-class,” Immerman said during an interview at the college’s printmaking studio. “We wanted a public art project that is interactive and permanent. We didn’t want it to be an event, which many public art projects are.”

Montserrat soon will start to raise $250,000 to pay for the final design and construction of the project. “We’ll be applying for grants and soliciting support from foundations that support public art,” Immerman said.

Mayor Michael Cahill predicted that the Beverly Oracle will boost the city’s arts scene.

“It holds the promise of helping to create a sense of place,” said Cahill, who took office in January. “It would be a draw that would bring people here, and brand us a destination for art and culture.”

Montserrat and the city now are trying to determine what local permits would be required for the oracle to be built on public property.

Cahill said he is not yet ready to support locating the oracle on the city’s grassy common, the heart of downtown.

“I can’t say yet if it would, or should, go there. We’re just now starting a conversation with Montserrat about the specifics of all of this,” Cahill said.

One alternative site could be Ellis Square, located just off Cabot Street, and not far from the common.

“That would put it very close to our restaurants and shops downtown,” Cahill said.

Gin Wallace, executive director of Beverly Main Streets, said the oracle could make Beverly a must-stop on the region’s tourist trail.

“This will help distinguish us from our neighbors,” Wallace said. “When people come to visit Gloucester in summer, or Salem in October, we want them to come to Beverly. We’re kind of banking on this putting us on the arts and tourism map.”

The oracle proposal comes as Beverly’s artistic star is rising. Montserrat was chosen last month by the state Department of Housing and Economic Development to lead the Creative Economy Network — a statewide effort to boost local art industries — on the North Shore.

Montserrat, the city, and Main Streets in 2012 received a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a master plan for an arts and cultural district downtown. A portion of the grant also was used to sponsor a public art competition. Schuleit Haber’s proposal was chosen from a field of 75 submissions from across the country.

“We had proposals that were stunningly remarkable, visually and conceptually,” Immerman said. “But Anna’s proposal eclipsed all of them in terms of its intelligence, creativity, and its imagination.”

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The questions

Some of the questions people in Beverly submitted to Anna Schuleit Haber to be considered for the Beverly Oracle Project:

 How can I be relevant?

 What can I do to make people happy?

 How do I face my fading beauty?

 How can I share my love with the world?

 Should I retire or start a business?

 Will I be a Dad?

 Will I ever see peace in the world?

 How long will I live?

 I tried to find, and understand, but I still feel lost. How do I know when I’m not?

 What’s good for my heart?

 Is anybody really meant to be alone?

 Will I ever marry again?

 Will I get into Harvard?

 Are you absolutely sure?

SOURCE: Anna Schuleit Haber

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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