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A commuter’s guide to art underground

Since the late 1970s, the MBTA has brought public art pieces to stations around Greater Boston — and it’s past time for their moment in the sun. The next time you catch your train, take this map to see some of the best art in transit.

Public art has a storied past in the MBTA, and many of the pieces installed decades ago still greet riders on their daily commutes.Lane Turner

Every day, MBTA riders sit on the granite seats at Downtown Crossing, graze the bronze gloves tumbling down the median of the Porter escalator, and lean against the painted pillars outside the Jackson Square station, waiting for the bus.

But just because they interact with it doesn’t mean commuters notice the MBTA art that’s all around them.

“When I get off the train, I’m usually on a mission to get out of here and get to a meeting and get to work,” said Karthish Manthiram, who was looking at his laptop rather than the abstract “Sculpture with a D,” a graffiti-like cluster of aluminum slabs, suspended above the outbound tracks at the Davis station. “It’s rare that I actually pause to observe it and take it in.”


I didn’t pay much attention to MBTA art, either, until one day, descending the escalator at the Porter station, I spotted what appeared to be a discarded glove slouching on the median. I went to pick it up, but upon touching it, I discovered the glove was made of bronze.

What was the story behind the sculpture, I found myself wondering, and what other art had I missed while running past it, trying to catch my train?

I’d missed a lot, it turns out — 99 pieces, to be exact, throughout every MBTA line. In the late 1970s, the MBTA became the first public transit system to bring permanent works of art underground, with cities such as 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 more than $700,000 worth of art along the northwest extension of the Red Line. A similar project followed on the Orange Line in the 1980s; in the years since, dozens of other permanent pieces have popped up at other stations, from the floor-to-ceiling stained-glass designs on the windows at Airport to the aluminum panel of flipbook-style photos at North Station.


Subway stations in particular are “so much about functionality,” says Marggie Lackner, deputy chief for quality assurance and quality control at the MBTA and head of the T’s art program. Art in the MBTA offers “a humanizing element.”

To ensure the longevity of the art, most of the pieces are “integral,” meaning they are built into the architecture of the stations themselves. They must be made of “something that is just as durable as the station is, made of the same kind of materials,” Lackner says. Perhaps that’s why the pieces sometimes go unnoticed — they’re camouflage by design.

The art is also a remnant of another time. Currently, Lackner says, there is no new funding for artworks in MBTA stations. There is also no budget for specialized maintenance, which is worrisome to local public art leaders, 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 the Harvard station, fell to the ground. No one was injured, but the piece was later removed.

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


After several fits and starts, six new artworks are set to debut as part of the long-awaited Green Line extension. The Green Line extension was partially funded by old federal grant money, Lackner said, which allows for a portion of the budget for new stations to be put toward integral art. You can even sneak a peek at two of them: Randal Thurston’s “Field Notes,” ceramic prints of flora and fauna designs, bedeck the three glass elevators at the new Lechmere station, and Christine Vaillancourt’s geometric “Tour Jeté Series” is plastered on Ball Square station elevators.

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


This map identifies each of the permanent pieces of art currently owned by the MBTA. Note that titles, artists, and descriptions were taken verbatim from the MBTA website. Locations of pieces on the map are approximate; refer to the description of the piece to get a more detailed location.

“Glove Cycle” by Mags Harries - Porter station

Passengers ride past “Glove Cycle" by Mags Harries at Porter Square station on the Red Line.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Porter gloves have been bamboozling commuters like me since the station opened. “I just remember as a kid trying to pull them off, trying to see if they were real,” said Jessica Dottin, who has lived in the area since childhood, before she boarded her train.

But the intention of the piece was not to hoodwink. In 1978, a blizzard buried Boston in snow. Sculptor Mags Harries began finding abandoned gloves squashed on sidewalks throughout the city, 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 the Porter station in 1984. She was hoping to craft a narrative piece that would mirror the movement of the commuter, she said in an interview with CultureNOW. In addition to the gloves affixed to the escalator median, there is a pile of gloves swept into a corner, and several are flattened into the ground.

“It shows this everyday thing — people lose gloves,” said rider Sierra O’Mara Schwartz. “They took something that would be garbage or trash, 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 the Park Street station. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A 12-ton, 110-foot-long mosaic mural beckons from the outbound tracks at Park Street, where passengers grab the C or the E trains. It is an abstract microcosm of Boston, showing a trolley traveling along serpentine tracks into the glittering city.

“There’s a lot of detail, a lot of vibrant colors and inscriptions,” said Leslie Clairvil, a frequent commuter through the station, who pointed out the little T signs scattered throughout the left side of the mosaic. “I think we should see more of these in Boston.”

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


Maya Miller, a rider who recently moved to Boston, saw the mixed-media collage as a sort of city map. “It’s cool to see the parts that you recognize, like the Harbor, and stuff like that,” she said. “It’s very organic looking — the train tracks look 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 passes a column painted to resemble stacked food cans at the Jackson Square station.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Mackenzie Ensley catches herself starting at the array of pop-art-style murals painted on pillars outside the Jackson Square station almost every day. Her favorites are the ones depicting flora and fauna, but there are others featuring stacked soup cans; playing cards; and children’s portraits.

“It reminds you of the people here,” said Ensley, a student at Bunker Hill Community College studying fine arts. “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 had been the site of a stabbing and a sexual assault. The designs were meant to brighten the Orange Line stop, literally and figuratively.

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

“A couple of years ago, I kind of gave up on art, I was burnt out,” Ensley said. “Staring at these has given me a little bit of hope every day to keep going.”

Untitled sculptures by James Tyler - Davis station

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

Outside of the Davis station, 10 life-size concrete statues strike curiously human poses. Outside of the one of the T entrances, a man hawks flowers, his mouth open as if mid-sentence. Across from the Somerville Theatre, an elderly couple walk arm in arm, their faces weathered.

These masonry figures have been in the neighborhood since 1983. James Tyler, the sculptor, based all of the figures (except one, a mime mid-performance) on real Somerville residents, according to a 1983 Globe article. He 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 draws your attention to see a scene frozen,” said Tara Borgilt, who stopped to observe a stone family of four seated on a bench outside the Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates building. “To get to walk up to it is really an odd experience.”

“Kendall Band” by Paul Matisse - Kendall station

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

Designed by artist Paul Matisse, this trio of musical sculptures has been in various states of disrepair since it was installed in the late 1980s.

The three sculptures, suspended between the inbound and outbound tracks, are meant to be “played” by commuters by pulling handles on the walls on either side of the station. When I visited the Red Line stop, on two separate occasions, “Pythagoras” — 16 bells that all sing out in B-minor when struck by 14 teak hammers — was the only one of the three that would still sound when you persistently pulled the lever on the outbound side. There were no levers for the other two: “Galileo,” a steel sheet that creates a resounding roar, and “Kepler,” an aluminum hoop that hums an F-sharp note. They still hang between the tracks, but silently.

“They sound like church bells, but even better than that . . . sort of like a wind chime,” commuter Bill Bennett said about “Pythagoras.” “It gives everybody a little bit of entertainment.”

The grandson of Henri Matisse, he often fixed the sculptures himself in the wee hours of the morning when trains didn’t run, according to a 1995 Globe article, but more recently, students from MIT banded together in 2010 — and again in 2017 — to try to restore the sculptures to their former melodious glory. Despite its limitations, when “Pythagoras” plays, passengers listen.

Brunel Innocent, waiting for an inbound train, said that his co-worker always rings the bells when they come down into the station together after work. “Just lets me know I’m on my way home,” he said.

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.