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Art Walk Project puts public art on the map with free, self-guided tours

‘Every neighborhood is different. Every collection of art is unique,’ says digital artist Julia Swanson, who so far has created six colorful guides to Boston’s public art scene.

Artist Iker Muro's untitled mural is featured in Julia Swanson's South Boston Art Walk.Julia Swanson

As winter approaches, it’s easy to feel cooped up. But after two-plus years of isolating and social distancing during the pandemic, digital artist Julia Swanson has figured out ways to keep herself entertained and inspired. When she needs a dose of creativity, she goes for a walk — specifically, an art walk — around one of Boston’s vibrant, art-rich neighborhoods.

Swanson founded the Art Walk Project — which features six “micro tours” of Boston’s public art scene — in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 shuttered cultural institutions around the city.

“I was so cut off from so much,” Swanson recently said by phone. As restrictions began to ease, “I was like, ‘I think I really need to reconnect with the art that’s outside of my world,’ and museums were sort of off limits at the time, so I started heading into the city and wandering the streets.”

Swanson’s tours are all free, walkable, and self-guided, letting participants decide where they want to visit and at what pace. The sites listed on the maps include murals, sculptures, sidewalk art, and beyond, highlighting pieces from lesser-known local artists alongside well-known artists such as muralist Vyal Reyes and sculptor Daniel Buren. They range from sweeping large-scale murals to smaller compositions that might be easy to pass by without noticing. But with this project, stopping to notice the art that exists all around us is precisely the point — and Swanson’s own appreciation colors every aspect of her project.

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A map of the East Boston Art Walk from artist and designer Julia Swanson, who founded the Art Walk Project in 2020.Julia Swanson

For every route Swanson charted, she explored the neighborhood, logging each piece alongside the name of its creator and the year it was made. The maps themselves are another work of art: colorful and stylized, each with an individualized aesthetic that complements the character and individuality of the neighborhood. Current art walk routes include East Boston, Chinatown, the Rose Kennedy Greenway and Cambridge’s Central Square.

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The Central Square Art Walk, from digital artist Julia Swanson, was the first map she created for the Art Walk Project.Julia Swanson

The first map she made, of Central Square, includes a rainbow of colors that bleed together with watercolor-like effect.

“I was thinking as I was designing the second map, ‘Well, there’s no reason why they have to be the same,’ ” Swanson said. “Every neighborhood is different. Every collection of art is unique . . . I kind of leaned into that.”

Art Walk participants can find the routes, along with a brief guide to the artwork, on the Art Walk Project website at theartwalkproject.com. Each Art Walk guide includes the approximate distance, estimated time to complete the route, nearby public transit options, a photo gallery featuring some of the art, and even resources to help participants find a nearby bite to eat.

East Boston-based muralist Felipe Ortiz has two works featured in the East Boston map — “Aquatic Dimensions” and “Heart of the Ocean” — both of which depict scenes of coral reefs with bright, vibrant colors.

Swanson’s guides are “a great way to visualize the public art that we have here in the city,” Ortiz said. “More murals are going up in the city of Boston, and that’s a great sign, visually, creatively, artistically.”

While the project currently has only six routes, Swanson says she is continuously working on adding new Art Walks and hopes to release another one before the end of the year.

“People keep asking me about, you know, ‘Where else could you go?’ ” she said. “The reality is, anywhere that I can find the reason to go, the time to go, and the money to get there.”

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Julia Swanson's South Boston Art Walk tour features a more stylized map compared to the maps she used for other neighborhoods.Julia Swanson

Swanson aims to incorporate additional elements that would make the project more inclusive and accessible, such as improving the mobile version of her website and implementing text-to-speech capabilities.

“I would definitely like to see it continue and to grow, and I would really like to see it become self-funding,” said Swanson, who hopes to raise up to $10,000 to cover the cost of hosting and maintaining the site as well as support research, travel, and labor.

“I really am trying to find a way to balance all this so that the widest swath of people can have the most access to it,” Swanson said.

More details available at https://theartwalkproject.com.


Maya Homan can be reached at maya.homan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MayaHoman.