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Words on Greenway fence showcase power of language

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Matthew Hoffman made this rendering of his vision for the new Greenway installation, called “May This Never End.”Artist Rendering by Matthew Hoffman

First came conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner's towering, text-based Dewey Square mural, "A Translation from One Language to Another." Now, on Thursday, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy will continue its push into language-based art as workers begin to install Matthew Hoffman's "May This Never End," a narrative work that will stretch nearly 320 feet along a northern portion of the Greenway.

Crafted of bright yellow high-density polyethylene, the same material used in some outdoor playgrounds, the four-foot-tall letters will span a football-field-size length of fence. Script modeled on Hoffman's own handwriting will spell out a message of hopeful perseverance: "Nothing's for keeps. Except that we must keep going. You'll spend your entire life searching, ok? We all want to belong. So let's all get along. Make the most, and hope. May this never end."


Hoffman, who's based in Chicago, said that he creates his work with the "viewer in mind," hoping to provide passersby with a moment of individual reflection and encouragement.

"I don't want the work to dictate what they think or feel; I want it to help them go on whatever journey they want or need to in that moment," he said. "We interact with thousands and thousands of images every day, but I've always found special those things that affect me in a certain way. I probably won't succeed every single time, but I try to create those moments for other people."

Though Hoffman's work marks the Greenway's second foray into text-based artwork, it also fits a broader trend in and around the city. Whereas for decades public art has tended toward staid figurative bronzes and reverential memorials, recent installations have been temporary, contemporary, and awash in color.

In the past year alone, Boston has hosted a pasting by enigmatic French artist JR high up on the former John Hancock Building; Janet Echelman's shimmering airborne sculpture, "As If It Were Already Here"; and a flock of sculptural sheep by Korean-born artist Kyu Seok Oh, among many others.


"Unlike the memorials, today's public art is really about the individual experience of the viewer, but it's also a collective experience," said the Greenway's public art curator Lucas Cowan. "It's this temporary time: You have to be there to experience it, and you're left with this memory. It's like: God, do you remember when the city did that?"

Commissioned by the Greenway with funds from ArtPlace America, "May This Never End" is scheduled to be up through November. Along with Weiner's text-based mural, it is part of the Greenway's ongoing exploration of language-based public artworks, which Cowan said would likely include narrative-based programming around the works, such as storytelling events and tours by notable Boston poets.

"This came about from thinking curatorially about these messages that Boston internalizes," said Cowan. " 'Boston Strong' started coming to mind, and I wanted to work with Matthew to find an inspirational message."

By that measure, Cowan said, he hoped people would stumble upon "May This Never End" as they are going about their day, deriving fresh meaning from the work each time they encounter it.

"The fun thing about the work is it's so oversized, and it's bright yellow, and it's thrown into the public sphere," he said. "This idea that we must keep going — that's going to mean something different to everybody every day, whether they're searching for a job, or sad in life, or really in love and they want to keep going with their love."


Hoffman, best known for his "You Are Beautiful" project, which disseminates stickers bearing the three-word phrase for people to post around their cities, said he believes there is power in a simple phrase. "Sometimes the simplest things have the most paths that you can go down," he said. "They they can get very complex without you really knowing" he said. He said he collects his phrases by jotting down thoughts in his phone or on Post-It notes.

"I'll pull all those things together, and if it's something that still resonates months later, then I'll know it's dead on and something I should work with," he said. "I've always liked to put hidden ones around town, so maybe some random person will see it in 10 years looking under a park bench."

Far from hidden, "May This Never End" is one of Hoffman's biggest works to date. It comprises seven discrete phrases, each of which he arrived at individually. Together, they form a sort of narrative that Hoffman said he hopes will lead viewers on an emotional journey as they walk along the artwork, eventually taking in the piece in its entirety.

"I wanted to keep in mind that you could look at one part of it, and there would be these moments that you can get," he said. "But potentially, if you followed along the entire piece, you might have a completely different outlook by the time you get to the end."


Malcolm Gay can be reached at