Artist Paul Matisse, community save Charlestown Bells
When weather and use silenced the Charlestown Bells, a can-do spirit made them ring again
When the work was done and the long process was over, the crowd stepped back, and Paul Matisse stepped forward.
Slowly, the 80-year-old sculptor and inventor walked along the Charles River Dam and pushed the 30 levers of a new and improved version of his long-decayed installation, the Charlestown Bells. As he pushed, each emitted a soft, warm tone.
When he got to the end and the song was over, the audience clapped for him and his beloved creation, a happy ending to a happy story that involves two guys from Charlestown, an artist with a famous last name, and a whimsical creation.
The story begins in 2000, when Matisse, the grandson of the famous French painter Henri Matisse, erected the Charlestown Bells, an interactive musical sculpture, atop the dam on a narrow path that is a popular shortcut between Charlestown and North Station. The Bells quickly became a favorite of the path’s regular travelers, who came to love the silliness of banging on the levers to reveal their song.
“It’s a mood changer,” said Tom O’Reilly, a Charlestown resident who came to count on the Bells for a regular smile. “I’ve been in a bad mood on one side, and by the time I got to the other I’ve created this pleasant experience.”
But over time, the Bells fell victim to the weather and relentless banging. More than a few revelers leaving events at the TD Garden had played the game of “How hard can I slam these things,” until nearly all of them stopped working.
O’Reilly and J.J. Gilmartin, a friend from Charlestown who had also fallen in love with the sculpture — “What does a smile sound like?” is how he describes the work — decided to do something about it. They formed the Friends of the Charlestown Bells, contacted Matisse, and with the community behind him, the ball really got rolling.
“J.J. and Tom were people who instead of just being concerned, instead of just saying ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ they got involved and said, ‘What are we doing about this?’ ” Matisse said.
It is not the first time the public has reached out to him to save one of his interactive sculptures. A few years ago, a department at MIT took on the task of repairing and conserving his best-known local sculpture, the Kendall Band, a three-instrument interactive sculpture inside the Kendall/MIT stop on the Red Line.
For the Charlestown Bells, Matisse had been trying for years to get funding from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to do the repairs. But he says the grass-roots effort of the community gave him the push he needed.
In June, a team of volunteers removed the Bells and transported them to Matisse’s studio inside an old church in Groton. The state agency provided the funds for the refurbishment — hundreds of pieces needed to be taken apart and fixed or replaced — and on Sunday, under a drizzly gray sky, the volunteers returned to work with Matisse’s staff to reinstall the Bells.
The installation was not an easy task, because the Bells hang over the Charles River. Drills had to be tethered to railings; screws fell in.
As Matisse watched the crews work, he said he was touched to know that the piece had become important to the community.
“It’s amazing when people care about a piece of work; it transforms it,” he said. “And I feel incredibly grateful that the piece has meaning to them. Typically, if you put a piece of sculpture up, everybody looks at it, and pretty soon they’re walking by it, not paying attention. But when it’s interactive, they have something to do with it. It’s a privilege to be able to make something that speaks to someone when I’m not there.”
When the Bells were finally up and ready to play again, Matisse walked along, struck them each in time, and many in the crowd were visibly moved by the scene. After he took his applause, Matisse said that he was surprised at how emotional the experience of playing the Bells was.
“I wasn’t expecting to like them so much,” he said, smiling. “One’s pretty critical of your own stuff. But there was a nostalgia to the piece that took me by surprise.”