Arts

MBTA tracks down artist who created iconic murals

Mary Beams in her basement studio in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Mark Tessier for The Boston Globe
Mary Beams in her basement studio in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

It was like a crowd-sourced manhunt, but for an artist.

“The #MBTA would like to return #GovCenter artwork to artist Mary Beams. Are you or do you know the artist?” transit authorities tweeted last summer.

At stake were 19 murals Beams created for the T’s Government Center Station in the late 1970s that had achieved near iconic status during their 35-year residency. Transportation officials had removed the paintings in advance of the station’s overhaul. Now they wanted to return them to the artist, but she had vanished, like so many dreams of an on-budget Green Line extension.

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“I got a phone call one day,” Beams explained, “and a voice I didn’t know said, ‘How does it feel to know that all of Boston is looking for you?’ I had no idea what to say.”

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Beams, it turned out, hadn’t disappeared at all. An animator who had been a teaching assistant at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, and whose work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, she’d simply left the art world, devoting herself instead to baking pies on the shores of Lake Superior. A part-owner of the Pie Place Café in Grand Marais, Minn.,Beams will be returning to Boston, where next month, with her blessing, the MBTA plans to hold an online public auction of the artworks, giving Bostonians a chance to own a piece of the city’s history.

“The paintings themselves are very exciting,” said Elizabeth Haff, a specialist in American and European artwork at Skinner Inc., the auction house handling the sale. “When I first saw them, I had the feeling you get of glimpses as you do when you are in a car.”

Rendered in Benjamin Moore house paint on plywood, the murals have a strong graphic quality reminiscent of silk screen, depicting quintessential Boston scenes of trolley cars and commuters. Beams created the works by taking film and photographs while riding the T, images she and her staff of volunteers later traced and painted on the plywood.

Skinner Inc.
This mural is titled “No Stops.”

“I’d put anything I felt like putting, so in one window you might see giant hands holding giant newspapers, and then in the next you might see a group of people playing with a dog,” said Beams, 70, whose break-out creation this season is bumbleberry pie, a confection of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb. “There were a couple where I threw all my friends in and made them do silly things.”

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The murals initially were intended to be temporary. But the MBTA never removed them, and after 35 years in what was the T’s biggest transit hub, the murals have been seen by millions of commuters.

They’ve also collected their fair share of grit. Though the MBTA installed plexiglass covers to protect the works in the late 1980s, some of them have suffered water damage.

Auctioneers say they initially considered conserving the murals before the sale. But the house later opted to sell them as is, with, “you know, grime,” as Skinner specialist Mike Moser put it.

“This lends some authenticity to it: You might as well have some brake dust,” said Moser, who specializes in fine wines but is helping to coordinate the sale. He added that the murals are actually in remarkably good condition after having spent the better part of four decades underground in a subway station.

“It’s house paint, so you could probably — I’m not advocating this, and I’m not a conservationist — but you could probably just take a wet paper towel and wipe them off.”

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Skinner estimates that the murals, many of which measure 4 feet by 8 feet, will bring anywhere from $800 to $3,000 per lot. One thing that makes the sale different, however, is that Beams made paintings only rarely, sold very few of her works, and has no auction history to speak of.

“It certainly is unusual,” said Haff, who said that Skinner’s valuations of the paintings are based on their “visual appeal, which is very good, and on their historical context and their importance to Boston.”

The MBTA said it had initially considered placing the murals elsewhere — they couldn’t be reinstalled in the renovated Government Center stop, because they were no longer up to code — but couldn’t find a location where they’d be protected from the weather. When agency officials finally located Beams, they offered to return the murals. Her response: “Heck no.”

 “Dog in Doorway.”
Skinner Inc.
“Dog in Doorway.”

Marggie Lackner, the MBTA’s director of design and architecture, said they discussed selling the murals at auction and placing a porcelain enamel panel of the images in the renovated station. “Mary thought that was a good idea,” Lackner said via e-mail. “She said she thought it might be good for a new artist to have a chance to have their work there.”

The MBTA now plans to use proceeds from the sale to create the commemorative panel, with remaining funds going toward new artwork for the revamped station.

The online auction and display of murals will run Oct. 20-29, with a kick-off event at the state Transportation Building at 10 Park Plaza on Oct. 21. Posters drawing attention to the sale will begin to appear by the end of this month.

The event will be something of a homecoming for Beams, who left Boston soon after completing the murals. She has never been back.

“I am so curious to see them again,” she said. “I’ve gone on and lived this whole other life. But to be able to confront something that you made 35 years ago and ponder what they’ve been through? It’s quite amazing.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.