In the halls of high-tech MIT, he still paints professors’ names on doors
If a name appears written in black letters on a professor’s office door at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s more likely than not that Glenn Silva put it there with the delicate stroke of his paintbrush.
For more than two decades, the 70-year-old Plymouth resident has been hand-lettering the names of employees and departments onto hundreds of doors that line the hallways of the tech-savvy Cambridge school.
“I enjoy doing the hand-lettering only because it gives you a lot of peace of mind, and you are focused on what you’re doing,” said Silva, who started working at MIT in 1994 on a contractual basis. “And you drown the whole world out.”
On Thursday, Chris Peterson, an assistant director in MIT’s admissions office, shared a blog post celebrating Silva’s work.
He also posted an image of his own office door — decorated by Silva on numerous ocassions — and a video that showed the artist practicing the age-old craft. The video was produced by Lillie Paquette, a staff member at MIT’s School of Engineering.
“I wanted to share it ... so that our visitors could see and appreciate Glenn’s art,” Peterson wrote. “And see, the next time [they] visit campus, that these small acts of love and care are everywhere at the Institute.”
Silva, who attended the former Butera School of Art in Back Bay during the 1960s, said he’s lost count of how many names he’s scrawled on glass during the years that he’s spent carting supplies around MIT.
“I’m here every day,” said Silva in a telephone interview with the Globe. “That’s how much work they got.”
While he paints the intricate letters, students and staff often stop to take pictures of Silva. On a recent workday, as he dipped his brush into black paint and applied it to a door’s glass pane, a woman asked him, perplexedly, if he was “doing that by hand.”
“I said, ‘Yes.’ And then she said, ‘Really?’ And then she left,” said Silva.
When she returned, he said, she had eight to 12 students with her, and instructed them to bear witness to Silva’s work in progress.
“She said, ‘I want you to all watch what he is doing because it’s not going to happen too often,’” said Silva, laughing at the absurdity of it all. “They then watched me do the hand-lettering. I explained a few things to them about what I was lettering as I was lettering it.”
The process requires patience, he said.
Silva uses a ruler to create a line across the glass, and then narrows his focus. To make the lettering perfect, he needs to apply the correct amount of hand pressure, and make sure the consistency of the paint is just right. (Sometimes he struggles with the lettering and gets frustrated, because the paint or the brush isn’t doing what he wants it to do).
But most times, the job offers Silva a moment of zen.
“I do have a lot of peace within myself when I do it,” he said. “I don’t even know you’re standing next to me.”
Aside from his work with the brush, Silva said he also installs vinyl lettering when necessary, and completes other tasks inside the many buildings on the school’s sprawling campus.
“If you’re not lettering a letter, you’re building a sign, or designing it and creating it,” he said. “That is what gives you the drive to keep going.”
At a college filled to the brim with technolgical advances, Silva said it’s nice that the trade he’s practiced for so many decades is still appreciated by the people he encounters each day.
“It hasn’t left, it’s still here, and it’s so great to see,” he said. “They haven’t fully replaced me yet.”
As long as MIT allows the artist to stick around, said Silva, he has no immediate plans to retire.