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Bikeway art cycles away from black/white thinking

Nilou Moochhala working on the Minuteman Bikeway in June. / Cecily Miller photoNilou Moochhala working on the Minuteman Bikeway in June. / Cecily Miller photo

You're cycling up the bikeway from Linwood Circle to Swan Place. Ahead, you see on your side of the path "US," stenciled in white. On the other side "THEM."

In your head, you hear the old union song, "Which Side Are You On?" 

Do the words make you feel aware of the divisions in your neighborhood, family or the nation? Or do they suggest that life's issues should not be defined by back and white.

Perhaps you focus forward on the horizon ahead -- and are like one cyclist who told Nilou Moochhala: "I don't want to think."

Moochhala is the Arlington artist who designed "Rhetoric of Opposites," one of a new series of public-art displays on the bikeway titled "Pathways." They aim to engage.

Along the way, you'll find "Flutter" by Claudia Ravaschiere and Michael Moss. More than 60 transclucent Plexiglas butterflies have flown in from Boston's Fort Point and alighted on a chain-link fence over the underpass connecting Pond Lane with a parking lot near the playground and Spy Pond.

Also look for "City Fox" by London-based Stewy. A stenciled fox and rabbit have been wheat-pasted to the pedestrian underpass at Whittemore Street near the playing fields.

"We picked a site that is hidden, reflecting the way that wildlife lives in greenspaces like the Bikeway but we may not see always them," Miller explained.

"Opposites" parcels out evenly 25 word pairs, something in the way those old Burma-Shave ads did, though this series is not humorously pitching a product. It is nudging your viewpoint.

Implying national mood

Recently, I sat down with Moochhala and Cecily Miller, Arlington's public-art consultant, at a picnic table outside Kickstand Cafe, with a clear view of the bikeway.

The word opposites invite us to explore the implications about our current national mood, Moochhala said.

Nilou Mouchhala working on the Minuteman Bikeway in June. / Cecily Miller photoMoochhala with stencils. / Cecily Miller photo

"I'm giving people leeway to interpret [the word pairs] the way they want," she said, acknowledging that the idea arose from her own anxiety about the black-and-white thinking she hears expressed in the era of a Trump presidency.

The  Minuteman Bikeway -- celebrating its 25th year -- is the cycling-walking-and-running spine of Arlington. People come and go, passing each other in opposite directions. And in this current public-art display, so do the words.

"I want to make people think about where they're coming from and where they're going," Moochhala said.

Unlike "City Fox" and "Flutter," "Rhetoric of Opposites" is not image-oriented art. It's an attempt to shape spaces with language -- in this case, language of the literal street.


"This project made me think," Miller said, "that [polarizing] language really eliminates the true complexity of reality ...."

Moochhala chimed in: "... so many gray areas in between ...."

Miller added, "It undermines finding consensus."

Now the two were revved up and running as they described the project, particularly how it relates to "the whole idea of freedom":

Revolution, rails

Here we are a few miles from Boston, Miller said, the center of the American Revolution, in what was once Menotomy -- at a place that in the 19th century had rails run through it.

The company behind those rails, the Boston & Maine, prospered and died, going bankrupt in 1970, four years before Alan McClennen became planning director here and worked for years to turn the rail into a trail. The Minuteman opened in 1992.

"We can use that pathway," Miller said, "and go back to our roots ... what New England has been -- a place to question authority."

The three current bikeway displays are organized by the Arlington Commission on Arts and Culture in partnership with by Arlington Public Art, a volunteer effort that dates to 2011, when an empty storefront on Medford Street was used for a display. Sound familiar? The town's new storefront bylaw offers to waive a $400 fee if a landlord uses a vacant property that way. 

Since 2011, Arlington Public Art has grown, as the popular fund-raiser Chairful Where You Sit, led by Adria Arch, raised $2,600 in 2012. By the fifth summer event, in 2016, 28 chairs were sold. The effort is taking a break this summer in a nod to art on the bikeway, whose anniversary celebration is set for October. 

Quote bar, redPublic-art progress

2017-16: Youth-created banners fly over Mass. Ave. 

2016: Wheat-paste art enlivens East Arlington

2016: Large art along Spy Pond near playground

2014-15: Transformer art

2014: Menotomy Rocks (last word is a verb)

2011: Supersize mural at Boys & Girls Club 

See the full range of projects at the APA site >> 

Quote bar, red

 As Miller helped raise grants for public art, she became more directly involved in project. That was clear last year as "East Arlington Stories" took shape, projecting on familiar buildings wheat-paste portraits of local businesses people. Miller was hands-on, but not a town employee.

Supporting "Pathways" is a $1,500 grant from the Arlington Cultural Council, which distributes funds from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Local businesses are also chipping in; SunBug Solar in Arlington adopted "Opposites" with a donation of $250, and Playtime will be donating some of the yarn for an upcoming knitting installation in the fall.

Bikeway projects still to come are:

-- Frank Vasello's environmental sculpture using natural wood will be on a hillside and along a staircase that leads from the bike path to Spy Pond. You will be able to step off the busy bikeway and onto this staircase to see the work. It will also be visible from the park along the pond. He will be an artist-in-residence at Spy Pond, starting about Sept. 16.

-- A newly formed group of volunteers called "The Arlington Knitting Brigade" are assembling Adria Arch's design of colorful striped “sleeves” for seven large trees along the bikeway in the same area. 

One overall strategy behind Minuteman public art is to knit together parts of town that remain disconnected. Why? In part, to provide evidence to the state for an Arlington cultural district. Read an early analysis here >> 

A decision about the district is possible in the fall.

This news feature was published Tuesday, July 11, 2017. 

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