SMFA graduate Nancy Selvage celebrates “Commuter Bees,” nature, and motion in two pieces for Medford/Tufts station
For artist Nancy Selvage, AG80 (MFA), riding a train is far more than simply a quick way to get about. It’s also part of a life journey, with striking similarities to that of the purpose-driven honeybee.
In art she created for the new Medford/Tufts Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) station, Selvage celebrates that human-honey bee connection. “Commuter Bees,” a series of four platform panels, comprise one of two artworks she developed for the new station as part of the MBTA’s GLX Integral Art Program.
On the inbound side of the platform, a bee swooshes toward a curvilinear flower with a beckoning, bright bead of pollen. Other panels carry forward the story, ending with a scene visible to riders disembarking on the outbound side of the platform, who will often be returning home.
As the accompanying text on the platform panels explains, bees are among nature’s most conscientious workers, and have something in common, perhaps, with Green Line commuters, “leaving and returning to and from explorations, work, finding substance, and nourishing a community.”
Selvage’s homage, as in all her public work creations, operates on overlapping, multiple levels to engage the viewer. The natural history lesson is also a delightful counterpoint to the high-powered technology of the train environment. It is a visual reminder that bees have their own eons-old sophistication: hunting for food and communicating their finds to others in what is known as the waggle dance.
She hopes riders, whether inbound or outbound, will share her awe for the honey bee and also pause, savor, and ponder her artwork's symbolic meaning.
Maybe, she said, “I can encourage them to think about the ‘nectar’ they will find in Boston, in a museum, or a play—anything that feeds you and that you then bring back to Tufts and share with others.”
The term "wayfinding signs" is used by the MBTA for transit platform panels, since they orient riders to the environs of each station, she added. “Juxtaposing that signage with wayfinding panels about honey bee journeys and their waggle dance and their directional communication,” she said, “deepens the 'Commuter Bees' metaphor.”
Selvage’s approach to the transit station project reflects her responsiveness to social and environmental issues, a commitment she shared in a talk for the Tufts Hoch Cunningham Environmental Lecture Series. And because of her Tufts education, and her sustained connection with the university and the SMFA, she was “thrilled” when she learned she was selected for the Medford/Tufts transit station.
An unexpected bonus was discovering, after the project was completed, that the university’s Medford/Somerville campus is the first urban campus in Massachusetts to be certified as part of the Bee Campus USA program. Gardens maintained by the Tufts Pollinator Initiative at four sites on campus contain native plants to feed a diversity of pollinators.
“I didn’t realize that at the time,” she said. “I’m so happy to find that connection.”
The other work Selvage has contributed to the new station, “Speeding Green Line,” is a set of three pairs of back-lit glass panels mounted over the entrance on Boston Avenue.
The panels, spanning 22 feet horizontally, display vertical lines of green separated by narrow voids that allow the two layers of glass to visually vibrate with each other; they simulate motion as the viewer walks by. At night, the work glows brilliant green.
“With ‘Speeding Green Line’ I wanted to evoke the visual effect of looking out of a moving train at the landscape blurring by,” said Selvage.
Selvage worked with a professional photographer to capture very high-resolution images of several tree landscapes of mostly oaks and pines. She eventually chose a section of one image and stretched it digitally until the vertical trees morphed into abstracted green lines. Her files were then delivered to a fabrication company with expertise in printing and fusing those images onto glass in a kiln.
With similar resourcefulness she looked at the transit station platform assignment, where the metal panels are porcelain-surfaced. Knowing that she didn’t want to do a painting, she worked again with the photographer to first create very high-resolution digital images of her perforated metal sculptures. She then returned to the computer to shape those images into her bee story.
“Everything you see on the platform has been fabricated from images of my work,” she said. “I reworked, cut and pasted, and stretched the photos until they looked like a flower or like a bee.”
While Selvage has worked on many large public art projects, the MBTA project was her first commission for a public transit station.
She pursued a master’s in sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) MFA program, after earning a bachelor’s degree in art history from Wellesley College. Her work has been recognized and supported by numerous exhibitions, public art commissions, reviews, residencies, and awards, including two Artist Fellowships and New Works Commissions from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a National Endowment for the Arts Projects grant.
Selvage also was director of the ceramics program at Harvard for many years and has held guest teaching roles. Today she works out of her home studio outside Boston, and represented by Boston Sculptors Gallery, she exhibits in national and international venues. Clients for large public art commissions include Google, the City of Lowell, Bristol Community College, the City of Cambridge, Mass., Keene State College, the National Park Service, and North Carolina Zoo.
“In each public art project, I’m always working in response to goals, character, and context,” she said. “I want to capture the essence of the space, and at the same time, engage people and a community.”
At the Medford/Tufts transit station, “calling attention to our connection with honeybees is related to our critical dependence on their environmental role,” she said. “I try to mitigate my environmental impact by cultivating a pollinator garden and by offsetting all the energy embodied in the materials and making of my artwork with carbon credits."
"I strive to create work that engages me and others in a discovery process," she added. "The challenge of developing relevant art projects for the new transit station and community has been a unique opportunity involved working with two new sets of materials.”