At the Green Line’s Lechmere Transit Station, Nature Takes the T

Master of the silhouette and Tufts graduate Randal Thurston pays homage to nature and the natural history surrounding the Charles River with his art work at the Lechmere Station in Cambridge, Massachusetts

To enter the new Lechmere station—the rebuilt East Cambridge, Massachusetts, stop on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Green Line train—is to experience the magical thinking of Randal Thurston, AG83 (MFA).

A masterful producer of silhouettes, Thurston was one of seven artists invited to create works for the new Green Line Extension as part of the Integral Art Program of the MBTA, or “T.” The reconstructed Lechmere station opened earlier this year just across the Charles River from Boston.

Thurston’s imagery acknowledges the rich habitat of the nearby river: a great blue heron, nuthatches, hawks, butterflies, and frogs. Nature, in all its abundance and diversity, plays out across the station, from the vine silhouettes encasing the elevators to the platform panels pairing the flora and fauna of neighboring North Point Park with excerpts from the notebooks of William Brewster, a 19th century ornithologist who studied the birds of the area.

Randal Thurston Lechmere panel

Seeking to connect riders with the deep natural history surrounding the Lechmere station, Thurston merged images of birds, butterflies and plants with words from the journals of 19th-century ornithologistt William Brewster. Photo courtesy of Suffolk University

Thurston, who earned his MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and is now professor and chair of Art & Design at Suffolk University, begins each artwork with a hand-cut silhouette he then converts to a digital file before printing with a laser cutter. He calls hand manipulation “a critical component of what I do. I need to feel engaged physically with the imagery I'm working with.” Thurston talked to Tufts Now about his artistic process.

Read complete coverage of the opening of the new Medford/Tufts Green Line station.

Tufts Now: What was your goal in incorporating wildlife and plants into the design for the new T station?

Randal Thurston: Our mandate from the MBTA was to improve the rider experience, however you define that. I wanted to acknowledge [the site’s] history, both with the flora and birds that are native to that area, but also with the text provided by Brewster’s journals. It was a way of celebrating the history of that place and also natural history as an observation-based discipline.

My interest in creating artwork that incorporates nature comes from a sensibility very much like Brewster’s. By paying attention to details—a wing, a leaf—I think we can get a clearer sense of our place in the world. We gain a deeper understanding of who we are sharing it with. 

And one thing I wanted to do was create a little bit of an oasis from everyday life. Even if people are frustrated that the last three trains were full, they will find some relief by looking at the images around them.

You have spoken about your art as a connection to memory and to how we relate to the larger world. What does that mean for you?

I walk a lot in that area near the station, and if you walk an area repeatedly, you get a sense of the place. But I also have a sense of the memory of the place, how it changes with each passing season. It made me ask: What would happen if I thought about memory as recalling something that happened much earlier than today? That led to me to look for the diaries of William Brewster, which I found online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Lechmere elevator Randal

Glass elevators at the Lechmere T station are wrapped in lush vines, evocative of growth and movement. Photo courtesy of Randal Thurston

At Lechmere, your artwork for the elevators is called “Thicket,” and the platform art incorporating Brewster’s text is “Field Notes.” How did you approach these individual spaces?

The elevator was a way of thinking generally about movement. I was thinking about how the transit station functions; there’s an ebb and flow of travel. And as I was thinking about movement, I thought about the growth of those vines. I thought it would be an interesting experience for people when they’re transitioning from the ground level to the transit level.

On the platform, I thought about a term the T uses. They call it “way-finding” signage—the displays that orientate riders. I looked at what that meant, in terms of the history of the location. Up until about 1850 or so, Lechmere was a salt marsh. I thought it would be very interesting to think about way finding through time. I used those landscapes as a way to imagine what the environment would've been like before it was settled.  

This is also an invitation to people who are riding the T to explore the local environment from a natural perspective. I am using nature to remind people that this is a very densely urban area, and yet, if you walk away from the station and toward the Charles, there is an expansive ecosystem. It’s a rich natural world.

You’ve been making silhouettes now for 35 years. What led you to this art form? 

When I came to Boston, I was doing very precise drawings of people I knew. Each drawing would take four to six months [to complete]. Back then, I was thinking about identity and how it’s represented.

Then I came across a book of Colonial-era silhouettes, and I was struck by the fact that, when you look at a silhouette, the first thing you do is you understand its shape. The second thing that happens is you understand that it’s a specific shape. From there, it may go from you seeing the shape of a bird to recognizing it as a robin. You have a memory of a robin. The silhouette becomes a kind of catalyst that requires the audience, or the observer, to finish the picture.  

What I like about a silhouette is that it presents you with this accurate version of a shadow of the world. It doesn't fill anything in. It requires you to engage memory and association to finish it. I started doing it on a large scale. 

My Tufts education was also a very important influence. While I was at the SMFA, I took a class with Anne Hagopian van Buren [who taught medieval art history at Tufts from 1976 to 1984], and I started to understand that you could have work that had an appearance—all of the things in there were real—but they could also be symbolic.

On your website, your artist statement  says your work is about beauty and mortality, and that using images from the natural world underscores the transitory nature of life. How does this play out for the T station?

When you exhibit in a gallery or a museum, you are drawing a self-selected audience, and they usually have some sort of background in visual culture. When you are working in a public sphere, the audience is going to be diverse, in terms of what they want out of the experience of being there.  

From my perspective, the challenge is how to spark wonder and curiosity. Can I give enough breadcrumbs that are interesting to look at visually but then layer that with deeper meaning? You can have people on a platform who come from different countries, who speak different languages and might not be able to understand each other in conversation, and yet if there is a visual image in front of them, there are associations with that image that are universal. 

When a public artwork becomes part of a public sphere, you surrender its meaning to the site. That’s thrilling to me. It means I’ve created something that hopefully becomes a catalyst for an experience, or a memory, or an association in a way that otherwise might not have been possible.

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