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New 'Restrained' Mural Replaces Controversial Painting In Dewey Square

A crew paints Matthew Ritchie's vision. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

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BOSTON — Boston’s newest—and most gargantuan—public mural is now complete. Designed by New York artist Matthew Ritchie, it’s taken over the Big Dig ventilation building that was until recently occupied by the colorful, controversial boy in pajamas painted by the Brazilian street artists known as Os Gemeos.

WBUR’s Andrea Shea met with the artist and the team of sign painters he enlisted to find out more about the collaborative work.

Earlier this week, a bunch of people eating food truck fare stare up. They’re watching local sign painters ride lifts 70 feet into the air to work on the 5,000 square-foot painting in Dewey Square on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Anne Swain is one of them.

“I didn’t know they were doing it over so this is kind of interesting to watch it all kind of from scratch and wonder what it’s going to be,” she says.

Swain works nearby, lunches here often, and admits she’ll miss the big technicolor boy in in stretchy pants and a hood.

“I liked it, a lot of friends of mine didn’t really care for it—and a lot did—and it was kind of controversial,” Swain says. “That’s why I’m really curious to see what this is. You know I see thistles and thorns and more plant-like matter I suppose, but we’ll see.”

Matthew Ritchie's Dewey Square mural. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Matthew Ritchie’s Dewey Square mural. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“I’ve heard people say it looks like dandelions,” says Tricia O’Neill, a sign painter who lives in Gloucester, who was part of the crew brought on to realize Ritchie’s design. She created the old-fashioned lettering you see at Fenway Park.

She takes me for a ride in one of the lifts to show me the mural close up. It’s an epic painting of things that look like twigs or tendrils or maybe neurons on a massive white background.

“I think it’s exciting for all of us,” O’Neill says. “I think it’s exciting for the ICA to have found someone who’s capable of doing it, and it’s exciting for us to be involved with the ICA and the Greenway, it’s exciting to be involved with something so public and in Boston, and it’s exciting also that Boston is doing finally this more contemporary art in a public way.”

O’Neill says it’s also exciting to be working 50 feet above the ground.

Artist Matthew Ritchie. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Artist Matthew Ritchie. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

British-born artist Matthew Ritchie agrees. “You’re sort of floating and it’s kind of meditative and you’re sort of in the world but very much separate from it at the same time,” he explained.

He went to Boston University and says he feels connected to the city. He got this commission from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, where he’s the artist-in-residence, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy also got behind the project.

“So this is I think a unique collaboration between the ICA and the Greenway,” Ritchie says. “They’re trying to do something really different and create a kind of conversation around a single place, so the artists have to in a way think very carefully about this one wall. It’s not like they can just dream up anything you want. It’s going to go on this wall so you have an engagement with this site and the city at the same time. It’s very cool.”

Richie says he thought a lot about the site “and about the previous work because obviously the Os Gemeos mural was very bright and very colorful and it was a giant figure. So I thought it would be nice to do something that is very much the opposite of that. So this is a restrained color palette—soft blues and grays—and all the colors themselves are supposed to evoke the place, and if you look around the square there’s a lot of blue and gray.”

And Ritchie says it’s cool if people see dandelions or atoms or seedlings in his work, which is pretty expansive in scope. It will be up for the next 18 months as part of the Greenway’s plan to rotate public art.

“I think what’s great about this is that it starts a conversation,” Ritchie says. “And in 5 or 6 years you have 5 of these projects, hundreds of thousands of people will become art critics. They’ll like one, they won’t like another. By the time the third or fourth one, they’ll really start to have a feeling for it. And it’s kind of learning how big the framework of art can be. I think that’s a real gift to the city, but it’s also an honor to be allowed to do it.”

A crew paints Matthew Ritchie's vision. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

A crew paints Matthew Ritchie’s vision. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

This collaboration extends beyond Ritchie, the city, the ICA, and the Greenway, though. Over the next year and half of Ritchie’s museum residency he will also create multimedia performances with musicians from rock bands such as The Breeders and The National. He also designed an App to go with his ginormous mural.

“A lot of Matthew’s work is informed by epic narrative, he’s obsessed with things like ‘Paradise Lost,’” says Bryce Dessner of The National. “He’s made films for orchestral pieces that I’ve done. We did a performance in Los Angeles called ‘Monstinse,’ which I wrote for an installation piece on Venice Beach.”

“We have fun working together,” Dessner adds. “Matthew is great for musicians. He’s kind of a trouble maker where he’s full of ideas and incredibly skilled, but he also kind of gets out of the way for the music so it’s really, really fun to write things for his projects.”