Commentary: Art and a refined society

Bob Tomolillo created “Past and Future of Firefighting,” a wall mural for the former Medford Public Safety building, in 1979.

The city of Lynn has created an art-filled environment that residents should be proud of. Artists responsible for the dynamic outdoor displays will have their creations appreciated for years to come but legal consideration concerning the appropriate maintenance for the murals can be challenging for communities who support these endeavors.

In 1979, as an employee of the AIR (Artist in Residence) program, an offshoot of the CETA program, a federal program that trained workers and provided jobs in the public sector, I was asked to create a 9-by-16 wall mural inside the lecture room of the Medford Public Safety building, depicting the past and future of fire fighting.

Much to my disappointment, after returning to the site several years later, I discovered the mural had been covered with paneling. Although I was saddened by such a thoughtless act, I was powerless to do anything about it. A few months ago, before the city of Medford began the process of razing the Public Safety building on Main Street, I visited it to see if I could locate a wall mural I painted 40 years ago. When I returned to the building I scoured the area one more time, hoping to find evidence of the wall mural before it was demolished last November. I thought I could find a way to remove the mural and transport the painting to a new location, but no mural was found.

The federal Visual Artist Rights Act passed in 1990 allows artists to bring lawsuits when their artwork is destroyed or altered against their wishes.

The premise of the law, although abstract in meaning to most, contends art, as a physical object, has meaning that extends beyond both the artists and the owner.

Preserving and protecting artwork enhances cultural development and promotes the creation of new artworks.

While working as a member of the AIR program from 1979 to 1981, I devised several art projects that sought to encourage art in public places. I had painted billboards that were displayed above Medford Square and another on the Southeast Expressway.

I created posters for the public transit system, painted a historic mural of Medford’s shipbuilding past, (visible as you enter the square) and the mural in the Public Safety building. In 2007 I received a call from then-Mayor Michael McGlynn, a true supporter of public art, who asked if I would consider restoring the mural I painted in the square as part of a student day project for graduates of the Tisch School at Tufts University.

The project was fast-tracked with scaffolding erected. The retouching of the worn areas in the painting began, as students, transported from the local campus, applied bright new colors to the mural and sharpened faded lines in the composition.

The project concluded with a dedication ceremony in front of the mural, reaffirming the mayor’s commitment to public art. The 20 or so members from the community who participated all understood they increased the quality of their community by activating public imagination and sense of shared environment.

In the words of the Public Network Council of America, public art humanizes the built environment, invigorates public spaces, and leads the viewer to a place of self-reflection. Art is the final polish of a refined society.

Born in Cambridge and a Lynn resident for 38 years, Bob Tomollilo has longstanding ties with the city of Medford. His lithographs are included in collections at the Rijks Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Seoul Museum of Art.

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