North Square Stories is a site-specific, long-term public art installation that was commissioned by the City of Boston as the pilot project for the City’s new percent-for-art program. North Square is located in Boston’s historic North End neighborhood and has been in continuous use as a public square since the 1630’s. The Freedom Trail passes through the Square which, prior to the Pandemic, was visited annually by over 4 million people. As such, the Square is historically rich and varied. Known historical figures such as Paul Revere, who lived on the Square in a house that still stands, overshadow the names and stories of lesser known or unknown North Square figures.
When we were commissioned to make North Square Stories, the community stipulated an open-ended set of recommendations for the new public artwork. After holding discussions with an Advisory Panel of engaged residents, our research led us to conclude that no one artwork could do the job of responding to the site’s complex history and current usage. While bronze was the appropriate choice of material for the work given the historic character of the Square, our work could still challenge the bronze-sculpture-on-a-pedestal paradigm by telling a multiplicity of stories non-hierarchically rather than one monumental story. With regular input from the community through discussion sessions at open and lively community meetings, Advisory Panel get-togethers and an interactive blog, we designed a cycle of four unique, small-scale sculptures for installation around a central area.
Each sculpture relates to one of four North Square narrative threads: stories about the surrounding waterfront and harbor; about specific people who have come and gone; about Boston’s changing landscape; and finally about the waves of immigration that have continually redefined the area. Like North Square itself, every detail of the sculptures tells a tale, including many that elevate the profiles of historically ignored individuals such as Sarah Josepha Hale, a 19th century founder of a North Square aid society; and Onesimus, the African-born man enslaved by Cotton Mather in North Square in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Onesimus introduced Mather to the African practice of variolation ultimately leading to the development of inoculation treatments during the 1721 smallpox epidemic.
Early in the project, we were struck by the North Square’s physical relationship to the City of Boston. The Square’s shape is a downward sloping triangle and buildings on either side of its lowest angle frame a wide vista of the Boston skyline. We designed each sculpture to echo this perspective in a different way and to embody the idea of a wide view and broad history encapsulated within a small, enclosed space.
In the relief sculpture “1798 North Square View,” the viewer simultaneously takes in the prospect of early Boston while standing in contemporary North Square, comparing changes to the landscape over the past 220 years. “North End Story Map,” a three-dimensional, scaled-down representation of the North End indicates the visitor’s position in North Square, locates nearby landmarks and helps visitors navigate the area. “Fantastical Historical Nautical Instrument” is a complex viewing and navigation instrument with an assemblage of scopes facing in different directions. It resembles a large sextant, an instrument used to astronomically determine one’s position at a particular vantage point; but whereas a marine sextant is used to measure space, this instrument surveys different moments and historical figures in time using distorted pictures in oblique anamorphism.
The fourth sculpture, “What We Brought with Us,” presents a miniature landscape inside a suitcase that symbolizes travelers and immigrants. As with the project overall, community engagement was crucial in the development of this work. It was made in collaboration with students from three local schools who contributed drawings for luggage labels honoring the places from which they and their families came, thus celebrating the remarkable diversity of the North End.
Traditional studio and foundry-based practices for public sculpture in bronze often exclude active participation by the communities for whom the work is made. A framework of luggage label drawing workshops allowed community members to contribute actively to public sculpture in bronze with their own hands.
When North Square Stories was unveiled at the end of 2019, a shop owner on the Square told us that when he heard there would be a new public artwork, he worried it might impose an outside identity on the Square. Instead, he said that North Square Stories seemed to have come from the place itself — and it did. The community gave rise to North Square Stories through engagement practices.
It is often said that public sculptures and monuments in bronze and stone are frozen in time. This is true in the sense that these works don’t change. We change and the children whose hands contributed to “What We Brought with Us” are growing up. We are ephemeral but we send messages to one another through time with public artworks when they endure. We make public sculptures and monuments in bronze and stone because we want them to last. As practitioners of public art, it behooves us to fully engage the communities in which our work is situated while challenging the traditions on which historical monuments are based. We are committed to designing work that doesn’t foreclose meaning beyond itself and rather than telling singular, monolithic stories, we strive to offer multiplicities of stories.