Artist Interviews: Lisa M Greenfield

What subject matter does your work mainly focus on? Do you have specific interests in your art making process?

My public art focuses on small interventions in the city that can make a statement while still being whimsical. There is usually some sort of issue that I want to bring attention to that gets a spark going.

How did you start conceptualizing the idea for “Starry Night”?

Conceptualizing Starry Night started with its first incarnation. 

There were years I spent walking along the underpass on A Street (under Summer St), grumbling to myself and others what a dark mess it was. Sometimes I would avoid it all together and go up Melcher Street and around because it didn’t feel safe if I was walking my dog alone late at night.  I thought that it wouldn’t really take much to make it better. Just some lighting. At that time there was only one streetlight under there. FPAC (Fort Point Arts Community) had already been doing a series of small public art installations. I had done several pieces on the water. When they put a call out for projects to brighten up the neighborhood at the winter solstice, I knew what space I wanted to work on. I have always loved seeing the stars and have been amazed when I was out of the city at how many stars were visible. So much was lost to light pollution in Boston that one hardly noticed the stars. I had the notion to create a sort of starry night on the underside of the bridge, so when looking up, it would give off the feel and mood of being under a starry sky. 

We know you worked with Daniel J. van Ackere. Did you guys also work with a larger team? What was that experience like working with each other?

Danny and I were co-creators of the project. When he lived at Midway studios, he always hung rows of blue lights in the windows of his loft that were visible to the outside as a wall of twinkling lights. If you were driving down the Haul Road at night, it really stood out. Working together to fine tune the idea and get a proposal together was easy. Finessing the details and the reality was a little more challenging, but we were a good team. Mind you, this was the first incarnation of the project, not what you see today. This was a small budget ($1000) and the project was cobbled together with spit and gum. Actually, it was binder clips from Staples, and zip ties, along with every box of blue LED xmas lights sold at Target within 60 miles of Fort Point. It was fun to have a partner to do this with. 

All of our projects have utilized the creative capital of the neighborhood. This was one realm where artists really supported each other, showed up and got to work. It didn’t matter what time of year, what the weather was or even if it were a call at 4am (like the sodding of the Summer Street bridge project done with Jennifer Moses). At that time the creative energy in the neighborhood was brilliant. It was done out of pure desire to make the neighborhood a better place, and to really try to increase the visibility of artists in the neighborhood as the neighborhood was really starting to struggle with artist displacement pressure from developers.

But I should move on to the project you see today. The initial project was permitted as “temporary” public art and by the City’s definition, it could be up a maximum of 18 months. So, when that time elapsed, we had to take it down. This was pretty sad because it really made a difference in the feel of that space. The City had added a spot light to that one lone streetlight, but it still was pretty dismal again when the first Starry Night came down. 

Many community members were asking if we could put it back up, so we started to look into how to make it a permanent public art project.

Which community resources or funding opportunities enabled you to pursue this project?

The first step we took was applying for a feasibility grant from NEFA (New England Foundation for the Arts) to do engineering/feasibility studies on how to permanently attach lights to the structure of the bridge. Binder clips weren’t going to cut it this time. 

We also needed to look for lights that would last significantly longer. We wanted to expand the project beyond just the blue lights. Lighting technology with LED was advancing and we learned about lights that were color changing and programmable. Philips/Color Kinetics (at that time) was at the forefront of many of these innovations and we worked with them to find the right product for our project. We wanted the installation to look like the twinkling blue light concept of the original Starry Night, but also change at different times of the year. We wanted it to be more dynamic.

This study helped us put together a budget.  We then applied for and received funding from NEFA with a matching grant from the Browne Fund.

Please describe your process! Which materials did you use and did you need to shift your materials? Did concept influence your material choice?

It was more the other way around. There were definitely limitations with how we could attach the lights that the City would agree to – the direction that the lights were hung and attached to the bridge was determined by the City approvals and structural issues. The number of nodes per strand of lights was also a limitation. Now in addition to the light strands, there would need to be power supplies, controllers, etc. We needed to work all that out. We really maxed out what we could do with the physical product – ie the number of nodes per strand and the spacing of the nodes. We would have preferred double the number of individual lights we ended up with and with the strands closer together but we were restricted by the budget and the product.

What is your intention behind the piece and what impact do you hope to make? What do you want your audiences to take away?

In the simplest terms we’d like the audience – whether it be someone who walks by Starry Night every day, or someone who happens upon it randomly – we’d like them to feel joy and wonder. We’d like to have people experience the project and not notice they are walking under a dark underpass. It should become a place where people feel safe and happy. I think it has achieved that. No one rushes through anymore. It isn’t a place that feels threatening. It is a place that is special.

Which challenges did you overcome during the process?

I think the biggest challenge was permitting and timing. Getting everyone on the same page – City Hall and the installers and the engineers – was tricky. There was a lot of coordinating on my part. A lot of back and forth with the City. Maintenance has also been a challenge as several of the strands have failed prematurely and have had to be replaced. We are currently in the process of doing a complete rehabilitation and replacement of the lights and how they are attached, but coordinating that with all parties, and getting the permits and approvals, street closures, power source and the timing down continue to be a challenge. It is a process that could really use streamlining.

What is the importance of public art to you?

Public Art is an equalizer. It is accessible to everyone. I consider Starry Night, and many of my other works, to be a public intervention as much as public art. It is a project that seeks to improve the daily life of the people that come into contact with it. For me, that is the essence of my public art. It makes you think and is very intentional in placement and message. And while I love the use of vibrant color and whimsy, there is often a message that I’m trying to get across. Starry Night is about brightening up a forgotten space. Over time, that aspect of it has faded into the background and now the function of twinkling stars on a dark night or a rainbow of color swirling in space is less mired in transformation. The transformation has occurred in a magical way.  The space could have been brightened up with another streetlight or spotlight, but how much more enjoyable is this?

What has surprised you about Fort Point (e.g. the artwork, the neighborhood, the people)?

Fort Point was such a hub of creative energy. With the development of the Seaport, a lot of that has disappeared. When I first moved to Fort Point there were over 22 buildings filled with artist – over 600 working artists at its height. Now there are 3 buildings. The rest have become high-end lofts or office space. It is a great loss. 

Boston has not been the greatest supporter of the arts. Many people fought hard to keep the neighborhood intact, but without the City’s support, our efforts were futile. It hurts to see this scenario playing out over and over again in different neighborhoods. Many of the studio spaces I have used in the City are now gone. Even now, my former painting space at 11 Humphrey’s Street in Dorchester is being threatened by developers and all of those artists are at risk of losing their spaces. Artists don’t seem to stand a chance against Goliath developers.

Luckily for Fort Point, there is an active arts organization that continues to support its artist members. FPAC has been led by a stalwart group of artists that continue to promote and create public art. And while the neighborhood has changed around us, we continue to surprise people. I love that a public art program that started with these tiny microgrants has grown in scale, depth and reach and I love that what we, the artists, have learned along the way has spread out into other neighborhoods and beyond. 


By AIGA Boston
Published May 18, 2022