A tribute to simplicity: Clarita Stephens’s mural gives Bolling Center a human touch amidst a tower’s steel and glass

Clarita Stephens shaking hands with City of Boston Property and Construction Management Department senior project manager, Tom Leahy (OFD); James Hobin, at left.  	Mark Millstein photoClarita Stephens shaking hands with City of Boston Property and Construction Management Department senior project manager, Tom Leahy (OFD); James Hobin, at left. Mark Millstein photo

Dorchester’s Clarita Stephens is about to become one of the most talked-about artists in the city. Last February, while a senior at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, Miss Stephens was selected as the winner of a citywide art competition organized by the Boston Art Commission in partnership with the Boston Public School Department to create a design for the mural that decorates the School Committee Room of the new municipal building in Dudley Square.

The mural is one of the final touches in a three-and-a-half year project that is the biggest construction program managed by the city since City Hall Plaza was built 50 years ago. Boston architects and construction outfits teamed up with the chic Netherlands-based architectural firm Mecanoo to make it happen. Everyone will come together with Mayor Martin Walsh at a ribbon-cutting that is being planned for March – another great day for Boston.

The municipal center is being named in honor of a politician who was a champion of the neighborhoods and the first Afro-American president of the Boston City Council, the late Bruce C. Bolling. On Feb. 2, a plaque will be unveiled with the councillor’s name affixed to it.

The Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Center is a six-story complex of offices, conference rooms, and public spaces that will be the new workplace for an estimated 500 municipal employees of the Boston Public School Department, which is moving here from its longtime headquarters on Court Street. There is plenty of open space for school events and community gatherings at the center along with street-level spaces reserved for retail businesses.

The new building, which encompasses one city block, mixes modern with traditional style, incorporating sections of some of the buildings that previously stood on this site. The shells of Ferdinand’s Furniture Store, Waterman and Sons Funeral Service, and the Curtis Block were preserved and integrated into the architectural scheme. Perhaps you remember seeing the huge steel girders that propped up these facades as the new building went up behind them.

The School Committee Room is in the old Ferdinand, a triangular shaped Beaux Arts structure wedged into the fork at Warren Street and Washington Street, one of the most historic intersections in the entire city. The room is a public space and auditorium that seats 250 people. It is located on the second floor, with easy access from the atrium.

You enter by descending a wide and low-ceilinged walkway that suddenly opens onto the sun-drenched room, which vaults to twenty-four feet in height and has a triangular floor plan. At the front corner of this triangle is the stage; the mural is installed on the long wall above the entry area in back. Look up from the street through the second story windows and you will be able to see it.

The challenge of the mural competition was to come up with a design that fit an elongated frame. The mural measures a neck-craning eighty-one feet across, while being only eleven-feet tall. Unequal proportions such as these make a successful composition difficult. To solve this problem, many of the entrants came up with a design that split the mural into sections and then filled each section with a different static image, very much like a cartoon strip.

By contrast, Miss. Stephens submitted a design that utilized the unusual format to create an image that is energized by the extreme tension between horizontal extension and vertical compression. Her entry, entitled “Intricate,” is an abstract image that expresses movement with intertwining shapes arranged in rhythmic combination. Bands of color travel down the length of the mural and dominate the composition, they bounce off the confines of the border and appear to be unraveling in a spectrum of color and light.

Over the years to come, people sitting in public meetings will have ample opportunity to gaze at the mural. Whether puzzled or rapt with delight, their eyes will never tire of tracing the sweeping curves and shifts of hue and tone. There will always be some new detail coming to life, as through the passing seasons and changing light of the day, the colors in the mural will change also.

It happens that I had the pleasure of assisting Miss Stephens finalize her design. We reviewed the plans together, and she made several studies, working to refine the original concept. We met frequently over the course of several months. Every time Miss. Stephens arrived for work, she was dressed to the nines. She churned out the last version in oil paint on canvas; measuring ten feet by twenty inches, it was done in scale to match the mural. This painting was photographed and digitized, and then the image was reproduced at a factory on twenty panels that were assembled on location to make the finished mural.
Actually, the mural is a giant acoustic panel disguised as a frieze. The mural is printed on a special fabric that is perforated with thousands of tiny holes that transmit noise to the sound-deadening panels underneath. It’s all very high tech, but you wouldn’t know it.

The final product is machine-made, but does not look machined because the hand that fashioned it is clearly visible. From the floor below, the mural shows a network of washes and brush strokes that have the same freshness and vitality of the original. This adds a human touch to the otherwise high tech bonanza of the new municipal center – a tribute to simplicity set within this towering magnificence of steel and glass.

Miss Stephens found her inspiration through her teacher, Alisa Rodny, and fellow students at Burke High School. The art room at the Burke is located in part of what used to be the gym. The ceilings are tall, and the windows high above leak water, but there is no dampening of the creative spirit there. Over and over, Clarita Stephens and students like her have demonstrated how art has the power to impact and transform the world in significant ways.