Lilli Ann Rosenberg, 86; muralist, sculptor adorned public spaces

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / August 12, 2011

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When it comes to the public arts projects that Lilli Ann Killen Rosenberg created throughout the country as muralist, sculptor, and potter, the 12-ton, 110-foot-long cement mosaic in the Park Street subway station she made in 1978, depicting the history of the Boston subway system, is considered among her most memorable.

In researching the first American subway system, which began in 1897, Mrs. Rosenberg wrote in a self-profile, “I rode every subway line and became acquainted with motormen and mechanics. All these experiences went into this work - a mural to celebrate the underground and engage the passersby in a captivating experience during their wait below ground.’’

Though Mrs. Rosenberg and her husband, Marvin, moved from Massachusetts to Oregon 21 years ago, her artwork in Massachusetts will remain monuments to her life. Her family said she was beginning another project when she died of cancer at her home in Ashland, Ore., on July 19. She was 86, three days shy of another birthday.

She was a strong believer in public art, friends and family said, and public participation in it. Years ago, as art director for 17 years at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City’s Lower East Side, she made certain to draw young people who were potential troublemakers into her program. She knew they would protect the work against vandals.

On its website, the settlement house says that in 1967, Mrs. Rosenberg “collaborated with the New York City Housing Authority to design a welcoming and unique play sculpture garden’’ and invited the community’s children to design and build the project, which included a sprinkler fountain, whimsical animal sculptures, and seating areas.

Often, she considered children the audience for her art and loved to show them how it was done in libraries and playgrounds, said Dana Buck of Plainville, who worked with her as studio assistant, including on a mural Mrs. Rosenberg was commissioned to do for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The theme of that was the four seasons,’’ Buck said. “There is always a theme of nature in Lilli Ann’s work and always whimsical. Her colors were bright and beautiful, as was she.’’

Her technique, according to her website, was “to embed a variety of materials in concrete using color and texture, sometimes carving it into the concrete or casting with it.’’

Mrs. Rosenberg’s work in the Boston area was prolific.

Her mosaic work on the TADpole Playground on Boston Common has elements of nature and animal life and is a child-charmer.

At Langley Road and Centre Street in Newton Centre is another public sculpture that Mrs. Rosenberg and her husband created, where 300 residents imbedded pieces of ceramic tile, recalling events in city history.

In Boston’s South End, Mrs. Rosenberg created the mosaic Betances Mural at the Villa Victoria housing community, in honor of Ramón Betances, considered the father of Puerto Rican nationalism for his revolt against Spanish rule.

Before making the mural, Mrs. Rosenberg traveled to Puerto Rico “to gain a better understanding of the culture and history of this community,’’ she wrote in her profile.

In 1983, Mrs. Rosenberg created a sidewalk piece in front of Boston’s Old City Hall, a mural in the form of a hopscotch game to honor Boston Latin School, America’s first public school, built there in 1635.

In 1990, the Globe reported the unveiling of her Bill of Rights sidewalk mosaic in Pemberton Square. The Rosenbergs were living in Wellfleet then and had the mosaic of the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution trucked up in pieces from their studio.

Mrs. Rosenberg also created a mural at the Judge Baker Clinic at Children’s Hospital, where she had the children making and collecting objects that went into it. She also did works at Faulkner Hospital and the Brookline Jewish Community Center.

Lilli Ann Killen was born in Detroit and started to paint at 12, said her brother, Clair of Ashland, Ore.

“Our mother was an early feminist,’’ he said, “and encouraged Lilli Ann to do what she wanted to do in her life. In 1928, our mother and the two of us moved to Los Angeles, where Lilli Ann graduated from high school. During World War II, she went to San Francisco and then to New York, where she taught art to both old people and street kids at the Henry Street Settlement in an economically distressed area. She was kind of a legend.’’

For a time, she was a consultant for the City of New York, in charge of picking colors for public housing.

Though she attended art classes at the city’s Cooper Union, her brother does not think she graduated. “I think of Lilli Ann as a self-taught artist and as a very dynamic person, very compassionate, a good teacher, and in command of her own life. She loved life and paid her own way.’’

Mrs. Rosenberg’s first marriage to Robert Shore of New York City ended in divorce. She married Marvin Rosenberg, a social worker, in 1961.

They moved in 1972 to Newton, where they lived until moving to Jacksonville, Ore., in 1990. After Mr. Rosenberg died in 2010, Mrs. Rosenberg moved to Ashland.

“She was brilliant, self-taught, and figured out how to do this art form, using concrete, and, with my dad, made them structurally sound,’’ Mrs. Rosenberg’s daughter, Claire Van der Zwan of Central Point, Ore., told the Mail Tribune newspaper of southern Oregon. “Lilli wanted her art out in the public where people could appreciate and enjoy it. She wanted to reach all types of people. She worked right up until her death, talking about a sculpture she planned on the day before she passed away.’’

“My mother was like a mayor, a real connector of people,’’ another daughter, Gigi Rosenberg of Portland, Ore., told the Mail Tribune. “My parents loved a party, being with people and making art.’’

Mrs. Rosenberg’s son, Benjamin K. of Portland, Ore., recalled in a phone interview how his mother taught him as a boy to make models out of clay. When she was working on the Park Street station mosaic, it couldn’t be installed, he said, until the trains stopped running at 1 a.m.

When the family moved from Manhattan to “a great big house in Newton,’’ his father turned the basement into a studio for his wife.

In her self-profile, Mrs. Rosenberg said her goals in life were “to enhance the quality of my own expressions in the medium and to work with architects and planners in the development of more opportunities for artists like myself who wish to create art with and for people - improving the quality of life for all of us. Each new project is an exciting adventure.’’

In addition to her son, her brother, her two daughters, and her former husband, Mrs. Rosenberg leaves three grandchildren. A memorial will take place in Oregon.

Gloria Negri of the Globe staff can be reached at