Weekdays at the gallery with Mela

An unusual work in progress, with the artist in action

Artist Mela Lyman at the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery in City Hall Annex, which will become her studio through May 30. Artist Mela Lyman at the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery in City Hall Annex, which will become her studio through May 30. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Victoria Cheng
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2008

Cambridge artist Mela Lyman usually works in solitude. "I'm a very gregarious person, and no one warned me that it's a lonely business, this art-making," she said in an interview at the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery.

For the next three months, however, Lyman will have plenty of company as the gallery is transformed into her studio. Its walls will become her canvas for a public mural she is painting.

The gallery sits at the top of an open flight of stairs on the second floor of the Cambridge City Hall Annex. The space has played host to exhibitions showcasing the work of local artists or works designed to provoke thought about the city's social and cultural makeup. But this is the first time the gallery will be used to display a piece in progress, as well as the artist at work.

"At first I thought we could turn the gallery into Mela's studio," said Lillian Hsu, the council's director of public art and exhibitions. "I thought it would be so interesting for people to really see how a painting evolved and see one example of an artist doing a really large-scale painting. . . . But we wanted to avoid the notion that it was like a zoo."

Lyman interjected: "Mela's a monkey - that's a little scary!"

As the plan evolved, Lyman and Hsu came up with ideas to encourage public participation in the creation. Since the completed mural will be installed at Paine Park two blocks north of the gallery and just around the corner from Lyman's home, they decided to replicate aspects of a public park within the gallery itself.

A contractor that provides the city's park equipment will add park benches to one corner of the gallery, and Hsu is planning a series of events to encourage people to treat the gallery as they would a public park.

"It'll be a place for adults to come to sit and look at the art books Mela's going to select that will relate to imagery and inspiration," she said. "And I'd also like to try to get a series of lunchtimes in here so people can bring in their lunch."

Children will also have access to the gallery - there will be a carpeted rolling platform for them to play on, as well as readings coordinated with staff at the public library - and the arts council has invited local groups, from schools and arts organizations to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, to take part in gallery events.

"This will be more like a play space," Lyman said. "I'll be doing my thing and people will come in, watch, do their thing. Maybe they'll engage and be inspired."

The idea of painting a mural in front of an audience, especially on a three-month timeline - her previous murals for the city and for the water shuttle terminal at Logan Airport each took six months to complete - was initially intimidating, she added.

But Lyman, who teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, soon realized that the creation of art is an intriguing process to watch.

"In front [of the MFA], on the Huntington side, they're doing renovation of a painting behind a piece of plexiglass," she said, noting that a crowd always gathers to watch as the work is restored. "It was fascinating to me to walk up to the plexiglass and see that this was an ongoing thing; it wasn't a precious thing on a wall."

The live element also challenges perceptions of artists working alone and without distraction, Hsu said. "That's a male model of the artist creating work, but then you hear about how women created things." Citing an early feminist author who began writing in the 1930s but waited decades for publication and acclaim, she said: "You get the idea of Tillie Olsen writing at the kitchen table with all the stuff of her life and the kids and everything else swirling around her, because that's the only way she could do it. It's a totally different model."

Videographer Fred Woods plans to document the entire process in photos and videos that he also hopes to post online: "If you can't come in here every day or every week and see what's happening, you can go to the website and see what's been going on," he said. "People can hear Mela talking about her inspiration and frustration and also send in pictures if they came in to a reading or a lunchtime."

Once completed, the work will replace a mural Lyman painted for Paine Park in 2002, which also involved an unusual degree of public participation. Neighborhood children drew pictures on pieces of paper that Lyman pasted onto the mural, but the pieces faded and some succumbed to seven seasons of outdoor exposure. Lyman and Woods recently recorded as the mural was taken down and brought into the gallery to serve as an additional narrative piece of the creation of the new work.

One young man who stopped by during filming had contributed a drawing to the original mural seven years ago. "He's six feet tall now and going into high school next year," Lyman said. "He had done a little drawing inside a dolphin and when I showed him, he said, 'I did?' "

Hsu said that an important aspect of the exhibit is to cultivate personal connections between art and daily life, especially as art slowly exits school curriculums.

"I see this now in adults sometimes, that there's a lack of understanding of what the artist does, the significance of the artist's place in a culture," she said. "So part of this is to get kids experiencing art without it being taught to them - just sort of living it. Then it gets into their spirit of just what art is."

"The Anxiety of Beauty -- Revisiting the Fountain of Youth" will be on display weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (and 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, noon on Fridays) through May 30 at 344 Broadway. For more, visit

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