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Nate Swain: Turning urban eyesores into works of art

Posted by Roy Greene  January 2, 2013 11:53 AM

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(Photo by Brendan Mattox)

North End artist Nate Swain, 38, in front of a photo mural of his creation at St. Leonard’s Church. For more examples of his work, view a photo slideshow.

By Sarina Tracy, Globe Correspondent

When Nate Swain walks the streets of Boston, he sees blank space everywhere -- empty walls, desolate concrete, colorless streets. It’s his goal to change them.

“The city is fun already, but I want to make it more fun through artwork,” he said. “It’s definitely not as colorful as it could be.”

The 38-year-old North End resident is a self-proclaimed artist-engineer who aims to beautify the barren eyesores of Boston by replacing bare walls and surfaces with photo murals and art installations.

“I always like the idea that you can turn a corner, and there can be a surprise,” said Swain. “I think lack of color can affect everyone’s mood, and I want to improve the quality of life in Boston, if only through that.”

His efforts are getting noticed.

“In all cases, I think artists have a very important role in humanizing our cities,” said Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission. “I think [Swain’s] work is successful in bringing color and nature to urban environments.”

Hailing from Worcester with a degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Swain has lived in Boston for 12 years. From the age of 5, Swain’s passion grew from the land -- dirt to be exact.

“For my sixth or seventh birthday, my parents got me a huge pile of dirt. [It] was awesome. I was digging holes and trenches, and I guess it just stuck.”

With a background in environmental engineering and drafting, he helped design various fields and parks around the city, like Memorial Field in East Boston and Madison Park in Roxbury while working with the Cambridge environmental engineering company, CDM Smith, for eight years. Soon after, however, restlessness took over.

“After eight years of working in a cubicle, I had a mid-life crisis,” said Swain. “I decided to quit my job. I had some money left over that I could live off of, because I yanked all my money out of mutual funds and stocks. I had no idea the economy was about to tank.”

Swain’s new course centered around art, and not just for himself, but others.

His mission soon became the transformation of vacant, neglected public space through large-scale art murals and accessible public art. It all started with the painting of utility boxes, signage and roll-down doors for local businesses in the North End. The Salem Street True Value and Polcari’s Coffee are among his clients.

“It’s kind of funny to have your art disappear during the day and come out at night,” Swain said with a laugh.

Plenty of his work also can be seen by day, however, in the form of photo murals.
Scattered around the North End, these murals are created by attaching printed vinyl banners or detachable adhesive to barren walls, an alternative to the traditional but labor-intensive practice of mural painting.

He began this work in 2009. Then, was preparing to paint a mural on the NStar electrical substation building on Prince Street.

“I would walk by it all the time, thinking, ‘What is this building? Why is it bricked-up? Why is it abandoned?’ Then I found out it was an electrical sub-station. I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I made these bricked-up windows look like real windows in the neighborhood?’”

The planning process provided many hurdles. Structural issues, scaffolding requirements and the physical labor of scaling the side of a building for four months was pushing completion further and further from Swain’s grasp.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he admits, with a laugh.

Although, that all changed one day when Swain walked by the TD Garden and caught sight of its own vinyl banners.

“It was an epiphany,” said Swain.

From a complicated, impossible project grew a fairly simple solution: using photography and printing to achieve dynamic surroundings.

“Instead of taking four months to install a mural, it took only a few days with vinyl. With a drill, rope and a ladder, the neighborhood gets beautiful. And it’s removable, movable, non-permanent.”

Armed with Photoshop and his Canon 5D camera, Swain photographed various items to create individual photo collages for each bricked-up window on the NStar building. He ventured to various homes of friends and family as well as home-furnishing stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond to find realistic items one would find in a North End apartment. Swain even photographed the ceiling of the Langham Hotel’s Bond Restaurant and Lounge for use in his indoor scenes.

In completing the substation mural, Swain was forced to pay out of pocket for the supplies and the printing -- to the tune of about $15,000.

“I didn’t mind paying for that one, it was a gift to the neighborhood,” said Swain. “If I have the money, I want to do something good with it.”

In the years since, Swain has taken advantage of reusing and recycling used vinyl advertising banners around the city. When the large advertisements become outdated and need to be taken down, Swain is alerted by the printing company and takes it off their hands.

“I have more than $20,000 worth of vinyl in my storage unit at home. It’s crazy,” he laughs.

And that’s what Swain does. He reuses, captures and installs his art to make more beautiful the neighborhood that holds so many blank spaces. St. Leonard’s Peace Garden on Hanover Street is another example of his work. Using photographs captured from the Arnold Arboretum, a vine-covered stone wall now covers what was once a stained concrete wall.

“Once you start looking for those blank spaces, that’s all you see,” said Swain.

Patrice Macaluso and John O’Connell, 25-year residents of Hanover Street and clients of Swain’s, had a concrete eyesore in their back patio due to a degraded wooden wall. Bordering Greenough Lane Park, their garden was in need of some direction. When they saw what Swain was doing throughout the neighborhood, the couple found it.

“I knew it would be the perfect solution for our eye-sore,” said Macaluso. “It’s brighter, and it’s just beautiful.”

Macaluso says their ivy mural is so realistic that not only are onlookers confused as to whether or not it’s real, but so are the birds.

“They try to land on the branches, and it’s so funny because it looks so real,” she laughs. “They don’t hurt themselves, they just flutter, but we have quite an ecosystem back here. ”

The many strengths of Swain’s work include the fact that it’s non-exclusive. Accessibility is one aspect of this art-form that Swain wants to see continue with others.

“That’s the dirty secret, is that everyone can do it with these fancy cameras,” he said. “I think to myself, ‘Who needs 30 megapixels?’ You might as well use them for what they’re worth.”

That little boy with dirt under his fingernails seems to have found his passion as an adult in accentuating the beauty of a neighborhood, and inserting color and vivacity back into the streets. Swain’s current proposal is to expand his reach and work on beautifying Boston as a whole.

“The thing with art museums and galleries are that the artwork is all closed-off and you have to pay to see it. That’s fine. But what I’m promoting is something available 24 hours a day to anyone -- from the homeless, to the billionaires,” said Swain. “It’s free, available to everyone, and helps make our city as beautiful as it can be.”

This story was produced through a partnership between the Globe and Emerson College.

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