Last Sunday, I attended the festive celebration of the new mural on Watertown’s linear path. I got there a little late, so I missed most of the speeches, but I did get to talk to some of the high school students who worked on the project. While they were proud of their “product,” what they really wanted to tell me about was their experience of working together. Few of them had been friends before they were invited into this adventure. Now they are thick as thieves and energized by the experience of having been part of an artistic vision quest. I kept pointing to the mural and asking them about materials and subject matter; they kept pointing to one another, cracking each other up with allusions to shared experiences, and beaming with the gladness that comes from friendship.
They taught me something about public art: it’s not just a way to beautify space or to boost civic pride. While it can tell a story, inspire creative thinking, or point to a shared sense of sacredness, it can also do artwork within those who make it. It can create community — make a way for strangers to become friends, give people an excuse to connect beautifully. Here, here, and here are some stories about other recent public art projects, and here is a site that should inspire any government official, corporate community relations office, or thoughtful citizen to make more art in a world so sadly fractured and so desperately in need of beautiful relationships.