Transcript – Episode 66

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity and foster creativity.

Al Wilson: Art is this great connector. We can clearly see two completely separate groups culturally, perhaps socioeconomically, meeting in front of a mural, coming from different directions, taking in some art, starting a conversation.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Al Wilson. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Beyond Walls and welcome to our program.

Al Wilson: Thank you so much for having me.

Anita Walker: I’m going to ask about Beyond Walls but first I want to ask a little about you. How did you get involved in turning blank spaces on buildings into beautiful works of art?

Al Wilson: Well, I was working for a Chicago-based startup and was tasked with opening six offices for them on the East Coast. One of those offices happened to be in Philadelphia where I took in some very large-scale murals and then opened an office in Miami where I discovered Wynwood and was just taken aback by the power of the art there, looked into the background of it and got turned on to placemaking and then thought shoot, I bet we could pull something pretty cool off in Lynn.

Anita Walker: Now are you an artist?

Al Wilson: I’m not an artist, no. I have a tough time sketching; I’m barely a doodler but good at connecting with artists and organization.

Anita Walker: You mentioned Lynn and a lot of our listeners may have read in the newspaper or maybe they’re on my train, the Rockport Line that goes right by Lynn and we get to see the beautiful murals there, but that has been absolutely transformative for that city.

Al Wilson: It’s been fun and to see the city really embrace it has been something that is wonderful to witness.

Anita Walker: This is an all-honest podcast so what happens when you walk into a city like Lynn and you say, “I want to put art on the sides of buildings here”? What’s the first reaction?

Al Wilson: Well, when I was discovering Wynwood at the same time I was leading– I was reading a Boston Globe article about the LEAD team, a task force set up to aid Lynn and that represents federal, state and local parties, and then came to Lynn and discovered that the elected officials there were very welcoming, the community was very welcoming, and ultimately the private business community was very welcoming. So all of these pieces are on private walls, private buildings, but the city really embraced it and so it was largely logistically to get permissions not challenging.

Anita Walker: Did you look around the city and decide which walls you thought were the best and then approached the owner or did owners come to you and say, “Hey, do my building”?

Al Wilson: Well, the whole process stemmed from some community meetings where the– and this was aided by Mass Development’s work in this regard so community meetings and the feedback from residents and business owners was that they wanted to see far more public art and then they wanted to increase the walkability through lighting installations in downtown both under the underpasses of the MBTA commuter rail as well as sidewalk engagement to increase walkability and therefore economic output for the city. So when we started this thing it was important for us to form a committee and we formed a 28-head committee that represented again residents of downtown Lynn as well as business owners and then we subdivided that committee so we actually had a wall committee that looked at assessing the walls in the city, which ended up totaling 70-plus walls. We then did a mailing out to 55 of those walls and then started trying to target to get permissions for 25 walls because we knew that you’ve got to have some flex if a sketch isn’t approved and you’ve got to move to a backup wall, and all of those walls were ranked by the visibility so was this wall visible– highly visible by pedestrian traffic, vehicle traffic and for us in Lynn the trifecta was could it be seen via the train. So the walls that you see pieces up ended up being both highly rated walls as well as walls that obviously we ultimately were able to get permissions to put the pieces on.

Anita Walker: Now talk about the selection of the art and the artists. How did that work?

Al Wilson: So we did a request for proposal; we put this up on— online on various channels and it was pretty brief. I think it was maybe a five-week, six-week call. We ultimately had over 60 artists apply to that.

Anita Walker: From all over the country?

Al Wilson: From all over the country and we– well, internationally so the idea here was that we were going to rate them on their portfolio and then a second rating was whether those artists aligned to the cultural identities of downtown Lynn so Lynn like many of the Gateway Cities in the Commonwealth, part of their strength is just this incredible diversity. In downtown Lynn for example, you can walk, within five minutes you’re having food on at least six continents, right, <laughs> so it’s a really cool community so it was important to us to have a top Dominican artist, a top Puerto Rican artist or several. We’ve got the third largest Cambodian population outside Cambodia so having a top Cambodian artist as well as other groups represented as well as walls for local and regional parties including parties that perhaps had left Lynn so we brought back the prolific artists from the ‘80s as well as the ‘90s and then current-day artists in Lynn.

Anita Walker: This wasn’t free; you had to do some fundraising; you had to get a lot of partners. How did that come together?

Al Wilson: Well, it– really again working with parties within the state, and I have to really give a nod to Mass Development and their Commonwealth Places program that they have so we applied to that. Really the rules of engagement are you have to be a municipality or a 501(c)(3) or fiscally partnered to one. We were fiscally partnered to a nonprofit in Lynn. We went for the max that you could go for at the time, which was $50,000; you have 60 days to raise that money and then you qualify for the– you then trigger the Mass Development match. So we were successful in that in that we hit– we actually hit on day 14. We ultimately had over 1400 residents of Lynn donate to this project and that was the– that got us off the ground and based on having Mass Development there, the match secured, we were able to attract other funders, knowing that this project was in all likelihood moving forward, so it really was the kick starter of this thing.

Anita Walker: You think about murals on buildings and you think that it’s mostly aesthetics but there’s a lot more to it than that, lighting in dark spaces.

Al Wilson: Yes. So one of the key pieces of what came back from this community was that with the lack of lighting there is a lack of walkability, and when we worked with Mass Development to really heat-map high-crime areas in the city as well as pedestrian-strike zones we saw that these occur under these underpasses and they’re just– they’re– they really are dark so they either don’t have lights at all or the lights that are there are not working or partially working. So we were able to make an appeal again through the Commonwealth Places program; we did this kick-starter party and there we attracted Phillips to come take in this party. Bent Water Brewery– it’s the local brewery in Lynn, a great brewery– donated product. We had Short Path Distillery of Everett that donated product so– and then– and a ton of different food so it really was a taste of Lynn, a huge party, and at that party was Phillips; that was critical. We’d already walked away from their portfolio in the sense– in that we couldn’t afford it but Phillips Color Kinetics out of Burlington saw this as an opportunity to get involved. Ultimately, we were able to secure a very large amount of lighting hardware in kind as well as the ability to obviously purchase some of this hardware and so now we’re installing it with a installing party of Port Lighting Systems up in New Hampshire as well as we made an appeal to IBEW 103, the local electricians’ union. They saw this as a perfect opportunity for them and they were able to financially support us as well as give in-kind labor so IBEW 103 has stepped up in a huge way and we’re also tied into another lighting project that we can’t talk about so– but pretty neat to have the union parties involved with that and it comes after we’d secured DC 35, the painters’ union, who really helped out on the murals. They were able to clean walls, prep walls for priming, they actually primed to– the walls for these artists as well as contributed financially so we couldn’t have done this without DC 35 and IBEW 103.

Anita Walker: Sometimes it’s the surprises that really give a little extra delight to a project like this and stumbling across some vintage neon. Talk about that.

Al Wilson: Yeah. So we– you do this sort of work you get to meet an awful lot of fun and interesting characters and we happened to come across one of the larger collectors of vintage neon perhaps on the East Coast who has very strong connections to Lynn, grew up in Lynn and donated 12 pieces of vintage neon artwork to us. Beyond Walls then began the installation of these pieces all throughout downtown and the Cultural District again with the mission to light up these areas that are dark and increase walkability and then obviously increase economic output from that so we put up these 12 pieces and we’ve got the underpass lighting, which is a dynamic system for three of the overpasses, so this is a system that can do– each bay of the underpass can be a different color spectrum so you’ve got this wash that’s a rainbow color; it can do waves of green for Saint Patrick’s, red, white and blue for Fourth of July. It responds to the train going overhead so it actually becomes more intense as the train passes; it responds to the beat of music so we can program it so that it’ll– actually when we do live music events it responds to that. And then we’ve got– as an ode to the industrial roots of Lynn we’ve got a jet engine so it’s kind of interesting. The first jet engine produced by a U.S. manufacturer was made in Lynn in 1942 and we got a complete 1942 I-A engine from Lynn from GE and we’re utilizing Lynn Vocational Technical Institute so the students there are bringing this into a condition for install in downtown Lynn. We’ve consulted with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, their lead curator who connected us to a curator at Harvard University. They really were critical in coming up with the game plan for this engine and then we brought that Harvard conservator to Lynn, spoke to the students, and the students are working now on this engine so that we’re going to install it and it’s pretty neat.

Anita Walker: I want you to paint a word picture for us. I know you’re not an artist and you can’t sketch but you can doodle, but for our listeners who maybe haven’t seen images of the murals in Lynn can you just tell us what they look like?

Al Wilson: Yeah. Well, they’re all quite large in that this was– in a ten-day span we installed 15 very large murals so it’s over 26,000 square feet of art and it– obviously when you– that much art going up in a city it draws an awful lot of attention. We’ve ended up having over 80 pieces of earned media including Channel Four, Channel Five, WBUR, Boston Public Radio, others cover this. The art itself you can look at the art and in many cases you can perhaps identify whether that artist is Dominican or Puerto Rican or Cambodian from the art. For parties that were in Lynn in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they’re able to tell this is an artist that’s been brought back or you’re familiar with the artist. We brought back some artists that hadn’t been in the city for a while. Their art was deemed graffiti and they had to leave and we invited them back to do sanctioned pieces, and what was fun here was that all the artists including these artists that had to leave the city of Lynn were given keys to the city <laughs> at a commencement with the mayor so it really was very welcoming, but it’s 15 large pieces all within downtown so very walkable and again that’s part of our– on the economic side that’s something that we really wanted to do and I can talk to a study that we commissioned. So we wanted to show the output of this festival, the power of it, and based on the amount of art and the level of artists going up that were involved we drew an awful lot of media and with that media came a huge amount of visitors to Lynn as well as Lynners who hadn’t been to downtown. So many of the mom and pop shops, the restaurants, the cafes, saw a drastic increase in business and we wanted to record that. So we did have some methods set up both on the quantitative and qualitative side to get this data and then we commissioned Webb Management to do a impact study on the festival and we just actually got that and we’ve reported out on it. So it was a financial boom for the city and—

Anita Walker: What numbers? What’s the impact that you discovered?

Al Wilson: Well, it’s in six figures as far as new sales coming into the city; it was a number of parties that decided to move to the city based on this; parties that were living in the city moved to downtown so we had very positive feedback there. We’ve got a café that hired additional staff based on this, these were second-job opportunities for parties that live in Lynn, and the– it’s a new level that’s been established now. So on the back side of this festival there’s more parties walking around and there’s more parties taking in the culinary experience of Lynn and going to these cafes and just– or perhaps getting off the train from the bedroom communities that exist just north of Lynn, Beverly, Marblehead, Swampscott, parties that perhaps had heard and had some sort of negative view on Lynn except when you really dig in there they actually hadn’t been to Lynn or they hadn’t walked around downtown Lynn and now they’re getting off the train and taking in the art.

Anita Walker: We always love to talk about the economic impact and that’s something that’s very traditionally measured and we all know how to do it but the aesthetic impact, the impact of the human spirit, the impact of the pride of the people who live in Lynn.

Al Wilson: It was powerful. It was kind of funny. Cey Adams was one of the artists who participated and Cey had never done a piece in Boston. Let’s call him a– depending on who you talk to <laughs> graffiti artist was born in either Philadelphia or New York City in the late ‘60s and so in the late ‘70s Cey was putting art up on trains, right, but he- he’s a graphic designer and trained artist who ended up being the founding creative director of Def Jam records so he did the first LP covers for the Beastie Boys, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Iggy. Later in life he befriends a young comedian; ten years later when that comedian signs with Comedy Central he does the “Chappelle’s Show” logo. He’s a prolific artist. He responded to our RFP. He came up. He stayed on a– pretty much a cot and we were very kind to the artists. They all received stipends. The package that was actually presented to them I actually think really set the market for what these artists are getting and should get in the Commonwealth.

Anita Walker: Can you tell us what that is?

Al Wilson: All artists regardless of their– and I do want to come back to Cey because it’s an important piece here– but all artists received a thousand-dollar stipend; they also received a four-hundred-and-fifty-dollar preloaded card so they did not need to go into their stipend and this was set up so that they would spend this money in the local economy. We housed them, got all of their paint and materials; we obviously primed their walls. Something that was very important to myself and the committee was that these artists would be safe and this– again to that partnership with DC 35 we were able to secure parties to train them in lift operation. So this amount of art going up required an awful lot of machinery, both scissor lifts and boom lifts and in some cases articulating boom lifts that were 125 feet or higher. So these– regardless of where they were in their careers almost all the– well, all the artists had done pieces from large lifts but they hadn’t been certified and so here we were able to get them certification to a level that is OSHA standards. They can use that certification throughout the U.S. and Canada but it’s also recognized internationally and all the artists shared that they were– they basically were much, much safer after this training so– and then the little parts. I looked at it and thought I would not last a day on a wall with my shoulders– with my hand in the air painting and I can’t believe that they do this largely with spray in real-world conditions. So by the fifth day– sixth day of the festival we had a team of massage therapists and chiropractic care come in and just—

Anita Walker: For you.

Al Wilson: No. <laughs> I think maybe I—

Anita Walker: You had a psychologically heavy lift–

Al Wilson: Yeah. I think for myself and the committee and the team– and I want to talk about the team– but it was for the artists to get that sort of care as well as to have the amount of support that came out from this community. One, it put Lynn on the map and the artists all talk so they all shared about their experience and it really was this kumbaya feeling; it was very powerful. So on that level it was a fantastic experience and– yeah– and would say it was interesting. So say you put this large love piece up in Lynn right off of Monroe Street and again an artist that he’s used to working quickly and having to work quickly if you’re putting art on trains <laughs> back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. So he’s got a huge piece there but he came back to the city; he was really embraced by the city. And we were grabbing lunch together and an elderly couple came over and ended up chatting with us and they’d lived in Lynn– or as the wife pointed out she was from Lynn and she pointed out that her husband wasn’t and he then said, “I’ve lived with you in Lynn for 49 years,” right. He grew up in Saugus but he’s not from Lynn; she needs to make that point. They lived in Lynn. They hadn’t been to downtown in 22 years and so that was eye opening and they shared that they came to downtown for the first time in 22 years, took in the art and then for that ten-day run it basically became their date night. They came to downtown all the time and now that’s part of their– they’ve pulled in their social circle and those parties are going out. And we could clearly see during the festival what appeared to be two completely separate groups culturally, perhaps socioeconomically meeting in front of the mural, coming from different directions, taking in some art, starting a conversation and then deciding to leave together to take in another piece. And so art is this great connector and to see it in real time and then on the back end to have some quantitative and qualitative data that actually showed this, whether it be our surveys or our head counts or number of parties that went to our programming events, it was– it’s great to have seen it and on the back end think “Was that real?” and then say, “Yes, it was. Here’s the data” and so I think that’s important to share for parties that are out there maybe considering putting up art or lighting or if you’re thinking about doing a festival don’t do it; <laughs> run away; it’ll be bigger and harder than you think if you’re going to do a festival. Build aspects[ph?] in here to be able to record that output.

Anita Walker: It’s called Beyond Walls and it certainly is beyond walls. It’s not only beyond walls in terms of looking at walls as art but the walls of perception that were torn down in the process of this and bringing people into downtown Lynn and changing the whole image and ethos around this really diverse and vibrant city. Al Wilson, Founder and Executive Director of Beyond Walls, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Al Wilson: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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