Local artist aims to beautify Boston’s many neighborhood eyesores

Jenn Orr
Journal Staff

He’s a man on a mission to beautify Boston. Meet Nate Swain, a local artist originally from Worcester who has made the North End his home for the past 10 years. He has big talent and bigger plans to bring life to dead buildings throughout the city.

“I have this idea of covering many walls around Boston with beautiful green park settings framed with architecture, and [bring in] local parks within Boston that are not close to the area – parks like Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park – into the city,” said Swain.

Swain, 36, is no stranger to pleasing aesthetics. He is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the arts, literally. He draws, paints, photographs, animates, designs (interior and exterior), constructs, and even makes music. But his biggest project to date is a relatively new idea that he has already started: beautifying Boston’s neighborhoods one large-scale banner mural at a time.

“My greater plan is just to make the world more beautiful,” said Swain. “We can make the outdoor public realm like an art museum.”

So far, he has completed two projects in his quest to festoon the city in photorealistic banner murals. His most recent mural was installed on an outer wall of Assiaggo Restaurant, which faces the St. Leonard’s Peace Garden on Hanover Street. For this project, Swain took several photos at the Arnold Arboretum to bring a touch of green to the building’s dull wall. He received permission from the owner of Assiaggo and Father Antonio of St. Leonard’s and got to work. Settling on a picture of a stone wall with vines over it, the photo was expanded on vinyl banner and installed in one day to compliment the garden’s renovations.

Swain’s biggest project, the one that pioneered his banner mural idea, was the installation in the windows of the old Edison Powerhouse on Salem Street in the North End. This one did not happen as easily as the Peace Garden wall, however, mainly because the idea was new to both North End residents and the artist himself.

Swain originally wanted to paint the windows of the building years ago, but felt he couldn’t do them justice at the time due to a full time job in landscape architecture. So he enlisted the help of an Allston muralist who did a somewhat similar project, but could not meet her proposal of $1400 per window to be painted on heavy boards due to expenses and liabilities. Other initial obstacles included the price and requirements for scaffolding rentals, stresses over North End street traffic and unpredictable weather, and extra costs to enlist more necessary workers. At the time, he felt like he was signing his life away. Then an epiphany came as he rode by the TD Banknorth Garden and saw the many banners hanging in the area.

“It saved everything. The project went from something that would have killed me to… I probably would have jumped off of the scaffolding,” Swain joked. “I keep thinking, ‘thankfully I had this idea,’ and the project got 100 times easier.”

From there, he asked permission to work on the windows from NSTAR, which owns the building. He also presented the idea at a NEWRA neighborhood meeting and got the “go ahead” after a 31-1 vote. Since Swain had already been using Photoshop for a photo simulation to present to North Enders, he decided to channel the light bulb that went off in his head and do it.

After contacting Boston Building Wraps, which does most of the big banner work throughout the city, Swain paid the company half of the original budget of $30,000. By using large-scale vinyl banners, the installation time was pushed from four months to three days. The $15,000 investment was put forth by Swain alone because although he could have raised the money, he did not want to prolong the project any further. Also, by paying himself, he gained full control and ownership of the building’s exterior.

It took three months to put the windows together, all of which were done through Photoshop. Swain took several pictures of things you’d see in a window – curtains, plants, decorations, cats – and layered them. He then did some photo manipulation and added shadows for depth and a realistic effect. This method was much more efficient and sensible; not only did it save time, but it allowed for less maintenance on the vinyl prints which last approximately 10 years.

Once the pictures were expanded onto the banners, up they went. Window washing ropes were used in the actual installation of the new “windows,” all of which the artist oversaw. The project was completed Aug. 28, 2009 and has received warm reception by North End locals and tourists alike.

Swain will be the first to say that his projects are not fool proof, and depending on the location of the banner, sun fading can occur. However, unlike other art installations, the banner murals can be easily replicated and put back up.

Other eye sores Swain would like to beautify? He has some big ideas in mind: parking garages, roll-down doors, the Macy’s building in Downtown Crossing, the TD Banknorth Garden, City Hall, Hynes Convention Center, and areas along the Mass Pike. In order for these plans to take off, Swain will probably have to endure countless proposals and meetings and with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. But it’s worth it to him, especially when he considers what could potentially happen to barren city walls in the future.

“Advertisers are running with this medium, and if we don’t take control over these blank walls, the advertising industry is going to and we’re going to be living in a commercial,” Swain said. “And that is just as bad as ugly buildings in my opinion.”

The plan for now is to make the many roll down doors of the North End storefronts look like, well, storefronts, when they are closed. Polcari’s Coffee and True Value Hardware on Salem Street are among the doors that he plans to bring life to when rolled down and at their worst. Another project in development is a book that will be part autobiography/resume, parts documentation of the Central Artery Project and building projects in Worcester, and part project proposal for building beautification.

The way Swain sees it, if the city can spend millions of dollars on one project, why not spend less on several? “The Greenway Conservancy is building a gazebo near the Aquarium,” he noted. “It’s costing $5 million for a glorified gazebo, and for $5 million I can do the whole city; cover all the ugly walls and garages and buildings.”

Picture a Boston covered in advertisements from head to toe. Now imagine Nate Swain’s Boston; the city’s lowliest buildings adorned in images of natural beauty. Which do you prefer?