“It’s just so relevant to our community, being a coastal community in East Boston, being an environmental justice community and climate justice community.”
The project director of Sea Walls Boston and director of HarborArts, Matthew Pollock, reached out to the PangeaSeed Foundation last spring to collaborate on a project that would bring color and ocean advocacy to East Boston.
Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans is a public art initiative that highlights the issues facing our oceans due to climate change. In place of the 10-day festival PangeaSeed and HarborArts planned before COVID, six murals are being painted at the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina and the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway. Presented by Linda Cabot, founder of Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs, the project features local artists and environmental issues.
I spoke with Pollock about the impact of Sea Walls and everything that went into the artwork.
Tell me about your team of artists.
This year it’s all Boston-area local artists, which is great. Usually when we do Sea Walls initiatives all around the world, it’s a mix of local, regional and international muralists. So this year, because of COVID, I think a silver lining was that we got to work with all local [artists], and keep it for Boston, by Boston. And all of the muralists—we like to call it ARTivists, ARTivism, like a combination of artists and activism—the ARTivists this year are all people that are typically using their work for activist sort of purposes already, whether it’s for climate change or social justice, or environmental justice. The artists that we’re working with this year, and in general, are artists that use their work as a platform for dialogue.
How has the mural process gone so far? What impact has it made and what are you hoping to achieve when all the paintings are complete?
Yeah, we’re just finishing up the four murals in the Shipyard. As of today, they’ll be finished. And it was a really great process. You know, people loved it. We’ve been getting so many thank you’s. And then this week, we continue on the Greenway. We’ve started painting and priming today, and people have just been coming up and thanking us for beautifying the space, and for painting about the topics that we’re painting too. People are really excited to educate the community about environmental issues. So we’re really stoked to hear so much positivity from the community for the cause.
PangeaSeed has taken Sea Walls international. Why is Boston one of the cities you chose to paint?
I, representing HarborArts, reached out to PangeaSeed Foundation in spring of last year. I saw what they were doing and I was inspired because we’ve been doing public art for a long time in the Shipyard, using public art as a platform for dialogue and especially around oceans and waterways because we’re right on the Harbor. Our first show in 2009 was dedicated to oceans and waterways, and each piece of art had a dedication to a different environmental organization in Massachusetts that is doing work to protect oceans and waterways.
So when I came across PangeaSeed Foundation and what they’re doing on an international scale, I just thought, “This is a perfect fit.” It’s exactly what we want to do. We were looking for a new exhibit, and so I reached out and said we’d love to collaborate on bringing Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans to Boston—because it’s just so relevant to our community, being a coastal community in East Boston, being an environmental justice community and climate justice community. It was just such a perfect fit. There was so much synergy. So, I reached out and I said we’d love to do this. And over the course of several months, we developed a collaboration, which is now Sea Walls Boston.
So why has PangeaSeed chosen to spread their message through art?
When you first see this, when you come across a giant mural, it does so much more than someone handing you a piece of paper with some information on it. People see it. It puts the issues in front of them. A lot of the time, when we talk about these issues facing our oceans, people don’t even know about it necessarily, or if they have heard about it, they don’t really know much. It’s kind of out of sight out of mind, because there’s a lot of things—like biodiversity loss, for example—it’s all happening out of sight. You know, we don’t see the impacts and damages that we’re doing to the right whale population, and there’s only 400 right whales left in the North Atlantic. We don’t see that right in front of us. So, by painting giant murals about it, we’re putting the issues right in front of people and, you know, hopefully inspiring people to change their everyday choices to better our planet.
Because of COVID, you had to change your plans. What’s the event next July?
We want to bring a lot more murals to the community next year. We want to have more educational programming that’s paired with it. More panel discussions—we call them panelists’ conversations, instead of panel discussions. But yeah, we want to have more of that, more talks, hopefully a way to do a film screening, hopefully a way to do some experiential art. Maybe some sculpture, mix it up more, so it’s not just murals next year, potentially. But we know we wanted to have more public art, and even if we have to do everything else virtually, we’ll find a way to make it happen. And this year, we’re using this pilot project as a way to be like, we know we can pull it off. No matter what the conditions are, we’re prepared to work together, work with our community, to make sure we bring this incredible program to East Boston.
How are locals reacting to the murals?
The community has just been so, so positive about it. We’ve heard people saying, “Thank you, I didn’t know about these issues,” or, “I didn’t really understand the gravity of it,” whether it’s plastic issues or the right whales.
Or, a big thing that we’re talking about this year is intersectional environmentalism, and how the impacts that face the ocean, they, through the chain, impact us. But people are impacted disproportionately, like low-income communities, immigrant communities. Not everyone will be impacted by climate change the same, you know, and that’s a big part of what we’re talking about this year.
Is there anything else people should know about Sea Walls?
I’ve been living in East Boston for 10 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes—changes in the community as well as changes in the environment. I mean, I think it’s obvious how East Boston has changed in the last 10 years. It’s also obvious how our region is changing environmentally. But we have big dreams for this project, to grow the project.
In the meantime, we want to work. We need to continue to challenge ourselves and do everything we can to work with the community, so that this is a thoughtful program that is truly benefiting people. This is our community—I guess what I’m trying to say is, we’re part of the community. We’re here and we are working with the whole community to make sure that this event, as it grows, continues to be true to the mission. And we invite people to talk to us, participate, volunteer, paint; and we look forward to inviting more collaboration from people who are interested.
Rhian Lowndes is a journalism student at Boston University and began writing for the Dig this year. She has covered community news in the Greater Boston area and in her hometown in Pennsylvania.