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Trainspotter

20 Years Later, Subway Mural Project Is Still a Source of Pride for the Artists

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When the No. (3) train roars by the 86th Street station on the Upper West Side, the dingy platform becomes the noisiest, if not the most unlikely, museum in the city.

 

The station is the permanent home of 37 ceramic murals, mounted almost 20 years ago on the walls of the platform and mostly ignored by commuters waiting for the next train.

 

But every now and then, commuter indifference gives way to curiosity, just long enough for someone to take in a portrait of a not-so-distant Upper West Side past.

 

There is the mural of subway riders boarding a red No. 2 express train at the 96th Street station, or the two Hasidic men pushing pink baby strollers in front of a Chinese restaurant. In another, two old people inch their way toward an M104 bus.

 

These are no masterpieces. Most of the young people who created them were troubled or struggling students trying to earn their high school equivalency degree. Were the murals to be removed and sold, they probably would not fetch anywhere near as much as the 200 subway art projects by professional artists commissioned since 1985 by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts for Transit program.

 

But their value is measured in other ways, especially to the students who created them and to a neighborhood that has grown accustomed to them since they were installed in August 1989.

 

Looking back on a community art project that left a lasting impression on their lives, for some of the students it was a turning point. Others say they wish they had left a more personal mark on history. “When I see it now, I see all the love that I put in that work,” said Leeama Scott, 44, who was a young immigrant from Trinidad when she worked on the murals.

 

Some have left the Upper West Side, and some have fled New York City altogether. But wherever they ended up, most have become the subjects they portrayed: the office worker headed downtown, the parent playing with their child in the park, the community organizer, the teacher.

 

Guy Monpremier, 43, came to the United States in 1985 to escape political turmoil and violence in his native Haiti. For him and others, the mural project was a chance to explore the world beyond his immediate environment.

 

At the time, he was attending high school equivalency classes at Grosvenor Neighborhood House, a settlement house on West 105th Street.

 

Grosvenor, an urban refuge of social service and education programs housed in a bleak rectangular structure that looks more like a compact jail, had been brought into discussions over how to spend $205,000 in amenity financing that had been promised by a developer constructing a high-rise condominium at 84th Street and Broadway. Some of the money went toward the project, which paid for materials and a $4-an-hour stipend for the 17 students who participated.

 

Carrying 35-millimeter cameras, Mr. Monpremier and the others were dispatched throughout the two-square-mile neighborhood to capture images of landmarks and typical urban scenes. The negatives of the best scenes were then made into slides, and the images projected onto a wall, where they were traced onto paper.

 

These drawings were transferred in reverse onto 23-by-30-inch linoleum sheets that were then stamped onto large sheets of clay. The large clay images were cut into pieces small enough to fit into kilns and fired, then painted with colored glaze, put back together like puzzle pieces, then finally mounted onto large frames.

 

Full story: nytimes_logo.gif icon_offsite.png

 

By MARTIN ESPINOZA

NEW YORK TIMES

January 6, 2009

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