Bringing Community Art to the Subways

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Waiting for the subway to come can be a dreary experience. So it was a pleasant surprise to find a series of colorful ceramic street scenes lining the walls of the 86th Street Number One train station. Though I’ve been at this station before, I’ve never noticed the art work, and they’ve graced the subway walls since 1989!

The mosaics are a result of a collaboration between muralist and public artist Nitza Tufiño, and 17 young people, most of whom were part of Grosvenor Neighborhood House’s school equivalency and educational program. Carrying 35-millimeter cameras, the team went into area streets to photograph important historic sites and interviewed members of the community.

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A New York Times article, written on the 20th anniversary of the installation, described how the photographs became the ceramic squares. The negatives of the best scenes were 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. They ultimately created 40 ceramic tiles based on their work.  All can be seen on the uptown and downtown sides of the station.

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Art work, like the mosaics in the 86th Street station, appear all over the subway system. As the MTA rehabilitates subway and commuter rail stations through its Capital Program, it uses a portion of the funds to commission permanent works of art. MTA Arts and Design taps into both well-established and emerging artists to  create works using the materials of the transit system — mosaic, ceramic tile, bronze, steel and glass. For the soon-to-be-open Second Avenue subway line, the MTA has commissioned well-known artists to create distinctive subway art, including Chuck Close and Vik Muniz.

So as you travel underground, look around; you may find art to brighten up your trip.