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Artist fellow Michelle Fornabai on what one artist can do for a City


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Arts and Culture

Former City of Boston Artist Fellow Michelle Fornabai shares how the Artist Fellowship impacted her, and how artists in Boston can shape the City as a whole.

To support individual artists is a stunningly beautiful act of trust as a city. After being selected as an inaugural City of Boston Artist Fellow in 2017, I felt inspired to take risks and make works to match the profound generosity shown to me by the City of Boston. 

The Artist Fellowship Award was the City’s first-ever pilot program designed to invest in the advancement of artists living in Boston. Five artists across various disciplines, including myself, were awarded $10,000 each in the form of an unrestricted grant. The only requirement was that each artist had to collaborate with the City of Boston on a public event that showcased our individual work.

I’m a conceptual artist from Roxbury, trained as an architect, who uses architecture as a medium to explore how sensations and emotions may be affected through explorations in material. I form ideas in ink and concrete, exploring artful mistakes made within architectural standards of practice, eliciting unexpected results and poetic experiences from banal aspects of conventional construction. 

An artist can make work in a place, but an artist alone cannot contextualize their work. The Artist Fellowship Award gave me the opportunity to produce a piece of performance art at the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center at Government Service Center, which was designed by brutalist architect Paul Rudolph. 

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Artist Fellow Michelle Fornabai during a performance at the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center at Government Service Center. (Courtesy of Anne Piessens)

The simple fact that Boston's most vulnerable are placed at the center of government service — quite literally at Government Service Center, which houses the Departments of Labor and Mental Health, as well as 150 resident patients in the health center — to me, demonstrates the beauty of Boston. Brutalist buildings like Rudolph's building and City Hall spoke to me as an artist exploring fragility in concrete — perhaps like many Bostonians, these buildings are known for their bristly exteriors, yet they weather the elements to protect secret, generous and imaginative interiors. 

At the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center in Government Service Center, I think my "conceptual act of architecture in concrete" was constructing a room called the "Boston Room" as an art space — for artists, but more importantly for the practitioners and patients who do such truly important and difficult work. Boston's strength is its people and for this performance they were my heart, especially so when I needed to take heart.

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Artist Michelle Fornabai during performance at Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center at Government Service Center, courtesy of Anne Piessens

To speak across the history of concrete in Boston — of béton brut, Brutalist buildings and labors of love — was truly poetic and contextualized my work in an inimitable way. To place my concrete poem in dialogue with what was once described as an “essay in concrete” at Government Service Center was a once in a lifetime opportunity as an artist. It was a profound privilege to have the support of the Mayor's Office of Arts and Culture and assistance at the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center — coordinating with both the city and state — to realize such a work simply would not have been possible as an individual artist. 

As an individual artist, and an inaugural fellow, I thought a lot about what one artist can do for a city. Upon reflection, I thought to use the placing of my works here in Boston as a kind of foundation, something upon which something else is firmly placed. Artists make possibilities for other artists.

In the future, I hope more art and artists will continue to inhabit the "Boston Room" and the Chapel — certainly, the most beautiful, secret space to share in Boston. And City Hall's monumental yet minimalist spaces are there to inspire and support the everyday, the every person — to provide an immense space in support of the "little guy." These often overlooked interiors and the Bostonians within them inspired me to be brave in thinking about possibilities for the city and its artists. 

Working with the City of Boston as an artist, extraordinary things can happen in everyday life.

The City of Boston is currently accepting applications for its second round of the Artist Fellowship Award. You can learn more online.