Public Garden with Boston skyline

Today J and I took the T into Boston to check out the Beacon Hill Art Walk Holiday Show, which featured participants from this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk. This weekend’s holiday show was housed in the Hill House, a historic firehouse featured in the 1997 MTV reality show “The Real World: Boston” that now houses a nonprofit community center.

A Statehouse on the hill

I never watched “The Real World” when it was set in Boston, but in the early ’90s I did live in Beacon Hill a few blocks away from the Hill House. When I lived in Beacon Hill, my Real World was a juggling act of graduate classes, teaching obligations, a part-time retail job, and the compromises of living with my then-husband in a tiny basement apartment. It was a cramped and harried existence that felt very Real but not very Worldly.

Commonwealth Mall in autumn

Today’s T trip to Boston felt much more relaxing than my days living in Boston. J and I had lunch at the Prudential Center then walked down the Commonwealth Mall (where J once owned a bachelor-pad condo) to the Public Garden, where we cut across to Charles Street. In the course of an afternoon stroll, in other words, J and I revisited the streets and sidewalks where we once lived separately, years before we met.

Pilgrim monument

At the Hill House, J and I chatted with an artist whose work we’d first encountered in June, and we bought several pieces as Christmas presents for ourselves and others. Back when I was a starving grad student living underground in Beacon Hill, I never would have imagined I’d one day live out in the suburbs and could afford to buy gifts at an art show rather than simply window-shopping. The Real World I lived in then seems very far removed from the Real World where I find myself now.

This is my Day Twenty-Three contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Art glass

Earlier this month, J and I went to two open-air art festivals: the Beacon Hill Art Walk at the beginning of the month, and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival the following weekend. I’d been to the Beacon Hill Art Walk before–on previous visits, I primarily enjoyed the opportunity to explore hidden courtyards and alleys not typically open to the public—but J and I had never even heard of the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival even though it’s been around for more than 30 years.

Glass figure

“En plein air” is a French term that refers to the practice of painting outside in the open air, as a landscape artist with an easel might. Although the Beacon Hill Art Walk and Coolidge Corner Arts Festival featured a handful of landscape painters and photographers, there were also many glassblowers, potters, welders, and other artisans who typically ply their crafts inside. But even though many of the works J and I saw might have been created inside, they seemed to come into full bloom when displayed outside in the open air, where tents provided shade while encouraging the free circulation of both breezes and browsers.

Historical Society parking only

Another term that the French use for painting outdoors is “peinture sur le motif,” which translates as “painting on the ground.” I love this phrase for the simple image it creates of artists who are literally grounded, both their bodies and their easels rooting them to the scenes they capture. “Painting on the ground” pins you to a particular spot: instead of painting metaphorical castles in the sky, you paint whatever you see right here, right now, in this present place and time.

Booth after booth

Although J and I didn’t see anyone “painting on the ground” at either the Beacon Hill Art Walk or the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival this year, I’d like to think the artists we saw are metaphorically grounded: local artists and artisans proudly sharing their work with an appreciative community out in the open air.

Click here for more photos from this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival. Enjoy!

Art this way

When my then-husband and I lived in Beacon Hill in the early ’90s, we lived underground in an apartment I wryly referred to as the “Hobbit Hole.” In the past, I’ve described it thusly:

The hobbit hole

Our so-called “garden flat” was almost entirely underground: we had to crouch over to crawl through our own door. (Yes, the door is that short; yes, the ground is that sloped. In a sense, we lived under Beacon Hill in a humble little hobbit-hole.) The apartment was euphemistically termed a one bedroom, but really it was a studio apartment with a doorless, closet-less back room that technically couldn’t be counted as a bedroom. Our kitchen was in the front room, as was our shower: the shower was literally a closet that opened right into the living room. The only place in the apartment where you could close a door behind you was in the toilet: everything else was open.

More than a decade ago, living in a cramped, under-lit cubby-hole where “I felt perpetually crowded in an apartment that never had enough light,” I experienced Beacon Hill in particular and Boston in general as a lean and hungry place, somewhere I lived curled within myself like a seed that didn’t know which way to strive toward the light.

Newborn art fan

At yesterday’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, there was no question about light: it could be found up, up, UP in the sunny blue sky that shone through crevice-like courtyards where paintings, pottery, and other artful bits nestled in inviting nooks. I have to admit I spent as much time ogling the maze-like spaces we walked through–narrow alleys, private courtyards, and dark passages–as I did admiring art. When I lived all-but-under Beacon Hill, I fantasized about the folks who lived above ground, with access to sunlight and space: a horizontally defined Other Half who lived their lives in storied floors (first, second, third) while I existed, potato-like, underground. Yesterday, in the name of art, I got a glimpse at how that Other Half lives.

Art appreciation

The tony townhouses of Beacon Hill are tightly crowded together, but they shelter a surprising amount of space behind and between them: a hidden maze of private alleys, secret courtyards, and cloistered gardens. Every spring, the Beacon Hill Garden Club offers a tour of the neighborhood’s hidden gardens: well-tended spots of green within brick and mortar borders. Although yesterday’s Art Walk didn’t venture into any entirely enclosed gardens, we did stroll down several alleys that are normally closed behind lock and key, accessible only to residents. For the sake of art, it seems, even the Other Half opens (some of) its doors.

If you live in a crowded urban environment, you need a quiet green space to call your own, and even our basement-level garden flat had a tiny, bricked rear patio where we could never manage to grow flowers. In retrospect, we should have abandoned our attempts to acquire a green thumb and grabbed a palette instead, painting flowers in a crowded corner where everything leafy and light-loving refused to grow. Art, I’ve learned, can bring a spot of sunshine to a corner previously crowded in shade.

Click here for a photo-set from yesterday’s Beacon Hill Art Walk. Enjoy!
UPDATE: Click here to see Leslee’s post (with pictures!) from the afternoon.