The writer Henry Miller once said: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
For Northeastern graduate Lisa Brothers, Miller’s quote could very well have been about public art. These days, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to stop and take a moment to soak in the colors of a mural or the shapes of an installation on the streets of Boston. But it took bringing to life a 650-square-foot, handmade, glass mosaic at the city’s South Station to make the business executive pay closer attention.
“I used to walk blindly by art wherever I went and didn’t really pay attention to it,” Brothers says. “I so enjoy public art now; I’m constantly taking pictures of it and pointing it out to my husband. I feel like I’ve been enlightened through this process.”
Brothers, who is the chairman and chief executive officer of Massachusetts-based engineering firm Nitsch Engineering, is referring to a 12-year “labor of love” to create a permanent installation that celebrates the contributions of women to the transportation industry for the Boston chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar International, an organization dedicated to the professional advancement of women in transportation.
Brothers, as the co-chair of the organization’s public art committee (which also includes Northeastern graduates Kara Chiccarelli and Suzanne Siden Bailey), teamed up with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to spearhead the project in commemoration of the chapter’s 25th anniversary.
Unveiled in May, the piece, titled “Network,” adorns the entrance to South Station on the northeast corner of Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue. The mosaic is a map displaying a gold dot to represent the subway station, with various shades of grey used to show roads (light grey), railroads (medium grey), and subways (dark grey). Blue and green tiles show waterways and the ocean, recognizing the water transportation network. Three mermaids are hidden in the ocean, working together to survey the land across from them.
The map highlights the transportation network that generations of the organization’s members have helped build, while the mermaids represent the women who have contributed to the region’s transportation industry, often from behind the scenes.
“To have this beautiful piece of art that’s going to be there for a very long time, it’s just really rewarding, and it’s absolutely beautiful the way you experience the piece when you walk down the stairs,” Brothers says.
Brothers and a committee comprised of representatives from the MBTA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology commissioned Ellen Harvey, an artist from Brooklyn, to design the piece. Harvey’s experience working with public agencies and vision for the mosaic helped distinguish her from the pack of 195 applicants from 32 states and nine countries, says Brothers.
The mosaic was fabricated by master artists in Italy, with each piece selected and placed by hand to form the design, before it was shipped to Boston for installation.
“We needed something that was low-maintenance, or pretty much no maintenance, and [Ellen’s] mosaic fit that model really well,” Brothers says.
South Station, a high-traffic area, was deemed the most suitable location for the installation.
“We wanted it to be a spot where there were a lot of passengers, and a lot of people walking by,” Brothers says.
By day, Brothers runs Nitsch Engineering, a company she joined in 1990. Prior to Nitsch, Brothers worked for the highway division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, where she specialized in major construction projects.
She received a master’s in business administration in 1991 from Northeastern, where she designed a business plan for Nitsch as an assignment for the program. She has maintained ties with the university, serving on the advisory board of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Brothers also holds a civil engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“Quite frankly, I love running the business side of the business; I really don’t do any engineering anymore, and my MBA from Northeastern—clearly I use that more on a day-to-day basis than I do my engineering degree at this point,” she says.
She said she is proud to have been a part of the South Station art project, and looks forward to visiting the mosaic for many years to come.
“I would tell my committee that when we are all older and hopefully someday have grandchildren, we’ll be able to bring them to this beautiful mosaic and say, ‘Your grandmother actually had something to do with this piece,’” she says.
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