I spent an hour and a half in the Harvard Square bus terminal. It wasn’t long enough.
I had recently been reminded of Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts’ article “The Power of Patience,” in which she emphasizes the value of strategic deceleration in a world of immediacy. Roberts details an assignment for which she asks her students to spend “a painfully long time” looking at an art object, urging a crucial distinction between looking at something and actually seeing it.
So I resolved to decelerate, hoping to see more of the art I encounter. What better place to start than the public art installations of the MBTA, I thought, which I’d so often looked at but never really seen?
Armed with a bookmarked tab of Roberts’ article and a sense of responsibility as a freshly minted History of Art and Architecture concentrator, I eagerly descended to the Harvard Square station and settled in to meet György Kepes’s installation “Blue Sky on the Red Line.”
The artificially illuminated stained glass work has been hugging Harvard Station’s curved main upper busway wall since 1985, installed as part of the first public transit art program in the United States developed by the Cambridge Arts Council. I immediately noticed that, as its name suggests, Kepes’s stained glass invites a swath of sky to the subterranean space: Varying opacities and hues of glass fragments ranging in color from pale beiges to brilliant ceruleans and intense indigos animate the tunnel, occasionally dimming and blinking as if in greeting.
A thick, rough soldering unites the composition of imperfect polygonal glass pieces. The fragments are allowed to retain their individually rebellious shapes, yet are ultimately held in conformity to a grid-like rhythm established by the straight, vertical lines of lead that punctuate the piece in two-foot intervals. A red band runs the 100-foot length of the blue glass near the top of its nine-foot height, echoing the red tiling motif coursing through the Harvard Square station like veins.
But before I could see beyond my immediate observations, I found my view had become largely obscured by a crowd anticipating the arrival of the next bus. They waited, and I watched, hoping to see something of others’ perceptions of the glowing installation.
Instead, they impatiently shuffled past or remained fixed to their phones — as attested to by Pitbull’s “Hotel Room Service” echoing through the waiting area from a phone lacking headphones on three separate occasions during my time at the terminal.
The longer I lingered, the more acutely I felt the cold, rigid tile behind the bench jutting into my back. Buses came and went, sucking passengers from the waiting area and speeding off with their confused faces staring back at me through the windows. Announcements and departures roared through the tunnel with the wind, each just a bit too loud for prolonged exposure. Several bus drivers looked to me with questioning eyes as they tentatively held the doors: Why did I remain, alone save for a security guard, in the tunnel? Surely, I have somewhere to be; surely, it isn’t here. It seemed that every element of the station urged me to move on, to deny the station art’s pleas to remain stationary. I recalled with renewed understanding Professor Roberts’ lamentation of the pressures pushing us ever towards “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity.”
But I resolved still to look past the discomfort of existing in the space beyond the pressures of expected temporal bounds. I was rewarded with a far more fulfilling perception of the work that continued to rattle around my head long after I left.
I began to see more in what had initially appeared as arbitrary groupings of shapes and hues. They coalesced into a hazy landscape of mountainous natural forms and human-like figures, constellations to be untangled after longer contemplation rather than ready-made images. I marveled at the tension between the delicate appearance of the stained glass medium and the art’s placement in one of the harshest, dirtiest areas of the station, particularly as most of the Arts on the Line works are made of overtly sturdy materials. This piece, though, offers a 100-foot reprieve from the unforgiving heft of the tunnel wall in a celebration of its own lighter sort of corporality.
With even more time spent looking, I discovered a pattern to the occasional flickering of the glass’s backlighting. Each bus’s approach triggers a vertical patch of darkness which glides from left to right along the vehicle’s anticipated path, concluding with an abrupt darkening of the entire strip’s illumination. The headlights of the departing bus seem to follow in pursuit as if to re-light the dimmed installation, and indeed, the piece is at its brightest immediately after its spell of darkness. Now seeing more than a segment of wall which just happened to be made of stained glass, I recognized the cleverly interactive integration of its real-time physical context.
I’ll admit that at several points during my experiment in looking, I had to stop myself from impulsively wandering into the bus lane for a closer view of Kepes’s art. I suppose that in more ways than one, transit art is easy to look at and far more difficult to see.
I had first entered the bus tunnel with expectations of engaging more deeply with the oft-overlooked installations of the Red Line. I hadn’t expected to be making my way back to class an hour and a half later puzzling over deeper questions about how we engage with art when our engagement isn’t presupposed by the context of a gallery. With all I was able to see during my time, I found nothing indicating the piece as less deserving of our slowed attention than the pieces above in museums — in fact, the Harvard Art Museums collections feature several of György Kepes’s works. Yet I had observed passenger after passenger waiting in full view of the Harvard Square bus installation without affording it a second glance.
Although I found my lengthy look at the Harvard bus tunnel more gratifying than any previous visit to the same space, I don’t plan to regularly repeat my experience. So how are we to do justice by the art installed in expressly liminal spaces like transit line waiting areas?
My aim is not to advocate for MBTA passengers to deliberately extend their time in the station as I did, but to reiterate the value in slowing down to the pace of the art in our (subterranean) environment as we wait. With increasingly aggravating slow zones and wait times on the T, what more can we do than to reframe the opportunity of slowing down? How much more will we see? The act of waiting can be more than an absence of doing, but rather a slower kind of presence — one that provides the perfect opportunity to take a closer, slower look at the art waiting to be seen even on our Red Line commutes.
—In her column "Underground, Overlooked," Marin E. Gray ’26 platforms the public art installations of the MBTA's Red Line stations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.