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Somerville's Art Junkies: How The Bike Path Became an Art Attraction

Updated: May 11

There’s a section of Somerville’s community path that turns heads in wonder, confusion, disgust—sometimes all three. 


Unofficially named the Free Range Sculpture Garden, this collection of junk art beside the portion of the path that gives way to Davis Square features discarded objects transformed into animals, mythical beings, and abstract figures.


A skeleton on a bicycle suspended from a tree does its best Evel Knievel impression, a dragon made of strung together vinyl records slithers between trees, and various hand-painted signs with ambiguous political and comedic slogans provoke passersby.


Bob Smith, known around town as “Smitty,” has been making junk art for decades under the title Minimum Wage Art. And while he’s wary of claiming ownership of the community path art, it was Smith and his friends who placed the first “skraeling” along the path in 2007; a woolly mammoth named Michelle, made for the River Festival and Art Beat.


Bob "Smitty" Smith in front of Piano Dave's


Somervillians may recognize Smith’s Buffalo car or his animal sculptures in Harvard Square, but few people know the artist’s local history. 


That story begins at a small cooperative art gallery named Piano Dave’s in Inman Square, where local artists could collaborate, exchange ideas, and put on shows. More ramshackle than its contemporary, the Zeitgeist Gallery in Central Square, Piano Dave’s attracted pranksters and guerilla artists looking to escape traditional gallery pretension. 


Between happenings at Piano Dave’s and other media initiatives, Bob “Smitty” Smith met Nick Wyneken, Greg Hill, Frank Galligan, and Martha Whitman. The group quickly became friends and spent weekends working on art projects, occasionally pranking fellow artists at the Zeitgeist.


Junk became a throughline for the art. The crew repurposed discarded items into statues and abstract figures. They brought dummies into bars and positioned them at tables, they strapped statues to their cars, and they put on shows at Piano Dave’s.


But as Somerville changed, venues for showcasing experimental art began closing down. With nowhere to turn, the gang had to get creative. 


The city’s community path seemed like an ideal space for public art: easy to maintain, minimally disruptive, and highly visible.


 “We didn’t ask permission to put the art along the bike path,” Smith said.” We hoped it would be embraced, but we really thought it was going to be removed.”


The first installation, Michelle the Woolly Mammoth, wasn’t removed from the path, but after months of vandalism and punishing weather, it was burnt to a crisp. 


Smith and his friends installed other pieces, but they faced similarly harrowing conditions.


A moose made out of recycled jackets was stripped bare at one point and, according to local hearsay, a woman in Davis Square was seen selling hats made out of the moose’s coat.


“I also replaced the moose’s antlers at least five times,” Smith said. “People kept stealing them.”


But Smith believes the vandalism is part of the art’s charm. “I’ve always loved entropy. These things are like lightning rods. We fix them up or take them out if they’re too damaged,” he said.


The Somerville Arts Council called Smith after he placed Michelle the Woolly Mammoth along the path. The Council warned him that complaints from residents might engage the Department of Public Works to clear out the space. But something has kept DPW at bay.


“We have a symbiotic relationship with DPW,” Smith said. (SOME did not clarify this with DPW in the interest of preserving this unspoken legal gray area).


Smith and friends do take care of their section of the path. DPW clears out debris around the art installations, too. Every time Smith tends to the sculptures, someone stops to ask him about the art. Some passersby have been more interrogational than curious.


Two women once stopped Smith as he was fixing a train track on a particularly mangled piece.


“They asked me what right I thought I had to be installing my art along the path,” Smith said. “I looked up and told them they were welcome to add in their own. They didn’t know what to say.”


But more often people pause their commute to talk to Smith about art and what the installations along the path mean to them. 


Two "skraelings" along the community path.


“I always tell people, put something here,” Smith said. "And I really mean it. Anyone can do it and that’s what’s great. Public art knocks down all the barriers [to entry],” Smith said.


The art along the community path has grown over time. Other artists have found inspiration in Smith and friends’ work and added their own creations to the path. Nearly two decades after Michelle the Wooly Mammoth made her debut, the thoroughfare has attracted art installations (and worlds; see Elfland) of all kinds. 


“We’re worried about creating a sense of ownership,” Smith said. “If [the bike path art] becomes someone’s thing, then other people won’t do it."


But Smith has been feeling encouraged lately. The day SOME reached out to him for an interview, Smith said he had received another call.


“A young artist called me. He wanted to start his own sculpture garden along the newer section of the path, heading into downtown and he wondered how we did it.”


 

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