Artists Team Up for New Mural at Arsenal Project Mall in Watertown

Ross Miller and Nate Swain—with help from Artists for Humanity—will unveil their glittering 'Ancestral Forest' November 21.

Two heads are better than one, and an excellent example of this will be revealed Friday at Arsenal Project mall in Watertown.

The folks at the mall asked artists Ross Miller and Nate Swain to put their heads together and come up with a public art piece to spruce up the space. The result is a 150-foot hand-painted mural showing an “Ancestral Forest” with 2,000 mini LED lights that make the river glisten and the sky twinkle with stars.

“The mural painting brings nature into urban areas in ways that might surprise and engage people in a different way in a public space,” Miller said.

The nature-in-the-city theme is one that both artists feel strongly about, even if this is the first time Miller and Swain have worked together. Locals are likely already familiar with both of their individual public artworks around Boston, such as Miller’s “Harbor Fog” sculpture on the Greenway or Swain’s “Dandelion Twins” mural on Cambridge Street.

The Arsenal Project collaboration combines Swain’s mural-making knowledge with Miller’s experience with lighting to form one large sparkling mural, which was produced with the assistance of 10 members of Artists for Humanity. Miller also designed the winter lights hung across streets in Cambridge and Downtown Crossing during the holidays.

The thousands of lights shine through little holes in the canvas to create gentle flickering effects. They’ll be set on timers so that during the day, the lights will dazzle on the water like bouncing sunlight, and at night, the sky will shine with constellations of stars.

“We’re also working on ways to make it so that [the lights can be] activated by viewers who come by—both by motion sensors and on your smartphone, so you can change what you’re seeing,” Miller said.

When you look around the city, there could be so much more wonder and surprise.

Unofficially titled the “Ancestral Forest,” the concept for the mural is to present to mall visitors what they might see beyond the buildings.

“Our goal is to tie people to the natural landscape that exists directly behind the Arsenal Project,” Miller said. “If you were to X-ray through the building, you would find a beautiful part of the Charles River that most people don’t realize is there. This mural is a depiction of that landscape before we were all here.”

Swain, who worked in landscape architecture before turning to murals—he’s only been working as an artist for five years and painting for one—said there is a bit of an environmental message associated with the project.

For one thing, Swain’s canvases are all recycled. The Arsenal Project mural, for example, including an iPhone billboard and a few car ads.

The forest itself is another green message. “There’s always an environmental message to appreciate what nature gives us,” Swain said. “That’s why I love painting nature instead of manmade things or people.”

Boston is full of blank canvases Swain would like to cover, and both he and Miller have more projects coming up that will add some much-needed face lifts to public spaces around town.

“When you look around the city, there could be so much more wonder and surprise,” Miller said. Right now, he’s working with Artists for Humanity on a proposal for a wind-activated sculpture in a park near the EpiCenter.

Swain also has a few other mural projects in the works—one being a ceiling mural for City Hall depicting a cloudy blue sky, which he pitched for the city’s first Public Space Invitational earlier this year.

“City Hall is the perfect blank canvas for me. For a few hundred thousand dollars, I could make people fall in love with that building.”


The Arsenal Project mural will be unveiled at 7 p.m. Friday, November 21, during the mall’s “Light Up the Holidays at the Arsenal Project” event.