Legend of the Rainbow Swash

One of Boston’s most controversial works of art hangs not in a museum, but on the walls of a massive gas storage tank. Originally painted by Sister Mary Corita Kent in 1971, the rainbow swashes are a welcome, lighthearted burst of color that have had some Bostonians up in arms for four decades.

Sister Kent’s artistic interests began in 1936 when she joined Catholic teaching institute, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1936. She continued her studies and received a Masters of Arts in Art History from University of Southern California in 1951, ultimately becoming one of the most influential artists of the 1960s and ‘70s (and professor to visionaries such as Alfred Hitchcock and the Eames Brothers).

An outspoken pacifist during the Vietnam War, Kent painted simple pop art posters with with messages like, Stop the Bombing, Love is Here to Say, and I Should Like to Be Able to Love My Country and Still Love Justice.

Known for her willingness to stick it to the man, Kent ran into a bit of controversy after painting the gas tank in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, off Interstate 93 south of downtown. The largest copyrighted work of art in the world, the Rainbow Swash consists of orange, yellow, red, blue, green, and purple stripes strewn over a white background on the tank. On the left side of the blue strip, there’s a subtle profile of an eye and nose and seemingly long-pointed goatee beneath.

Considering Kent’s background and the politically tumultuous times, some people took on the belief that the profile was a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in protest against the Vietnam War. She denied the allegations and things were pretty much left there, but either for its enjoyable aesthetics or long-lasting message, the piece remained right there for Boston’s millions of daily commuters. Even in 1992 when they tore down the original tank, the Swash was immediately reproduced on a new, similar-looking tank.

Today, it’s considered a distinguished mark of the city. When parents take their kids home from a day at Fenway or the Museum of Science, they point to the tank and challenge their children to find the hidden face. An easy and fun little game unknowingly, and supposedly unpurposefully, created by a peace-loving nun in the early 70s, it’s worth taking a gander on your next trip to the Bean!

image via flickr