We had the good fortune of connecting with Randal Thurston and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Randal, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I’m from Somerset, a small town in Southeastern Massachusetts. My great Grandparents came to America to escape the potato famine in Ireland. They settled in South Boston and eventually moved to Fall River MA where my grandparents and parents lived. Everyone in my family did physical labor; they built roads, worked as merchant marines and farmed. My grandfather, uncle and father worked as lock and draw bridge operators – the folks who open and close draw bridges when the height of passing ships makes that necessary. I chose to answer this question because I think a lot about the arc of my career. While nothing in my family’s history would indicate that I would have a life in the arts, it was their support that allowed it to happen. My family was very connected to the landscape I grew up in. They hunted and fished throughout the year, paying close attention to the natural rhythms of the tides and migratory patterns of birds. Although I felt apart from these activities, I appreciated the precision and care needed to do them well.
While I think of my childhood as one spent at the margins of my family, I’ve come to realize how much they thought, cared and, for lack of a better word, noticed me. When I was about seven, my parents packed us in a car and we drove to Boston to visit the MFA. There was no preamble, no reason for that trip I can think of other than it being an attempt to understand me. I was quiet and different and I think they were trying to find a way of connecting me to the wider world. We walked through the museum, looking at sarcophagi and pewter teapots. At some point, I became separated from my family, finding myself all alone in a great hall of paintings.
There are moments in life that are transformative, events that happen to us that change us irrevocably. I had one at a very young age as I looked up a one painting, a gaudy portrait of an 18th century nobleman. I realized instantly that the man in the painting, the painter who created the astonishingly realistic portrait and me, a scrawny seven-year-old on a family outing, were all in the room together. Despite my age, I think I also realized that the painting was not just a thing, it was a way of talking to people when you weren’t physically in the same place. It dawned on me, as I gazed up slack jawed at the nobleman, that making Art might be a way of understanding who you are.
The ride home was quiet. I was afraid that if I talked about what had happened to me the feelings, realization and understanding I had come to might disappear. When my dad finally asked what I thought about the museum, I told him simply that I thought I needed to be one of the people whose work we saw that day.
A couple of days later, I came home from school and found a drawing pad, pencils and a book of the collected drawings of Degas on my bed. I sat down and began to teach myself to draw. That my parents paid attention and respected my choice of a life in the Arts rather than one spent in fields and streams is something I’ll always be grateful for. It informs how I approach my studio practice and how I teach. I’ve worked with a lot of students who are at the very beginnings of their creative lives. Some are fortunate to have families who acknowledge and celebrate their choices, and some do not.
I know that it’s the little things, like acknowledging when a young artist has mastered a technique of seems closer to finding their voice, that have big impacts. When we take the time to notice, we’re paying forward the support we’ve received and helping the next generation of artists understand that the path they are walking is not a solitary one.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
For the last 30 years, I’ve been making large scale installations composed of hundreds of individually hand cut silhouettes. The themes I address include nature, beauty, mortality and memory. My interest in silhouette centers on a very simple phenomenon. Each person who views a precisely cut shape in the form of a face or bird recognizes it for what it is and then projects their experience onto it. So the black winged shape is recognized as first as a bird, then as a crow, then as the crow that perched on tree of my uncle’s farm. Because there is no interior detail, we fill that space with memory and projection, the same way we visualize the action when we listen to an old time radio drama.
My work is environmental. When I develop a theme, I often cut paper for months. The images all relate thematically, but there is no overarching design. When I am on site, I respond to the space I occupy to create work that is decidedly ephemeral. The piece lasts as long as the exhibition and then is gone. Its imperative that the audience understand that the work’s permanence exists solely as a memory.
In addition to paper cut installations, I’ve created a number of pieces of large scale public art. This aspect of my practice involved translating my silhouettes into metal and glass.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Boston is constantly evolving. Four hundred years ago, it was pretty small peninsula jutting out into harbor. Since then, land has been added, which has radically changed the coastline. Waves of immigrants have since arrived, some settling for generations and some using Boston on as a way station between where they were and where they want to be. Added to this mix of old and new arrivals are the 150,000 + college students who arrive in late August each year, filling the city with energy before they depart in May.
The diversity of Boston’s neighborhoods and the vibrancy of its younger population means that anywhere you go has layers of history an incredible diversity of people, restaurants, places to hear music and see art.
Added to this is the small size of Boston, which means that you can walk through a significant part of it in a single day.
If someone were coming into town pre Covid-19, I’d suggest we meet in the morning on Hanover street at either Caffe Paradiso or Cafe Vittoria. They’re both old: Vittoria predates the many places you can get an expresso or cappuccino in town by about 50 years. While they do tend to be a stop off point for tourists, they are an important connection to the city’s past and a nice way to spend a few minutes listening to the sounds of the street and discussing what the day has to offer. I’d spend some walking the narrow streets, making sure that I stopped at Salumeria Italiana to pick up some mixed olives, Finocchiona and bread.
We’d head towards government center, a sprawling area that borders Faneuil Hall and the financial district. When I moved to town, US 93 was completely elevated as it moved through this area. In its shadow, the pushcart vendors of Haymarket were constantly in motion, selling fruits and vegetables while meats and cheese were available nearby. Today, the food vendors share space with a variety of food stalls in The Boston Public Market , and indoor facility nearby.
The 15-year construction of the Williams tunnel rerouted the highway underground. The surface is now the home to The Rose Kennedy Greenway a 1 ½ mile swath of greenspace, temporary and permanent public Art , food trucks and programmed activities. I take my visitor for a walk through the Greenway, heading in the direction of South station. The greenway is flanked by the financial district on onside and the buildings that house the aquarium and restaurants like TRADE, which opened after the Greenway was finished and the Seaport began its rapid development. We’d cross the channel on Seaport Boulevard and head for the Institute of contemporary Art. When it was built in 2006, the ICA was pretty much the only new building on the waterfront. It was a cultural outpost that boasted a Diller Scofidio + Renfro building and adventurous programming. Over the last few years, I’ve seen shows by Marl Bradford, Swoon, Ragnar Kjartansson, Jim Hodges, Nick Cave and Yayoi Kusama. The Auditorium, with its harbor facing glass wall is a great venue for concerts, dance and lectures.
Back in the mid 2000’s you might stop into the Barking Crab, or if you knew the neighborhood, the No Name for lunch. Today the choices are for are endless and the ICA is almost invisible as it nestles between rising condominiums hotels and life sciences labs. It is worth noting that Boston’s harbor incredible assessable. Our walk from the North end to the ICA could easily been taken along the water using a connected network of walkways.
From the Seaport I’d walk along the water, cross the channel on congress street and head for Chinatown for lunch, there are too many options to list, but it was a cold day like today, I’d suggest that we stop at Pho Pasteur for a large bowl of soup or the nearby Dumpling Café. While memory can serve as a pleasant way to revisit the past, the reality is that while the pandemic has decimated the restaurant industry and left many people who depended on it jobless, it has been particularly devastating to Chinatown. Cities like Boston have publicized the importance of supporting restaurants by ordering take away, the hope being that it will allow them to survive until we are all vaccinated. The hard truth though is that we really don’t know what the landscape will look like for restaurants, clubs and cultural venues when we can move freely again.
From Chinatown, my guest and I would walk through the Boston Commons and the Public Garden, two large greenspaces that day back to the 17th Century. While we strolled out of the Public Garden, I’d probably ask them to imagine the landscape as it existed then when we would be looking out at the expanse of the Charles River rather than the grid of streets that make up the Back Bay neighborhood of today.
Moving through Copley square, we’d cross into the South End, home to the SOWA Gallery district. After stopping into Gallery Kayafas the Abigail Ogilvy Gallery we’d visit Underground at Ink Block an 8-acre underpass urban park, filled with murals and sculpture. Since it is now mid-day, my guest and I would head to Aquitane or Milkweed on Tremont Street for lunch and a discussion about what the afternoon and evening held in store.
I like taking out of town visitors to the MFA for several reasons: It is a significant connection to my career as an artist, it houses a phenomenal collection of Art and, because I was a security guard there for 17 years, I know my way around. Another reason to stop by the MFA is because it is very near both the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and MASSART. The students at the Museum School and MASSART, are part of a large contingent of younger artists who are either enrolled at one of the city’s Colleges and Universities or are recent grads at the beginning of their careers. Stopping in to see what they are to is a great way to see their work in the context of what is on display in the MFA or the Gardener Museum, which I would rank as the single must – see cultural stop in town.
Walking across the fens from the MFA leads to Kenmore square. While Fenway Park is the hub of an area that has been transformed through development, many of us who went to clubs on Landsdown street or listened to The Pixies, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Talking heads or the Ramones mourn the days when Kenmore square was a very different place.
From Kenmore square we might find a park bench and snack on what we picked up at Salumeria Italiana, before heading in Allston or Brighton for the evening. These two Boston Neighborhoods are home to many of the city’s students and places like the Paradise, Brighton Music Hall or my favorite, Great Scott. These small clubs, shuttered during COVID-19 are essential to Boston’s identity as a music town. With capacities of 100-200, they are the best places to see artists like Kim Gordon and Twilight Sad. Leaving Great Scott, my friend and I would hop on the Green line and head for Somerville to call it a day.
What’s remarkable about Boston is that you really can do all these things in a single day…on foot.
These days, much of what I’ve described is not possible. While the venues and area for communal gathering are shut, the city, as place to walk, is still full or wonder. During the pandemic, Alyson and I explored the waterfront on a daily basis. We’re particularly fond of walking in the Charlestown Navy yard as well as places outside the city like Deer Island and World’s End in Hingham.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My friends, my kids Alana and Owen and most importantly my wife Alyson. Our lives have been entwined for many years. Without her support, insight and love, I doubt if if I would have been able to have the life I’ve had.
Image credits: Alyson Schultz