Graffiti gone good

Healing Art Dept.
By GREG COOK  |  September 30, 2009

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One after another, young patients approach Caleb Neelon as he paints in the lobby of Children's Hospital Boston. They marvel at his folksy, cartoony, Technicolor mural, and offer suggestions. The sea that his patchwork ship floats upon, a boy advises, could use some sharks with pickles.

The piece is called "Imagination Wall," and Neelon is specifically seeking ideas from and interaction with the youth currently at Children's for treatment. The 33-year-old Cambridge street artist has painted walls from Brazil to India to Iceland — with and without permission. "Graffiti is one of those funny scarlet-letter things," Neelon says. "Once you're in it, you're in it forever. Which is fine with me."

Increasingly, though, he is becoming a gallery artist, the sort of respectable fellow who wins grants and commissions ? including previously painting decorations at the hospital's Yawkey Family Inn on Kent Street, which provides housing for families while their children receive treatment. It's an acknowledgement of both his art's charm and the ever-greater official embrace of graffiti.

"I've wanted to do more hospital projects for a long time," says Neelon. "Boston is a good art town, not necessarily a great art town. Boston is absolutely a great hospital city."

Hospitals tend to favor prints of pretty flowers or pastoral landscapes seemingly designed to put you to sleep. What sets apart the some 3000 pieces on view at Children's Hospital's main campus on Longwood Avenue and its four satellite facilities is the emphasis on original artwork — and how bright and boisterous they are.

Near Neelon's mural in the lobby is George Rhoads's Bippity Boppity Balls, a witty mechanical contraption that sends spheres cascading down metal tracks and various thingamajigs. All part of the hospital's "Art for Kool Kidz" program (meant to "reduce stress and provide a positive distraction during long waits and painful procedures," according to the hospital's Web site), the works on display in its halls include wood sea creatures, glowing neon rods, a quilted abstract tapestry, a giant wire butterfly, and a swirling composition painted with a wheelchair's wheels. Temporary exhibits include animation cels by the legendary Chuck Jones (the guy who dreamed up the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote), and sketches of mid-century modern-vehicle designs by Richard Arbib, from a collection promised to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Neelon's mural features a bull riding a giant patchwork boat, an elephant floating in a hot-air balloon, a bull riding a rocket at the center of a nova of rainbow stripes . . . and sharks with pickles. "With kids," says Neelon, "people are naturally inclined to make their environment brighter, more entertaining, more awesome. So that's where I come in."

Neelon will be painting at Children's Hospital through October 2. His mural will be on view in the lobby through March. For more info, go to childrenshospital.org and search for "Art for Kool Kidz."

Related: Slideshow: Street, studio art from Caleb Neelon, Super Sonik, Cambridge author Caleb Neelon traces graffiti's hidden history, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Painting, Visual Arts, Cultural Institutions and Parks,  More more >
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