As workers restore Dorchester’s iconic rainbow gas tank, a history lesson on the artwork

The Commercial Point natural gas tank in Dorchester is getting a makeover. Workers are repainting the tank rainbow colors and have climbed 14 stories to wash its surface and roll over the paint. Bill Forry, editor of the Dorchester Reporter, was recently able to climb onto the reservoir and admire it up close. He joined GBH morning edition welcomes Paris Alston and Jeremy Seigel to talk about the experience. This transcript has been slightly edited.

Jeremy Siegel: Let’s back up a bit before we get into editing. Tell us about this piece of art known as a rainbow.

Bill Forry: Many people know Corita Kent, who was a brilliant and talented artist who was very active in the 60s and 70s here in the United States. Kent was a Catholic nun who dabbled in painting, really throughout her life, but she became a pop artist of some fame, quite fame, in fact, in her later years. Sadly, we lost her in the 1990s, but before she passed, she truly made some iconic images. And that’s probably his biggest job, really, and his most visible, of course. Anyone flying into Boston on certain days will see this coming and can admire it from above. And of course, hundreds of thousands of people do it every day via the freeway or Morrissey Boulevard.

But this work was somewhat controversial when it debuted in 1971. She designed it, of course, on a miniature scale. And then it was done by painters working for what was then the Boston Gas Company. And a lot of people, and I think rightly so, see in some of the images – and in one in particular, the blue swash – the profile of Ho Chi Minh. And, of course, it was in the middle of the Vietnam War and the internal conflict over the war at the time. And the reading that Ho Chi Minh was depicted here in the swash was, of course, quite controversial at the time and remains so for a lot of people.

Paris Alston: Did the artist ever talk about that, Bill?

Forry: She was a little mysterious about it. She never really said she intended to make this profile look like Ho Chi Minh’s long beard. But there was a bit of a wink and a nod involved in that. And I think she wanted it, like many artists, left open to the interpretation of the viewer. But I think clearly, given his personal politics, it’s highly likely that was his intention.

As painters cover a 150-foot-tall Gas Co. tank with rainbow stripes, artist Corita Kent and gas supply and construction manager Karl Kunberger look at a finished model , in Boston, United States, on Oct. 19, 1971. (AP Photo)

AP / AP

Headquarters : Looking back at when this first saw the light of day, you mentioned some of the controversy surrounding the potential topic inside. But what was the general reaction to the simple idea of ​​a gas tank artwork, like painting a huge gas tank?

Forry: Well, the contemporary view of that was, I think there was a bit of bewilderment about people. Why go so far as to paint this tank? And by the way, it was not the original tank that was painted. The one we have today is another tank that has been replicated. The original petrol tank which contained the artwork by Corita Kent was dismantled in 1992. There were two tanks at this site, which in Dorchester is called Commercial Point, and this facility is now reduced to a single tank. And at that time, the Boston Gas Company had that design transferred to the existing tank. Over the years there have been several owners of this facility. National Grid has done a very good job not only of keeping the site safe, but also of keeping this tank in good repair. They spend a lot of time getting it up and down to make sure it’s in good shape and of course every 10 years or so giving it the paint job it gets right now.

Alton: So tell us more about what this process will be to do this restoration.

Forry: Along with the logistics and the great bravery of union workers going up and down the tank every day, consider what really would be best described as a window washer facility. They can lower up and down the side of the tank. They start by high pressure washing it, then they just use ballpoint devices to get the colors back to where they need to be. So when you high pressure wash it, you’ll see on the floor, as I observed, lots of paint chips all over the floor in the watershed below the tank.

Headquarters : We’ve seen pictures of you with a hard hat climbing to the top of the tank. How is it over there?

Forry: Man, that was really cool, I have to say. Myself and my colleague from The Reporter, Seth Daniel, climbed the catwalk, essentially the fire escape-like staircase that leads to the top. It’s much easier to go up than to go down. It’s a bit of a tedious descent for a civilian like me. Obviously, it’s pretty safe there. There are handrails on the side. It’s basically a 14-story structure. And, you know, going up and down the side takes a bit of courage. It’s a bit stiff. And you notice that it goes down more than it goes up.

But the view is spectacular. We were up there on a fairly clear day and could see across Boston Harbor, to the South Rim and the Blue Hills. And of course, the Boston skyline was quite beautiful from our perch up there. And besides, let’s not forget, it is an essential part of the regional electricity network in terms of liquefied natural gas that is stored in this installation. And it’s one of those facilities that you don’t think too much about, but it’s a critical piece of infrastructure for Boston’s gas system.

Alton: What you say makes me think of two things, one of them being the fact that this is a landmark, somewhat in the same vein as the Citgo panel or the green monster, things you can see when driving in the city and through it. But also on the other hand, I think, okay, natural gas is a fossil fuel. And that’s something that has been a point of contention for people recently as we think about the climate crisis. So what do you think this tank represents now, five decades later?

Forry: There is obviously a great debate on the use of fossil fuels. I think in the local context, however, there is great pride in the fact that Dorchester is home to what amounts to the greatest piece of written art in the world. It represents different things to different people. But for me, as a resident of Dorchester, it represents the diversity of our community. Dorchester prides itself on being a welcoming place for all. It is also a symbol of home for many of us, that you are almost home.

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