Thursday, June 20, 2024

Peter Valentine speaks at a City Council meeting in 2018. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Peter Valentine, the artist and eccentric whose Cambridgeport home became a landmark for its bright colors and otherworldly wisdom, died Tuesday within its walls, according to Michael Monestime, former executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District.

“Our beloved Peter Valentine has transitioned to the cosmos,” Monestime said.

Valentine, 80, has literally colored Cambridge’s culture for years – not just by maintaining his Franklin and Brookline streets home as a public art project known as Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville, but by his presence, appearing around the city in patchwork homemade clothes of clashing hues, fabrics and patterns on various missions: One day setting up a fake wooden laptop to work on, blessing the merchandise in Cambridge Bicycles on another, as residents recalled on a 2020 thread on Reddit.

Peter Valentine’s Cambridgeport home, known as Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville.

He attended City Council meetings regularly, speaking during public comment with abstruse messages such as “we need to stop using numbers” or “we are at the moment of the birth of the immortality of the United States of America – if what I just stated wasn’t true, I couldn’t have thought of it.” (As mayors came and went, he was the only person allowed to speak on topics not on a given night’s agenda.)

Among the memorials appearing online Wednesday were those from Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who said Valentine was “a bright light in Cambridge” and said City Hall would be lit up pink in his honor; councillor Marc McGovern, who bid Valentine to rest in peace, “Travel the stars, my friend, and keep an eye on us from above”; and former councillor Jan Devereux, who called the death sad news. “I always thought if anyone was going to prove immortal it would be Peter. He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered,” Devereux said. The Central Square Business Improvement District tweeted in acknowledgment of losing “an inspiration,” and residents mourned as well.

Calls to the council by Valentine to rename Central Square “Starlight Square” were made reality by Monestime, who adopted the name for the BID’s Covid-era outdoor entertainment complex in 2020.

A look at the fence of Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville in April 2018. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“A huge shoutout to my friend, Peter Valentine, for the inspiration and the creation of Starlight Square. Without your energy none of this would be possible,” Monestime said at an Aug. 7 opening ceremony that year.

Valentine also suggested a photo mural in Central Square’s Graffiti Alley that also became reality, councillor Quinton Zondervan noted in a February birthday resolution. A resolution in 2017 from councillors Nadeem Mazen and E. Denise Simmons Peter noted his hundreds of submitted communications “working to keep us safe … and in balance with his electromagnetic arts, intentional thinking and breathing and constant vigilance,” an allusion to offers painted outside Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville to educate all on his ethos of “Electromagnetic Kung-Fu.”

The house is a story in itself, of course: In the early 1990s he convinced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to give him the Blanche Street house that would become his “metaphysical laboratory”) to get him out of the way of the development of University Park. MIT relocated the three-story house to Franklin and Brookline streets, setting it at the precise angle he prescribed.

When a cold snap burst a radiator pipe in February 2021, flooding the home’s first and second floor and sparking a crowdfunding campaign by the Central Square BID to raise money for repairs, supporters added more to the story:

Valentine built the fence in 1991 to present what he was interested in and provoke passersby to contemplate not what he considered “the boring news media and advertising images and designs that are projected at people as they go about living their lives.” It features wildlife, including the moose – so big and awkward and rich in cosmic knowledge. What especially captures visitors are the philosophical morsels that adorn the fence, along with spiritual insights and universal aspirations.

The site put Cambridge on the map with Atlas Obscura, a compendium of worldwide curiosities worth visiting. The site praised Valentine’s “unstoppable will to create [a] burst of inventive punk rock spirituality in an otherwise bland neighborhood landscape.” Virtual visits from Seen Around Boston are online here and here. Others have filmed it extensively as well.

Michael Monestime sits with artist Peter Valentine at Starlight Square on May 19, 2021. (Photo: Marc Levy)

At Valentine’s request, the Cambridge Historical Commission met in 2012 to consider landmarking the fence – tabling the request because it would have frozen the work in time; Valentine would have needed to consult the commission each time he wanted to change it. But during the process, support for recognizing its importance was heard from Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Rebecca A. Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. In 2014, Cambridge Arts celebrated Valentine’s fence at the annual River Festival.

It was unclear what would happen now to the house, Monestime said Tuesday.

Valentine leaves family in Amherst. Sister Adrienne Bemak and her husband Rob Okun traveled to Cambridge in 2020 for the opening of Starlight Square, when Okun took to the stage to extol Valentine as a “magician of the soul, alchemist of the heart, deep thinker, problem solver, psychic healer.”

“Peter Valentine loves Cambridge,” Okun said. “In many ways, he personally personifies the city’s creativity. Its quirkiness, its brilliance.”

This post was updated Aug. 11, 2022, to correct references to “Brookline Avenue” to the correct “Brookline Street.”