The natural gas tank on Dorchester’s Commercial Point is getting a touch-up. Workers are repainting the rainbow swashes of color on the tank, and have been climbing 14 stories high to power-wash its surface and roll on paint. Bill Forry, managing editor for the Dorchester Reporter recently got to climb up the tank and admire it up close. He joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Seigel to talk about the experience. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Jeremy Siegel: Let's step back a little bit before we get into the touching up. Tell us about what this artwork known as the rainbow swash is.

Bill Forry: Many people know Corita Kent, who was a brilliant and talented artist who was very active in the 1960s and '70s here in the U.S. Kent was a a Catholic nun who turned to painting, really throughout her life, but she became a pop artist of some renown, quite renown, actually, in her later years. Unfortunately, we lost her in the 1990s, but before her passing, she really made some iconic images. And this is probably her greatest work, really, and her most visible one, of course. Anybody flying into Boston on certain days will see this coming and can admire it from above. And of course, hundreds of thousands people do so every day driving by on the on the Expressway or Morrissey Boulevard.

But this artwork was somewhat controversial in its debut back in 1971. She designed it, of course, on a miniature scale. And then it was executed by painters working for what at the time was the Boston Gas Company. And many people, and I think rightfully 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 the middle of the Vietnam War and the domestic conflict over the war at the time. And the read that Ho Chi Minh was depicted here in the swash was, of course, quite a controversy at the time and remains so for many people.

Paris Alston: Did the artist ever address that, Bill?

Forry: She was a bit mysterious about it. She never really said straight up that she did intend to make that profile look like the long beard of Ho Chi Minh. But it was a bit of a wink and a nod involved in that. And I think that she wanted it, as many artists do, left open to interpretation of the viewer. But I think clearly, given her personal politics, it's quite likely that that's what her intent was.

A black-and-white photo of a man in a business suit and hard hat and a woman in a light-colored coat standing in front of a large gas tank, holding a much smaller replica.
As painters cover 150-foot high Gas Co. tank with rainbow stripes, artist Corita Kent and Karl Kunberger, manager of gas supply and construction, looks at a finished model, in Boston, USA, on Oct. 19, 1971. (AP Photo)

Siegel: Looking back on when this first came into existence, you mentioned some of the controversy surrounding the potential topic inside of it. But what broadly was the reaction to just the idea of an artwork on a gas tank, like painting a massive gas tank?

Forry: Well, the contemporary view of that was, I think that there was a bit of bemusement at large about people. Why go to the extent of painting this tank? And by the way, this was not the original tank that was painted. The one that we have today is another tank that has been reproduced. The original gas tank that held the artwork of Corita Kent was dismantled back in 1992. There were two tanks on that site, which in Dorchester is called Commercial Point, and that facility has now gone down to the one tank. And at that time, the Boston Gas Company had that design transferred onto the existing tank. Over the years, there were several owners of this of this facility. National Grid has done a very good job of not only keeping the site secure, but of keeping that tank in good maintenance. They spend a lot of time actually climbing up and down it to make sure it's in good shape, and, of course, every 10 years or so, giving it the paint job that it's getting right now.

Alston: So tell us more about what that process is going to be like to do this restoration.

Forry: In addition to the logistics of, and the great bravery involved by the union workers who go up and down the tank each day, think of what would really be best described as like a window washer set up. They can lower themselves up and down the side of the tank. They start by power washing it and then they really just use roll-on devices to get the colors back to to where they need to be. So in power washing it, you'll see on the ground, as I observed, a lot of paint chips all over the ground in the catchment underneath the tank.

Siegel: We've seen pictures of you with a hard helmet climbing to the top of the tank. What's it like out there?

Forry: Man, it was really cool, I have to say. Myself and my colleague at The Reporter, Seth Daniel, climbed up the catwalk, basically the fire escape-like stairway that goes to the top. It's a lot easier going up it than it is going down. It's a bit of a harrowing descent for a civilian like me. Obviously, it's quite safe there. There are handrails along the side. It's essentially a 14-story structure. And, you know, ascending and descending the side of it takes a little bit of nerve. It's a little bit steep. And you notice that coming down more so than going up.

But the view is spectacular. We were up there on a pretty clear day and could see across Boston Harbor, down to the South Shore and the Blue Hills. And of course, the Boston skyline was quite beautiful from our perch up there. And by the way, let's not forget, this is an essential part of the regional power grid in terms of the liquefied natural gas that is stored in this facility. And it's one of these facilities that you don't really think about too much, but it's an essential piece of infrastructure for the greater Boston gas system.

Alston: What you're saying makes me think about two things, one of them being the fact that this is a landmark, sort of in the same vein as the Citgo sign or the Green Monster, things you can see when you're driving around the city and through it. But then on the other hand, too, I'm thinking about, okay, natural gas is a fossil fuel. And this is something that has has been a point of contention for folks recently as we think about the climate crisis. So what do you think that this tank represents now, five decades later?

Forry: There's obviously great debate about the use of fossil fuel. I think in the local context, though, there's great pride in the fact that Dorchester is home to what amounts to the largest copywritten piece of artwork in the world. It represents different things to different people. But to me, as a Dorchester person, it represents the diversity of our community. Dorchester prides itself as being a welcoming place to all. It's also a symbol of home to many of us, that you're almost home.