In 2006, I learned there were 34 islands off Boston’s shore. And at the time, Long Wharf, which serves as the city’s gateway to the islands, was a mere 5 minute walk from my old North End apartment. With a soul crushing day job in sales that was at odds with my innate passion for the arts, the islands became my sanctuary. Even now, I still enjoy climbing to the top deck of the ferry and watching as the ivory towers of the financial district fade into the distance while the lush shores and beckoning beaches of the islands erupt into view.
My inaugural visit to Georges Island was a memorable one. Unlike the traditionally sanitized sites I encountered on mainland explorations, encumbered by stanchions and finger- wagging signage, I was surprised to discover that you are free to roam wherever you please on the islands; over 41 acres of natural landscape and built environment are at your disposal. And at the center of Georges sits Fort Warren, an awe inspiring pentagonal fortification that defended the Harbor from 1861 through the end of WWII.
As I traversed the fort’s seemingly endless tunnels, caverns, ruins and secret passageways that are only uncovered by flashlight, I was re-introduced to the childlike part of my spirit that was fueled by adventure, curiosity, and an insatiable desire to wander without reason.
Years later, older, slightly-wiser, and a master of juggling left brain days with right brain nights (mornings and in-between times as well), my fond island memories came rushing back as I had the fortunate opportunity to produce a summer long public arts initiative on the Boston Harbor Islands and in venues across the city which became known as the Isles Arts Initiative (IAI). The project unfolded in stages throughout the summer and incorporated visual, music, and performative elements that brought together the talents of over 70 regional artists. The undertaking stemmed from my desire to activate spaces in a new and exciting way, to support and celebrate the endeavors of local artists, and to create meaningful programming outside of a traditional gallery context that would have a positive impact on the city I called home.
Driven by excitement, I threw myself into IAI head on. I traveled out to Georges often and began jotting down observations, drawing diagrams, and photographing countless sites, curious nooks, and textured surfaces in the landscape. As I reviewed my tomes of notes and combed through thousands of pictures of non-descript granite walls, I quickly realized that my role as a ‘curator’, and standard protocol in general, would have to go out the window. I adopted a laissez-faire approach, instead of my natural inclination to pair an artist with a particular site, I invited the artists to explore the islands, freely unburdened by assignment or agenda, and determine for themselves which sites ignited their imaginations. I evolved into a liaison, keeping the wheels greased, lines of communication open, and overseeing the ins and outs of the entire initiative. My main role on Georges was to navigate the delicate dance between ensuring that artists were able to create work in line with their artistic visions while at the same time remaining sensitive to the parks partners’ needs who, as caretakers of the island, have visitor safety and risk mitigation at the forefront of their minds rather than artistic triumphs.
For the Georges portion of IAI called Cove, I invited a group of 11 regional artists and collectives to create site-responsive work for the island. These artists were selected not only for their technical abilities, but for the just-as- important intangible traits I knew would be required to tackle a project of this magnitude and complexity: dependability, flexibility, positivity, unrivaled moxie and a collaborative spirit. I needed a team of artists who were willing to brave these uncharted waters with me and fortunately I found them.
As the artists began making their way out to the islands, I was eager to learn about their adventures. Each diverse section of Fort Warren is imbued with its own unique character and charm it was hard to predict who would choose which site, and in what way they would approach it. The warmth of the wooden interiors of the Bakery with its beckoning brick ovens are vastly different from granite caverns of the Dark Arches, an area that not only served as as an indoor training space during World War II, but was also a recreation hall where soldiers would watch movies during their downtime.
For Jamie Horgan and Alex DeMaria, creating art under the name Middle Kingdom, the acoustics of the powder magazine, which originally housed gun powder and other explosives, was the perfect setting for Melody Mill, a larger than life music box. The imposing device was powered by a windmill mounted onto the roof and its haunting sounds reverberated through the space, at times a single tinny pluck was all that was heard, while in stronger winds a raucous concerto would unfold.
One of the biggest challenges with Melody Mill (which proved to be the case with many of the other island projects as well) was to devise an engineering and installation plan that considered the limitations of the site. Fort Warren is designated as a National Historic Landmark meaning we were unable to drill into walls, screw in hooks, or otherwise alter the space in any way.
Generally, ‘free-standing’ was music to everyone’s ears, but for Middle Kingdom, a complex system of clamps, scaffolds, and airplane wire, was required to ensure their project lived in harmony with the space itself. The extra effort was certainly well worth it as Melody Mill quickly became a visitor favorite, and given its dynamic nature, presented a unique experience upon every encounter.
While many artists incorporated the physical structure of the fort directly into their work, others responded to the natural environment, with panoramic views and dreamy vistas serving as an idyllic backdrop. Regional collective, Okay Mountain, created Monument to a Decommissioned Monument, a heroically proportioned, partially tarped figure whose veiled gaze seems forever transfixed on the just-out- of-reach Boston skyline. The mysterious figure on the shore is further enhanced by the surrounding environment as twelve dinosaur egg shaped sludge digesters of nearby Deer Island churn away in the distance. In their own unique ways, each artist fully embraced the challenge of executing work away from the white cube, out on the islands, and in conversation with the world around it.
As is to be expected with public arts initiatives, installation was only the beginning of my team’s IAI journey despite months of rigorous planning. Before the cork had left my celebratory bottle of champagne, I was introduced to the ‘yo-yo factor’ inherent to public art and most large scale projects. The term itself was lovingly coined by my father many years ago to describe the things that are completely out of one’s control despite best efforts, and certainly it would be foolish to think IAI would get through two months unscathed. Our glistening island signage, laser etched boxes of clear acrylic, was no match for a summer whose apocalyptic weather included baseball-sized hail and 60 mph rain storms. Inside the fort, thanks to occasional bouts of oppressive humidity, the swelling structure had a devilish tendency to nudge once snug work out of place. While every element of the project needed some degree of adjustments, recalibrating, reimagining, and upkeep this summer, the artists and I learned alongside each other and figured it, whatever the ‘it’ happened to be, out together.
Over the course of IAI, in the moments I was lowest on energy or bogged down by logistical quandaries, that same unforeseen ‘yo-yo factor’ seemed to take pity and offer back something positive. Sometimes I would just happen to overhear couples quietly discussing their favorite works in Adirondack chairs on the beach, stumble upon visitors take grinning pictures with a sculpture, or get swept up in a wave of ‘cool!’s as the ferry approached the pier, excited squeals that stemmed from children feverishly pointing out artwork on the shore and clamoring to disembark.
It was in these replenishing moments that I was reminded what IAI was all about, the project’s larger mission supersedes the aesthetic merit of the work itself. It was an opportunity to demonstrate that the arts are for everyone, and should be made available to everyone, whether you are a newborn, a great grandmother, or an exuberant student on a ferry. And there is no better way to drive that message home than by placing artwork out in the wild, at the mercy of the elements and unforeseen forces, yet publicly on display and for the enjoyment of all.