BOSTON — As the ferry chugs away from Long Wharf and drifts out into the open water of Boston Harbor, one is reminded that it was the ocean trade that defined the roots of this old American city. Over time, the harbor itself fell into disrepair (and worse) and its abjectly filthy water washed upon wide swaths of undeveloped and crumbling waterfront properties. The city, mainly built on landfill, moved away from the water and for good reason. Up until the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant opened in 2000, Boston and 43 surrounding communities dumped raw, untreated sewage directly into the harbor. A Federal Court mandated the cleanup and the city’s waterfront area has been quickly developing since then.
A main feature of Boston Harbor is the many islands that dot the passage out to the open ocean — 34 to be exact — all formed by glacial activity 15,000 years ago. There are islands with historic forts that warehoused Confederate prisoners during the Civil War and others that were home to garbage dumps and glue factories (when glue was made from horse carcasses). There is a lighthouse located on one and a sliver of an island where pirates’ bodies once were hung as a warning to other seafaring thieves.
This summer, the islands are the setting for a series of exhibitions, performances, and other art-related activities called the Isles Art Initiative, organized by curator Liz Devlin who moved to Boston from Washington DC in 2006:
I learned about the Boston Harbor Islands (Long Wharf was a 5-minute walk from my home) and planned a trip out to Georges and Spectacle Island one sunny day. It was an amazing experience, the ferry ride, wandering the islands themselves, and seeing the Boston skyline from a not-so-distant shore. I especially loved checking out Georges Island, Fort Warren is an awe-inspiring space with seemingly endless passages to explore, and each area of the fort has its own distinct aesthetic, from the bakery, to the hospital, to the Dark Arches where soldiers used to watch movies.
The project, which lasts through the summer, also has an onshore component as 34 artists (one for each island) respond to the history and natural beauty of the islands in an exhibition that opened last week at the Boston Sculptor’s Gallery. The two ongoing exhibitions on the islands — Cove on Georges Island and Seen/Unseen on Spectacle Island — will have both installations and weekend performances. Georges Island serves as the main ferry hub where you can transfer to smaller boats and water taxis to visit some of the other islands in the harbor.
The Isles Art Initiative, which has been in the planning stages since 2013, involved a complicated series of meetings and negotiations with the many agencies that are involved with administering the islands. As Devlin explains:
After meeting with a few other members of the National Park Service, I was connected with members of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance. And at the same time I was in the background, recruiting artists I thought would be a good fit for this project that may or may not happen. I introduced a few of their preliminary ideas to the BHIA, and we began fleshing them out, to a point where in the winter of 2014 they were fine-tuned to the point of ‘hours needed for installation’ and size and weights of hypothetical works. Once the NPS and BHIA felt comfortable with the proposals, I was introduced to the DCR and presented the project and their work in the winter of 2014 and artists were issued a provisional permit pending a site visit with the DCR operations team and artists to review engineering drawings, logistics, and address safety concerns.
On Georges Island, a barge was used to bring artwork, supplies, and tools from the mainland. Several days later, the artists arrived and began installing their work. The island, which is primarily a fort (Fort Warren), and its surrounding grounds and battlements that look out over the harbor are the setting for Cove. Megan and Murray McMillian set up a video installation in a cool and damp passageway deep inside the fort. The piece, called “This Land is a Ship at Sea” captures the cavernousness of the fort’s interior as a counterpoint to the exploding sunlight and wind outside.
Outside, Pat Falco built a mock storefront with accompanying signage. Falco, who engages with the world around him with a mixture of amusement and disdain, set up his installation between several former gun batteries — an additional irony, considering the multiple salvos that have been fired at the over-development of the islands and existing waterfront, which act as the backdrop for the work. Elizabeth Keithline’s unfussy piece, “Two Boats: One for You, One For Me” is just that: two boats made of galvanized steel. The sculpture, situated near the ferry dock, is a minimalistic gesture that almost disappears as you move away from it.
Most interestingly, perhaps, is the work of Liz Devlin, the curator and organizer of the project. Navigating through the maze of agencies that administer the islands, talking to park rangers and artists alike, Devlin’s sanity must have been tested at times. But somehow she maintained her vision, and the scope and ambition of this project is admirable, and the Harbor Islands are perfect setting for it. Having such a rich history, the islands this summer feel contemporary and timely again, not simply artifacts of the past.
The Isles Arts Initiative public art series will continue on Georges and Spectacle Islands and at Boston Sculptors Gallery (486 Harrison Ave, Boston) through the end of the summer.