Ripe with history and legend, inhabited by wildlife and resplendent with natural beauty, the 34 Boston Harbor Islands provide rich fodder for artists. Independent curator Elizabeth Devlin has undertaken a massive effort, with the blessing and support of the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership, a confederation of governmental agencies that oversees the islands, to celebrate what’s out there.
For the Isles Arts Initiative, Devlin transported art installations by 11 artists by barge out to Georges Island. She also has weekly performance art on Saturdays on Spectacle Island (and acoustic music there on Aug. 8), and exhibitions on shore at Boston Sculptors Gallery, Atlantic Wharf Gallery, and the Boston Children’s Museum.
This is not the first time art has made it out to the islands. The Institute of Contemporary Art mounted four projects there in 2007. For the weekend-long Bumpkin Island Art Encampment, presented a few years back by the now defunct Berwick Research Institute artists collaborative, artists camped out, installed art, and performed.
The Isles Arts Initiative is the most ambitious effort yet. The project has taken Devlin two years to mount, and for good reason: She only curates on the side. She has a day job as a private equities analyst. She also doesn’t have an art degree, but she’s no dilettante when it comes to art. Devlin, who runs the Flux Boston art blog, knows her stuff.
I spent a Saturday exploring the art on the islands. Devlin has a smart aesthetic, full of heart, and often daffy. No wonder, then, she tapped the !ND!V!DUALS Collective to fashion the initiative’s goofy and sweet opening salvo, an installation at the Boston Harbor Islands Welcome Center.
The !ND!V!DUALS build fanciful critters out of recycled wood. Their “Isle de Monstrous” series, including the “Isle de Monstrous” newsstand at the welcome center with a friendly, apelike vendor, features all kinds of looming, engaging, child-friendly monsters.
On Georges, the savvy “Isle de Monstrous” includes a treasure map to works around the island, with a story line about wild beasts that washed ashore back in 1947. Alone among the projects in “COVE,” the Georges Island component of the initiative, “Isle de Monstrous” invites visitors to wander.
Most of the artists have just a single work, and the art can feel swallowed up by the magnificent site. The island’s Fort Warren, a Civil War prison for Confederate officers and government officials, resounds with history — dank tunnels, broken-down gunneries, an old hospital, parade grounds.
Let’s get the kinks out of the way.
Using the map provided, I couldn’t find all the work. One of the pieces had been relocated across the island. When I was there, Megan and Murray McMillan’s video was not running; their four-sided screen stood empty in a vast, gloomy area of the fort. (Devlin later told me there’s no power there; at the opening the video ran on a gas generator.) The McMillans have since installed within their giant screens a solar-powered monitor, so the video, on a small scale, is now on view.
The art, when you find it, enchants. Damien Hoar de Galvan saw the black holes of windows along the walls of the parade grounds and jam-packed two with two-by-fours in jumbled grids, often painting exposed ends in brilliant colors. His “Filling” pieces make a striking contrast to the great, gray grid of the fort’s stone and granite walls.
Pat Falco’s “Untitled (Coming Soon)” has a similarly jazzy rhythm and tone. Near the water, the two-part piece sports dizzying directional signs on one wall, and on the second, a quick picture of gentrification — from a boarded up bodega to a real estate storefront advertising the islands as luxury properties.
Amy Archambault’s delightful sculpture “Traverse,” located in a dark corner near a window overlooking the harbor, looks like a catamaran Rube Goldberg might have designed — function pivoting toward absurdity. It could be a nutty, patched-together escape vessel for a prisoner. Okay Mountain’s “Monument to a Decommissioned Monument,” a misshapen statue with brassy boots, wrapped in a blue tarp and pointing toward Boston, cheekily takes on the weight of history.
From Georges, I took the ferry to Spectacle Island, where performance artists Alice Vogler and Vela Phelan have created a sweetly inviting program on Saturdays, “Time Body Space Objects 4,” around the theme of commitment.
Kate Balug was spending the day there tethering volunteers to a ring of rope, and wandering the island with them in meditative silence for 90 minutes or more. The brilliantly conceived exercise had participants teetering between their own initiative and their ability to integrate into a group. Prohibited from speaking, some said they felt more keenly aware of the island’s beauties.
Performers on Vogler and Phelan’s slate engage playfully with the public. On Saturday, Marilyn Arsem, winner of this year’s Maud Morgan Prize at the Museum of Fine Arts, will entice visitors to help make things disappear.
As you ramble over the islands, don’t underestimate the sweet surprise of coming across a piece of art in a shadowed corner of a fort, or an artist performing on a hiking trail. In that moment, nature’s dream and history’s reverie suddenly align and clarify in wild and provocative ways.
Isles Arts Initiative
At: Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park through Aug. 26. iai2015.greenovateboston.org
.Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.