A 30-acre island as playground.

Bumpkin Island Art Encampment: Photos by Patrick Johnson

Every summer for five years, I worked with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, co-curators Carolyn Lewenberg and Jed Speare and, collectively, 105 artists to produce a unique five-day residency on Bumpkin Island in Boston Harbor.

We originally conceived of the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment within the context of the Homestead Act, the  morally complicated 1862 federal law that offered no-cost land to anyone, including women and people of color, as long as they pledged to “improve” the land. As affordable art studio space became more difficult to find in the city of Boston, we joked that the only place left to go would be to jump into the harbor: and that’s exactly what we did, envisioning the Boston Harbor Islands as a new canvas for artists and artmaking. We made a land grab for the islands.

In a loose interpretation of the act for five seasons, we granted eight artists or artist groups with a five-day deed to one plot of prime, arable land on Bumpkin Island. As “homesteaders,” they:

  • Built some kind of “home” on the land
  • Lived on the land for five days, and
  • “Improved” the land via a site-specific, temporary project or installation.

To “improve” the land, artists could only bring onto the island the materials they could physically carry, including everything they needed to eat and sleep for five days. This constraint encouraged artists to think creatively about the art materials they could source on the island itself, and led to some transformative projects. Over the course of five years, projects included a shoreline interpretation of an Octopus’ Garden; a giant weather balloon that hovered over the coast; beautiful, floating, translucent pink sheets that mimicked the sumac found all over the island; a secret pirate radio station broadcasting only to Bumpkin; a dance piece performed by two movement artists that followed the lines of the closing tide; and many more unique and engaging installations and performances.

For a complete list of projects as well as a downloadable pdf of the project catalog, visit

Filmmaker Patrick Johnson shot and edited a series of lovely portraits on selected projects. One is below; follow the links in that video to the rest of Patrick’s work.

Bumpkin 01 – Orchitecture from Patrick Johnson on Vimeo.


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Willy Wonka in Smellovision was a 2008- 2009 collaboration with artist Bridget Matros. We wanted to create an outdoor movie theatre experience that was truly multi sensory and required some kind of physical participation on the part of the audience beyond seeing/feeling.

The result, a scent-enhanced screening of the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, was part performance art and part family picnic. A dozen costumed oompa-loompas solemnly paraded through the audience, using oversized paper fans to wave chocolate aromas through the space; scent cannons loaded with ginger ale smells assaulted select viewers; golden eggs with playful commands, written on strips of paper, rained down during the goose scene; and “scent bags” full of items to touch, smell and taste added extra dimensions to pivotal scenes. Overall, we provided a rich, extra narrative and some fascinating props. At that point, it was the audience that truly made it work; when everyone in a space is actively chewing bubble gum, it’s amazing (and obvious) how much that space smells like bubble gum. Every member of the audience worked to create the “magic circle” of the event. I’ve never seen so many people engaging with each other AND with a film, but without losing the basic gist and mission of that film. It was truly a community experience.

June 2008 and July 2009 performances in Union Square, Somerville were incubated and supported by the Somerville Arts Council and the innovative ArtsUnion grant program (the event was covered by the Associated Press and the Washington Post). The performance in December 2009 was produced at and supported by the Brattle Film Foundation. My friend and colleague Clinton McClung “franchised” the experience to the Seattle International Film Festival and continues to produce the project annually in a slightly different form, giving it ongoing life (one of the photos in the slideshow above is of Clinton at SIFF).


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Working with a brilliant team of graphic designers, writers and researchers, I acted as exhibit developer for the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute in Roxbury, MA. GBBRI is a hybrid exhibit-store based on the concept of a cryptozoological supply outlet– a place to get everything you need to research and discover “hidden animals” such as the Loch Ness Monster, Chupacabra, and, of course, Bigfoot. In actuality, it functions as an elaborate front for the 826 Boston writing center, a program that offer free or extremely low-cost afterschool tutoring and creative writing opportunities to Boston kids. 826 Boston is part a network of eight innovative nation-wide writing centers, all founded by writer Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari, and each anchored by a somewhat bizarre retail store.

GBBRI, as a store, raises money to support the writing center. However, since 826 Boston is almost entirely run by volunteers, the front space’s real power lies in the experience it offers to visitors, leading to further engagement. If an adult spends five minutes in the store, she might purchase a $10 “Jungle Hygiene Kit.” If the space engages her for ten minutes, and she starts to hear the laughter and talk of kids just beyond the secret door, she might ask  for more information about what this place is all about. If she stays on to look in the cupboards of the Crypto-Lab, or read the labels of the classic adventurer series of products, or pop into the Simulactron expedition preparation chamber (a 1950s phone booth that the fantastic Brad Simpson of MIT converted into an environmental simulator) she might get so excited about the depth and breadth of the place that she will volunteer her time as a tutor, or perhaps lead a Saturday morning writing class.

With the idea of engaging both adults who happen upon the store out of curiosity as well as the kids who visit it every day, we worked diligently to craft a space that is witty and engaging without ever becoming overly ironic. It’s an earnest space, one that brings the visitor into a magic circle of complicity by pairing something that nobody is really sure about– cryptids, or under-documented creatures– with the gravitas of an “institute” with an official looking logo and a fancy-ish laboratory in the back. Within that magic circle, I’ve seen people– young and old– playfully act as momentary researchers and probers. They jump into the storyline of actors trying to discern what is “real” and “not real.” That’s a real strength of the writing center, where caring adults work one-on-one with kids. It’s great to see that played out in the store as well.

The microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen--
But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that is must be so...
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!The Microbe, Hillaire Belloc, 1912


At the Haunted Hutchings mini-block party on October 31, I hung out with 300 of my Dorchester/Roxbury neighbors. Parents met over apple cider and cookies. Kids played with spooky steam from the laundry vent next door. Families posed in a DIY photo booth, clothed as witches, zombies, lizards or kittens.

On Halloween, as we played at being things we are not, we emerged as something we are:

a hardworking, playful community, with deep resources of talent and a critical mass of people who do GOOD.

In my neighborhood, many families carry a disproportionate share of private and public grieving. Over 70% of violence happens in 5% of Boston’s city blocks (Kennedy et al., 1997), and some of those blocks are not far from where we live.Stories emerged while I chatted to neighbors in the weeks preceding Haunted Hutchings. Robert, my neighbor, waved to a woman taking out her trash on Elm Hill and told me that the woman’s son had died where we stood, five years before. Robert saw it happen. While standing outside my friend and colleague’s house a few blocks over, a father walking by asked about a sculpture that had been part of a gallery show at the Children’s Museum.  The sculpture– wrought by artist Ben Tau in metal found on this street– depicted his son, who had been killed nearby around the same time. Yvonne Abraham’s lovely article in the Globe last week thankfully focused on the uplifting parts of the Haunted Hutchings project, but we cannot deny the memories that truly haunt these streets.

Pairing these very human stories with those very cold statistics, many people would not see our neighborhood as a “relaxed field,” a factor that must be in place if play is to occur (Burghardt, 2005). For a creature to be able to play, it needs a low level of stress/competition for resources, adequate food, a basic level of health and parental care. Burghardt’s criteria reference non-human animals, but humans are no different. It’s hard to play when you’re worried about food; when the stresses of your life make parenting especially challenging; when your son gets involved in something he shouldn’t– or worse, when he was exactly where he was supposed to be– and it ends in tragedy.

Haunted Hutchings came out of several simple observations:

1. Halloween is one of the only times people go door to door and step on strangers’ thresholds. It is playful.

2. Many families in my neighborhood leave the neighborhood to trick-or-treat elsewhere because of safety concerns.

3. The majority of people who live on Hutchings St have lived there for over ten years, some for over 40 years.

4. Hutchings St, though within the territory of the H-Block gang, is not a specific base of gang activity.

With a small group of neighbors, we used the stories we heard to develop a simple approach:

1. We would proclaim Hutchings St a “safe street” for trick-or-treating, and promote it as such in the neighborhood.

2. We would decorate our houses to be as welcoming and playful as possible.

3. We would create a gathering space on the street so families could meet each other.

Despite all the stresses families face, somehow, the resulting Haunted Hutchings– with its kittens, lizards, and a whole family of zombies– was a “relaxed field.” It fell somewhere between that and the “magic circle”– the space that is “a temporary world within the ordinary world” (Huizinga, 1955). It’s the space where a few factors– cultivation of space, the words we use– combine to magically indicate that the game has started. It’s a play bow, a predication, a move towards something different.

Through people like Steve and Allison and Dane and Amy and Liz and Linda and Carla and Marilyn and Lester and Rick and Robert and all the other neighbors on my block, with the stimulus of the Grove Hall Trust, we faced our fears playfully on Halloween. We started something magical.

“Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.”

Patricia G. Ramsey“Diversity and Play,” 1998

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