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Group's temporary works in Mission Hill use beauty as a form of protest

The stained glass window glitters in the sun, its golden Gothic arch aiming heavenward. The window isn't in a church, nor is its glass from an art supplier: It's standing in the middle of Nuns' Field, on Boston's Mission Hill. Its maker, artist Lisa Graf, gathered the shards of glass on the site, giving broken beer bottles and such a new and more dignified life.

Graf's window is part of "Reclaiming Nuns' Field," the latest of the guerrilla projects by Reclamation Artists, a Boston-based group dedicated to making people notice neglected corners of the city through temporary outdoor works. This one is on view this weekend.

The Mission Hill spot certainly qualifies as "neglected": The stinging nettles are so dense that the artists had to bushwhack paths to install the artworks. Forlorn the place may be, but not unwanted. The field's fate is the subject of a hot dispute. It is part of a 22-acre package the Catholic group Redemptorist Fathers has sold to Weston Associates, a development firm. Weston wants to build market-rate housing on the land; the Delle Avenue Neighborhood Association objects because Nuns' Field is an undeveloped patch of green in a densely populated neighborhood. It sits near the base of a puddingstone ledge. Above are a convent and school, both part of the sale to Weston. Connecting field and school is a steep and rather ugly concrete staircase. Generations of graduating students have held processionals that traveled down the stairs and on to the nearby Mission Church. In the past, the field has also been the site of Easter egg rolls and picnics.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is mediating between Weston and the neighborhood, with no solution likely in the immediate future, acording to BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker.

It was the Delle Avenue association that contacted Reclamation Artist leader and former Mission Hill resident Leslie Wilcox to help raise the profile of their predicament. The artists responded with works that are often political but also allude to the history of the place, to the amazing variety of plant life there, to the dwindling numbers of screech owls at the site. Christina Lanzl's "Bird Garden" is a quartet of small houses meant for nesting, each atop a pole, one in the shape of a crenellated castle, where the owls are supposed to find peace and privacy.

Artists Terry Bastian and Sarah JH Ashodian have used the concrete stairs as a platform for their message. On the risers they've written "Keep It Green." At the bottom, the letters of that rallying cry are incomplete, spaced far apart, and hesitant-looking. By the top, the writing is clear and coherent, as if the community had come together in its feelings about the place. On the treads is the developers' argument: "Make the Green," with the "e's" written as dollar signs. "You can't be all that subtle in public art," Bastian notes.

Not all the artists would concur. You have to hunt to find the works by Wilcox, Linda Hoffman, Dennis Svoronos, and David Dowling, and in all cases it's worth the effort. Hoffman works with old rusting tools and farm implements. She's sited her "Found Objects With Feathers" at the back of the stage that the field has become, in the shade of huge trees.

Wilcox has for the moment exchanged her signature material -- metal mesh -- for white Bristol board. She's fashioned it into little replicas of the various styles of headgear worn by different orders of nuns, and tucked them into tree branches and between rocks. Find one, and it's yours to take away. "Obdurate Intervention" is a collaboration between Svoronos and Dowling, both students in Mags Harries's class in site-specific art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The two located a niche in the rocks at the far end of the field, a vertical fissure that encourages erosion. They built horizontally in it, in concrete, bricks, and sod, creating a protective barrier. The neighbors have already asked if this work could stay permanently, which is against Reclamation Artists' policy of leaving nothing behind. An exception may be made this time.

Aeros Lillstrum's "Our Green Neighbors" also falls into the "useful art" category. She did considerable research on the various plants on the field, then wrote essays on their medicinal and other properties. The essays are mounted on little pedestals spread throughout the field.

Vivienne Metcalf's "How to Save Nuns' Field" spells it out literally, with directional signs like those at the intersections of roads. "Birds," "Bees," and "Picnics," the signs read, creating a word portrait of the idyllic urban Eden the field could become if the neighbors can create a garden there. William Turville's "Preserve and Protect" highlights what's already at the site. He's wrapped boulders in sheets of plastic, a la Christo, calling attention to this natural resource.

Two works geographically set a bit apart from the others are particularly poignant. Like Graf, Rob Dworkin was intrigued by the broken glass on the site, although he used green exclusively. At the top of the hill he's built a miniature replica of the Mission Church, with its signature pair of towers. Dworkin's gleaming glass church reads like a prayer for intercession from the real one, to save this green space. Hwekyung Choi's "A Church Without a Roof" is the most puzzling piece of all, and one that tackles issues beyond real estate. Two white rocking chairs, one child-size, the other for adults, sit on a circle of green fabric that in turn sits on the pavement of the debris- and graffiti-filled parking lot that borders the field.

"An image of a church always gives me a sense of sacredness, acts as a mental catalyst," she writes in her artist's statement. "But recent church scandal has changed this image a little bit and makes me gloomy."

So she's made an outdoor church, without walls or roof, open to the air, harboring no secrets. Rocking, she notes, is kinetic therapy, a lead-in to meditation.

It's hard to think of many idealistic temporary public art projects that have altered the course of business and politics. But it's also hard to believe anyone visiting Nuns' Field this weekend will come away emotionally and intellectually untouched.

Christine Temin's Perspectives column runs on Wednesdays.

"Reclaiming Nuns' Field,'' a project by Reclamation Artists, is at 72 Delle Ave., Mission Hill. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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