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Making a point on a raft of opportunity

Some protesters fight eviction notices with sit-ins and vigils, inviting confrontation and removal. But in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood, seemingly nothing is done the way that others do it. It is, after all, one of Boston's oldest, and some might argue, quirkiest arts communities.

So when Fort Point artists Matthew Ward and John Osorio-Buck received word their leases would not be renewed a few months ago, they did not chain themselves to the pipes in their A Street lofts. They decided to build a raft and live on the channel instead, and to call attention to their plight with a flier tied to the Evelyn F. Moakley Bridge.

''This is a project by two Boston artists to territorialize and adapt unused urban space to the needs of displaced artists in the Fort Point Channel area," reads the sign, which can be viewed by passersby to the channel, where the two men have been living on a 9-foot-by-8-foot raft.

Ward, who left his loft without a fight two months ago, and Osorio-Buck, who received a reprieve until next year, have been sleeping on the plywood-and-plastic contraption for two weeks now. They said yesterday that they plan to stay on board until wintry conditions force them indoors.

''We're going to live here until we can't take it anymore," said Osorio-Buck, whose $650-a-month lease expires in June.

The pair are careful not to call their undertaking a protest against gentrification, instead referring to it as a statement, a piece of art, highlighting the neighborhood's transformation. Still, their message is clear in a flag flying from the raft -- a white hourglass on a black background, signaling time running out for artists in Fort Point Channel, and in a slogan painted on the side: WTLFPCAPTOTL, shorthand for ''Will The Last Fort Point Channel Artist Please Turn Out The Lights."

Several years ago, artists occupied 600,000 square feet of loft space in the area, but by 2001, that number was down to 250,000. The city has since been trying to preserve and create affordable studios and housing for artists. Susan Hartnett, who runs the Mayor's Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events, says that of 2,000 artists' studios in the city in 2001, only 300 had some level of permanency. Now, she said, 600 studios currently occupied or planned have permanent protected status for artists.

Still, she conceded that preserving affordable artists' space remains a challenge in the face of urban renewal, which has made once-decrepit and vacant warehouses into desirable residences.

''There are artists all over the city that are grappling with this issue," Hartnett said.

For Osorio-Buck and Ward, sculptors who rented space from Boston Wharf Co. until a few months ago, the raft has been a novel experiment in low-cost city living. They are a motley-looking crew, docked in front of the Barking Crab restaurant most nights, cooking soup and oatmeal on a single-burner gas stove, reading by the light of a lantern, and undertaking art projects in their spare time.

''The first week was mainly repairs and learning how to row," said Ward, who stayed at his uncle's house in Chelsea while the raft was built. ''We had absolutely no nautical experience."

''We do now," quipped Osorio-Buck, smoking a Pall Mall and squinting through squarish, black-rimmed glasses.

Rain from the remnants of Hurricane Frances forced the pair off the raft one night, and to the hardware store the next day for foam sealant. Ward and Osorio-Buck sleep on 4-foot-by-20-inch bunks under a corrugated metal roof, and often listen to Indian music on a small transistor radio and play Scrabble. They have day jobs -- Ward at a furniture store and Osorio-Buck at MIT -- but they spend the rest of their time on the channel.

The raft has become a neighborhood spectacle of sorts. Construction workers at the nearby Big Dig wave, and boaters often stop by to chat for a while.

''Either they're like, 'Wow!' or they think we're total lunatics," said Ward, who graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with Osorio-Buck last year.

North End resident Stevie Buerger, 26, wondered why they did not just stay in their lofts and force the landlord to evict them.

''This way, the people in charge don't even have to deal with them," she said. ''It's comical more than anything else. Maybe it will help them sell more art, then they'll be able to afford an apartment."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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