Outdoor art finds its niche

But Franklin Park collection of found objects may have to go

The outpost, which resembles a well-made lean-to, is filled with a collection of eclectic bric-a-brac that artist Brandon Nastanski, 32, has collected during his meandering through Franklin Park. The outpost, which resembles a well-made lean-to, is filled with a collection of eclectic bric-a-brac that artist Brandon Nastanski, 32, has collected during his meandering through Franklin Park. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 21, 2010

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Cobbled from sticks and twine, the shelter hews to a steep outcropping of Roxbury puddingstone in a remote section of Franklin Park. A picture of Henry David Thoreau hangs by the entrance, near a rusted shopping cart and across from a makeshift shelf that holds old bottles, candles, tea tins, and a collection of eclectic bric-a-brac plucked from the 527 acres of Boston’s largest park.

Welcome to the “Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost,’’ a carefully crafted work of installation art that has been a nearly two-year labor of love for Brandon Nastanski, 32, who lives close to the densely wooded site.

“I’m trying to make a destination point in the park,’’ said Nastanski, who did not seek a permit. “And I’m trying to make the park better.’’

But what Nastanski and his supporters see as an intellectually stimulating paean to nature, city officials see as a public nuisance. Park rangers, in conversations and posted warnings, have told Nastanski that the outpost is coming down.

“No installations are allowed unless they’re permitted by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department,’’ said Mary Hines, spokeswoman for the department. “I would think it could be a safety issue if stuff started falling down on people.’’

The “Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost,’’ she said, is officially coming down.

That declaration is disappointing for Nastanski, who teaches an online art course from his Jamaica Plain home and walks through Franklin Park nearly every day. Through the Research Outpost, Nastanski said, he is nudging people to think about their relationship with nature.

“The goal of the piece was that the public would be surprised by it, that they would interact with it, that it would change your day a little bit,’’ said Nastanski, who holds a graduate degree from Parsons School of Design in New York. “It takes you somewhere else, if even for a moment.’’

Nastanski has plenty of supporters, including the nonprofit Franklin Park Coalition and dozens of outpost visitors, who turned the back of a demolition notice into a petition to save the structure.

“It’s really harmless,’’ said Christine Poff, executive director of the coalition. “In terms of its impact on the park, it’s sort of a secret thing that’s great for people to come looking for. It’s like a treasure hunt to go find this cool space. I love that it’s there.’’

The outpost, which resembles a well-made lean-to, is filled with items that Nastanski has collected during his meandering through Franklin Park, the largest piece of the 19th-century Emerald Necklace strung through Boston by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

As a piece of installation art, the outpost was constructed on the site where it stands and incorporates nearby materials. Inside, there’s a raccoon skull, a frying pan, a cuckoo clock, religious statues, computer keyboards, and even a Laundromat lock box. Bits of bottles are tethered to twigs and branches that form the roof of the shelter, which measures 6 feet wide by 10 feet long, and about 8 feet high. A large frayed tarp, which Nastanski also found in the park, has been laid overhead to keep out some of the elements.

“It tells a little bit of a story about how people use the park,’’ Nastanski said. “There’s a lot of trash, a lot of things that I’m reappropriating.’’

Nastanski did not have much enthusiasm for the permitting process. “I could wait six months to hear, or I could just go out and make it happen,’’ he said.

Finding the outpost is difficult, even for repeat visitors who occasionally venture in this section of the park that Olmsted dubbed The Wilderness. Although passing cars can be heard in the distance, as well as the sounds of zoo animals, the outpost blends seamlessly into the landscape.

“It’s nice to have a natural slice of what this area would have looked like at any period,’’ Nastanski said.

Park visitors who discover the outpost have left notes of praise on old Massachusetts postcards that Nastanski stashes in the lean-to, and some have taken photographs with a disposable camera he has left there.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,’’ said Glen Harnish, 30, a Jamaica Plain man who found the outpost by chance. “I kept coming back there every day and kept bringing people out there. It became . . . a beacon that the world wasn’t just about jobs and humdrum routine, that there are these unexpected jewels of creativity if we look for them.’’

Nastanski said he first saw a park ranger near the outpost a few months ago, when he was told the structure was doomed. As the ranger searched the site, Nastanski watched from a tree he had climbed. And when the ranger began to leave, unaware that Nastanski was perched overhead, the artist announced his presence.

Nastanski said he was told two things: that the outpost would be dismantled, and that climbing a tree in a city-owned park is punishable by a $50 fine. Nastanski theorized that the outpost was discovered after he had built a nearby teepee that is visible from the road.

That structure, too, is scheduled for the wrecking crew.

Nastanski, who plans to relocate to Virginia in August, said he has made peace with the outpost’s fate.

“I completely understand where they’re coming from; it’s a public park,’’ Nastanski said. “But do I think things like this should be allowed in the park? Yes.’’

Despite the demolition notice, however, the Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost may get an indefinite stay of execution.

“We’re at the lowest staffing levels in the history of the Parks Department,’’ Hines said, “so that’s not priority one right now.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at

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