Franklin Park art installation threatened

David Taber

‘Research Outpost’ has been up for over a year

A man of mystery to some, a petition-worthy cause to others, a public nuisance to the city Parks Department, JP-based installation artist Brandon Nastanski is a self-described “artist playing researcher” and “amateur naturalist.”

Franklin Park is his canvas. “I like to go into the woods and find things,” he said during a recent Gazette visit to his installation, “The Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost.”

For the last year, the outpost has serve as a warehouse and gallery for Nastanski’s discoveries.

The outpost is a small hut constructed out of dead wood under a puddingstone outcropping near the Glen Road entrance to the park. It was recently joined by a large, and more prominent, teepee-like structure constructed by Nastanski and a group of friends. Nastanski suspects the new structure might be what last month put the outpost on city park rangers’ radar.

Nastanski did not apply for a permit to construct either of the structures, and a recent visit to the site by a Park Ranger was followed a few days later by a posted sign saying the city plans to soon dismantle the installation.

It has local fans, though. “I think it’s pretty cool. It’s not hurting anything,” said Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition.

Protected from the weather by a tarp Nastanski found in the woods, the makeshift structure displays a wide array of found objects contributed by Nastanski and others—blue jay feathers, cups, a raccoon skull, a lock box from a laundry machine, a pin that reads “Hip Hop is Dead.”

“Obviously, someone brought it [to the park] to try to smash it open,” Nastanski said of the lock box.

The array of items “mixes fact and fiction” Nastanski told the Gazette. The implication is that all of the objects on display were found in Franklin Park. But the knickknacks include things like a rack of corked vials containing a mix of items. The salamander body preserved in brine is a counterfeit, he said, but the hypodermic syringe is a genuine park artifact.

There is plenty of evidence of audience participation, as well. One regular visitor to the outpost leaves postcards and flyers advertising Boston Derby Dames roller derby bouts. Another visitor contributed a stained-glass depiction of a flying skull.

A disposable camera and stack of postcards Nastanski left in the structure have allowed visitors the opportunity to photograph themselves and leave notes.

Park Rangers from the city Parks and Recreation Department recently contributed what amounts to an eviction notice. Last month, shortly after a visit from a ranger, Nastanski said he found a sign printed yellow paper advising him to “remove all items immediately” or else they will be “removed and destroyed.”

The back of that sign became an impromptu petition in support of the outpost with 21 signatures. Most of the signers were from Jamaica Plain, but the neighborhoods of Roslindale, South Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester were represented as well. A Facebook web page Nastanski set up for the “Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost Preservation Society” had 135 members as of April 23.

From his conversation with the ranger, Nastanski said his understanding is that the outpost is now living on borrowed time. The ranger said he planned to put in a work order to have the structure removed and that there is no appeal process, Nastanski said.

But, Nastanski said, he is optimistic that it will be a while before he has to close up shop. The obscure location and dense construction mean “it is not going to be easy to dismantle,” he said.

Boston Parks spokesperson Mary Hines told the Gazette that Nastanski could have applied for a permit for the project. “There is a good way and a not good way to go about things,” she said.

But parks advocates and nature enthusiasts the Gazette spoke to all expressed enthusiasm about the project.

The outpost “gets people out discovering. Looking for treasures in the woods is a great thing,” Poff said.

“People are surmising what he must be like,” Poff said of Nastanski, whom she has not met. Theories she has heard include that he is a “a rich weird guy,” a hermit, a frustrated artist, and “the most poetic person in the world,” Poff said.

JP resident Steve Baird, who works with the local parks group Friends of Jamaica Pond and, unofficially styles himself the “Emerald Necklace Naturalist,” said the outpost is in a remote area of the park where other animals sometimes go “to recoup.”

A white-tailed deer recently spent three months in a nearby knotweed field after its leg was injured, Baird said, speculating that the research outpost might provide a similar mental refuge for its human visitors.

Andrew Joslin, another JP resident, who runs FPC-sponsored tree climbing events for teens in the park also described the outpost as contributing to the park’s value as a “psychic…release valve.”

Joslin said he spends a lot of time exploring urban parks and forests. “I have looked a lot of sites where people were living in the woods,” he said, “and this seemed a little more organized.”

“Initially, sitting inside there, I had a really solid feeling of ‘home.’”

That sense of belonging “would normally require a $350,000 mortgage,” he said.

Joslin said he has met Nastanski, and had conversations with him about collecting in the park. Joslin said he has seen a fair amount of evidence that the Franklin Park is used for rituals common in “Afro-Caribbean religious traditions,” including goat heads, chickens and a lobster claw.

According to Joslin, Nastanski informed him that he had also discovered a lobster claw and that is now part of the outpost’s collection.

Poff and Baird both said the area where Nastanski is set up has, at times, hosted campsites for homeless people. Nastanski said he has never found any evidence that anyone was using the outpost as a shelter or for other illicit activities.

In addition to the outpost’s collection, Nastanski said he regularly picks up trash in the area.

“I would argue that my presence has made the area safer,” he said.

If he does not get shut down, Nastanski said the project will likely end when he moves to Virginia in August. In the meantime, he is contemplating a preemptive ceremonial dismantling of the outpost. A friend has offered him a space outside the park to send the structure off in a bonfire, he said.

Nastanski said he also might set up the new structure as the “Unofficial Franklin Park Research Outpost Preservation Society Headquarters,” and set up an exhibit suggesting an imagined history for the outpost.

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