Franklin Park Art Grove: Cultivating an Artistic Landscape

Franklin Park, the “crown jewel in the Emerald Necklace” was designed by celebrated architect Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880s. The park was intended to serve as a refuge for the public to enjoy rural scenery and recreation within an urban environment. Although both the population and built environment surrounding the park has shifted, Franklin Park continues to play an important role as a public resource for contemporary Bostonians looking for valuable outdoor experiences in a dense urban environment.

The organizers of Art Grove are passionate about encouraging others to spend time outdoors in order to recharge, reflect, and contemplate. The Franklin Park Art Grove began as a creative approach to pull people out of their houses and into the woods, offering a unique woodland experience that maintains a connection to urban expression and lifestyles. Art Grove is rooted in a desire to cultivate a welcoming artistic landscape that inspires people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Link

Franklin Park touches the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain: diverse communities with rich cultural traditions that have historically been marginalized by race, ethnicity and social class. One of the main goals of Art Grove was to demonstrate the connection between these communities by bringing people together in the park. The project was informed by community-engaged project organizing: building relationships with artists, community members and leaders. For the Art Grove to be an inspiring, interactive and participatory cross-cultural visitor experience, we must ensure that the look and feel of the events, curation of the art and selection of artists will reflect the community and provide multiple means of entry for audiences through different expressive formats. Selected artwork and performance encompassed puppetry, performance art, contemporary movement, hip hop dance, rapping, DJs, sculptural installations, participatory smell data gathering to design a Franklin Park perfume, and a walk-in camera obscura. Programming connected visitors in a variety of ways with the physical site and to one another, offering a nuanced perspective on community and the natural and cultural resources of the park.

As the team reflects on the first year of the Art Grove, we ask ourselves how well we were able to accomplish our goals. Finding artists who were representative of the communities surrounding Franklin Park was key. During the proposal process, we supported artists in carefully considering the resources and context of the site in their proposals. Artists were selected for their skill, as it was important that this project succeed not only as a community event, but also as a contemporary art event. With hundreds of people in attendance, and new partnerships being cultivated, we are proud to call Art Grove a success. We look forward to more opportunities to gather together in Franklin Park in order to marvel at the beauty of nature, the power of art, and the importance of community.

Artists and organizers walk the site as part of the development phase of the proposal process. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Lewenberg

The New England Foundation for the Arts and The Boston Art Commission must be credited for their support in bringing this project to life. Without their faith in this initiative, it simply would not have happened. The Franklin Park Art Grove created an inspiring, interactive and participatory visitor experience and developed a platform for local artists to make site-responsive work. Bringing art to spaces traditionally not associated with art, infuses a new sense of vibrancy in the Franklin Park Wilderness. The practice of re-imagining this space and the way we use it will allow us to evolve and shape our environment to serve our community in relevant ways, and engage new generations who will inherit and care for these special spaces. Opportunities for the public to engage with the artistic process, artwork, dance, performance, and the natural environment, enables them to connect with the park and with others in a personal way. It was a solid first year event, but the Wilderness Picnic Grove has much more room to grow, and great capacity for artistic interventions that will make everyone feel at home and inspired in this urban woodland artistic landscape that we will cultivate together.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Lewenberg

The main lawn area featured food trucks and a stage where there were teen performances and a DJ. The teen event was organized by Kayla Nicholson, a youth Intern from Artward Bound, a college access program at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). Kayla, a senior at Snowden International High School, curated youth performances, including Rappers Eli Baker and Visze, a fashion show and hip hop dance by Alter Ego Moments of Meaning + Stajez Cultural Arts Dance Company, and a dance party.


Artwork made by Artward Bound youth under the leadership of Visiting Artist L’Merchie Frazier also was showcased on the main lawn area, welcoming people into the site. In this work, students explored their relationship with parks and other public open spaces through the creation of kinetic sculptures in an installation called The Desire Line. On a base derived from African masks, which were and are ritually used to personify and enact group energies, Frazier guided students in creating and combining the literary component of the Japanese art form of haiku poetry that expressed their voices. The Desire Line was a collaboration between the William Monroe Trotter Institute of Black History and Culture at UMass Boston and sponsored by the Boston Cultural Council. These bright, colorful, whimsical creations drew the attention of park walkers and encouraged exploration to see other exhibits.

Jonathan Chamberlain’s Landscape Survey also engaged teens in moving a camera obscura throughout Franklin Park by bicycle transport. With enough space for multiple viewers to enter, this piece offered a shared experience of an ephemeral image in the intimate space inside of a camera. The suggestion of surveying land for development contrasted exploration and contemplation of nature and community.

The landscape was also surveyed from a different sense in Heather Kapplow’s Eau D' Wilderness Grove. In this piece, a perfume will be created based on the “smellscape” as informed by data collected from visitors who mapped the smells that they found at various sites. Maps (and sharp golf pencils for filling them out) were retrieved via dropboxes with noses painted on them. The artist also offered an informational public smelling station.

Lisa Link & Blanca Bonilla’s Word Wrap also relied on public participation to create their work. The artists interviewed people in the Boston area, collecting fifty quotes from people in the native language of the speaker, as well as quotes drawn from inspirational stories of Boston’s history. These were printed on fabric strips that were tied around the trees.

Barbara Zeles and Kathleen Driscoll also planned to connect with the height and strength of trees in their work, in which they proposed to weave fabric, string and rope around trees and stones in their piece Embracing the Wilderness Picnic Grove and Roxbury Puddingstone. When they found poison ivy at their intended site, they began thinking of other options. Kara Fili and Tara Weaver had proposed to create woven sculptural forms with rope tied to their waists as they danced through the woods in their piece The Reclaim Game. The two groups ended up combining their ideas into a collaborative work that emphasized a spirit of play, and invited people to join family-friendly games and picnic following the performance.

Courtesy of Kerri Schmidt and Dave Foley

Kerri Schmidt and Dave Foley’s, Internal Reflections also invited a spirit of play, fun for children and adults to climb into. This mirrored structure both blended in with the tall soft grasses around it and created a warped reflection like a surrealist painting. Literal and metaphorical reflection called our attention to the relationship between internal and external environment.

Pamella Goncalves and Hakim Raquib’s Bottle Tree / On Tree One Tree. The blue glass bottles represented water and sky, tapping into traditions in which the tree represents a crossroads between heaven and earth, the living and the dead, to attract and trap the spirits. The concept of the Bottle Tree is that it bridged past and present cultures of Roxbury and the Boston area, where reunions, festivals, and other gatherings have taken place.

Ifé Franklin’s Slave Cabin Indigo Project featured an indigo painted cabin-like structure to honor the lives and history of formerly enslaved Africans/African Americans. Over the course of the month long exhibition, people were invited to share on the walls of the structure stories and feelings with the intention of healing some of the history of enslavement and race relations in America. Ife performed readings of her great grandmother Willie Mae’s slave narratives at the weekend event, which opened with drumming and a ceremonial dance that held the audience frozen in time for the duration of the hour long performance.

Ian Deleón and Rachel Frank’s The Autobiographical Animal was inspired by Francisco Goya’s use of human-animal imagery as a tool for social critique. Park visitors were confronted with a series of theatrical tableaux vivants featuring performers with animal masks in postures and poses that serve as a meditation on the all-too-familiar images of brutality and domination we see today.

Pampi, Dey Hernández and Loreto Paz Ansaldo’s Jataka Fables: Rooting into Our Animal Bodies to Inspire Community-Building re-imagined a selection of Buddhist fables featuring selfless parrots, sporting crocodiles and sensible boars. Their performances weaved together puppetry, temple dance and song of postcolonial curry cultures.

Photo Courtesy of Dey Hernández

Barbara Lewis, Director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute of Black History and Culture at the University of Massachusetts at Boston hosted a talk on “Empathetic Environments: Animals as Mentors, Masks and Mirrors” at the Overlook Shelter ruins at the opening weekend event. This talk featured panelists from The Autobiographical Animal and Jataka Fables, who talked about their backgrounds that inform their current work, and their use of animal imagery in expressing issues of importance to them. All participants spoke enthusiastically about the panel and conversation they sparked.

Discussion was also facilitated as part of Jataka Fables, where artists followed their performances with interactive discussion and activist theatre to explore community responsibility, agency and resilience. Sharing community theatre techniques with the audience was intended to break the audience/performer barrier, and reclaim the power of storytelling and active listening to enable the group to exercise togetherness in order to problem solve. These strategies included forum theatre, playback, or mask-play, in which a volunteer shares the story of a situation in which they struggled, and other people enact the story. The audience offers feedback and applies their many perspectives to come up with possible solutions and understand how the individual may look at the situation with new eyes. With the support and investment of community as actors, participants could revisit difficult situations and reimagine positive outcomes.

Photo Courtesy of D.iRvin.Photography


Carolyn Lewenberg is Founder and Creative Director of the Franklin Park Art Grove. She works at Artward Bound, MassArt’s college prep program for Boston youth. She has a Masters in Art Teaching from MassArt and a BS in Landscape Architecture from UMass Amherst. She also works in a variety of media: 3-D, installation, and public art. Locally, her artwork has been shown indoors and outdoors, at venues including the Medicine Wheel Gallery, Boston Latin School, Bartlett Yard, Boston Children’s Museum, and Harbor Arts. From 2007 to  2011, she annually organized and co-curated the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment, a 5 day outdoor artmaking experience where artists camped and used island resources to create site specific sculptural and performative artwork in the Boston Harbor Islands national park area. In summer of 2009 she was a Bumpkin Island Ranger / Artist in Residence and used art as a point of departure to develop interpretive programs focused on history and ecology.  For more info visit:


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