Matthew Hincman had frequented Jamaica Pond countless times before the day in 2006 when, while on a stroll, he imagined something that would eventually become a fixture in one of Boston’s neighborhoods.
What Hincman pictured was, on its surface, a largely unsittable, seemingly useless, and befuddling U-shaped, double-backed bench. Now, the once-illegal art piece — dubbed the Jamaica Pond Bench — is a beloved landmark in Jamaica Plain that has become part of video games, inspired at least one tattoo, and served as a backdrop for engagement photos.
Hincman, a longtime Jamaica Plain resident, artist, and professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, said the idea for the oddly shaped object came to him while he was looking at the other benches in the park. As he was doing this, he imagined one side of a nearby bench mirrored in “his mind’s eye.”
“When I did that, I saw the form extruded out in space, like a canoe, cradle, or coffin,” he said. “When I saw that image in my head — and this is how most of my artwork is generated — I saw so many potential meanings that an audience could come away with [after] engaging with the object.”
Unlike with his previous artwork — which includes guerilla-style pieces like the bench — Hincman wasn’t able to track down a park official to help him approve the project. So he went at it by himself.
He sourced materials for the bench from across the country, trying to closely replicate how the other benches in the park were constructed. Once he acquired the wood and casting needed for his piece, he welded the bench into its unique shape.
“I was creating it to be in conversation with the existing benches so that you really understood this could be some sort of an anomaly but within the family,” Hincman said. “I didn’t want it to be installed like a joke or a prank. It needed to be as robust as the existing benches at the site.”
Finally, at 5 a.m. on a summer day in 2006, Hincman rolled the bench out of his garage and into the spot he had chosen for his art piece.
But as soon as the bench was bolted into place, Hincman said, it started raining. And it didn’t stop for a week, which meant that there were no officials or people at the park to notice the unusual installation.
“Once they figured out it was there, they asked around for another week to figure out who put it down,” Hincman said. “They were convinced, because it was so well made and so well installed, that it had to have been an official and sanctioned project.”
Bench removed, then made permanent
Eventually, the city figured out it wasn’t authorized and removed the bench. Hincman then got a hold of the head of facilities for the Boston Parks Department, who “reprimanded” him for putting in the artwork without approval before telling him he had told the Boston Art Commission that the piece should be reinstalled.
The Boston Art Commission didn’t need much convincing, Hincman said. The same park workers who had taken the bench down were the ones installing it again in the summer of 2006. After sitting in Hincman’s garage for a few years, it was displayed again in the summer of 2009.
In 2011, the bench was back in Hincman’s garage when a car pulled up to his front yard.
“This person drives up and says, ‘Where’s your bench?” Hincman said. “He was from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and had been giving tours to people who were asking where the bench was.”
‘I put it out into the world, and the community in the end embraced it’
Since then, the bench has been a permanent installation at Jamaica Pond and has created interesting conversations among locals and on social media.
“Anyone know the purpose of this double-backed bench? I see it on my runs around Jamaica Pond in Boston and think it’s the only bench I’ve ever seen with this U shape,” said user @AaronJDy in a post on X in 2019. “Not at all sure how to use it but open to suggestions.”
Hincman, though, says there’s no exact “use” or “meaning” of the bench. The lack of attribution or plaque on the object leaves the artwork entirely up to the viewer’s interpretations, he said.
“What’s the experience one might have, and how does that change one’s experience at the park or in Jamaica Plain or in the world?” he said. “I think it’s interesting to give passersby the opportunity to experience the uncommon in a way that gives them agency about how to approach an object or not.”
Hincman said that since its permanent installation, some people have told him the Jamaica Pond Bench is the only one they “sit” in at the pond, while others have never noticed it. He got an email a few years ago about someone moving away from Jamaica Plain who got a tattoo of the bench as an emblem of their hometown, and during the Pokemon Go craze in 2016, Hincman was notified his bench was a “Pokemon Go gym” on the app.
“When I installed it originally, I knew that there was the threat that it could be taken away and destroyed,” Hincman said. “And I love the fact that I put it out into the world, and the community in the end embraced it.”
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