Bay Nature magazineSummer 2019

Art and Design

An Artist Features the Bay’s “Transitional” Spaces

June 23, 2019
"Marsh Road" print
“Marsh Road,” by artist Sarah Newton. (Courtesy of the artist)

In 1989 work began on the San Francisco Bay Trail, a planned 500-mile circumnavigation of the entire Bay, from San José to San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge to Napa and Martinez and back down the East Bay shoreline. Thirty years later, the trail is roughly 70 percent complete, with more than 350 miles in place. Though conceived of as a single trail, it’s actually a network of many trails, some quite long and others shorter than a mile. Organizers of the trail say they have completed the “low hanging fruit,” and now it’s airports, bridges, industrial sites, and salt ponds that stand in the way of connecting all the individual segments.  

Remember, they are an exotic species in the Western United States, and are rapidly increasing their geographic range and range of habitats. Are they outcompeting or excluding native species in the process? How would we know? We have done almost nothing to monitor changes in the assemblage of mushroom species in areas before and and after the incursion of death caps.

Sarah Newton will be holding open studios on October 26 and 27 at 1890 Bryant Street, San Francisco.

These trail endpoints—places where most people turn around or detour—are destinations for San Francisco–based artist Sarah Newton. An avid hiker, Newton only discovered the Bay Trail in recent years, and she was drawn to the “transitional” spaces, as she calls them, where nature and industry collide. In 2016 she began making ink wash and gouache drawings of her findings, returning to various points along the trail several times a year. Often black and white, the drawings become vignettes about locations along the trail that might be unknown to many viewers but for their descriptive titles, such as a particular point at Alviso Slough or a soil and concrete recycling facility in Brisbane.

Unlike some of Newton’s previous etchings of architecture, her Bay Trail drawings lack defined edges, the images dissolving into the paper. Newton says the drawings evoke “something that might fade away when you’re not looking at it.” These are landscapes, she notes, “that definitely won’t last.” The trail’s completion necessitates the transformation of these places, and Newton’s drawings capture this moment on the brink.  

Images of grasses, pickleweed, mud, and the Bay water itself fill her drawings. But they’re often paired with seawalls, tidal gates, mangled concrete, and stumps. The locations feel vacant of human life, but full of its infrastructure. Newton sometimes talks of deliberate or indeliberate built environments. In the latter, “things butt up against each other in these awkward and strange ways.” It’s where property lines meet, where private and public use bump into one another, or where abandoned uses hide in the brush.

One of Newton’s drawings, Marsh Rd (elev. 8 ft) (2018), depicts a chain-link fence ornamented with razor wire running along and in front of wetlands. Here the eastern edge of Menlo Park, the city’s Bedwell Bayfront Park, and the Cargill company’s salt ponds converge. It’s also where the Bay Trail dead-ends at the West Bay Sanitary District’s Menlo Park Pump Station. Although not pictured in the drawing, a sign on the fence reads “Marsh Road Discharge,” Newton recalls. Chain-link fences, she says, are a common element at the trail endpoints she visits. And while many artists and casual photographers might try to omit these fences from their frames, focusing instead on the natural beauty of the Bay, grasses, or waterfowl, Newton embraces them as indelible parts of landscape and our relationships with the Bay.

Newton says following the Bay Trail, and particularly exploring its various termini, is like traversing the many ways people have thought of the Bay as a resource through its history. “Is it an industrial resource?” she asks. “Is it a natural resource? You see all of these different interpretations as you walk through the landscape.” It’s for this reason that I find Newton’s drawings so earnest when, given their subject matter, they could easily be cynical. Many of these locations have complicated histories—Cargill’s salt ponds and their proposed uses have generated substantial controversy, for instance. But rather than cast judgment on these landscapes, Newton can instead bring curiosity to her excursions, find value in settings regardless of what they hold, and encourage others to explore and learn about our multifaceted relationship with the Bay.

About the Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford is an arts writer focused on ecology, history, and politics. Based in San Francisco, his work has appeared on KQED, Hyperallergic, SF Weekly, Art Practical, and elsewhere.