Art and Design

Circles in the sand

February 13, 2012

Nowyou see it. Now you don’t. JimDenevan creates art –very large art — out of the most ephemeralmedia: patterns in sand which will wash away with the tide, tracingsin the earth that will disappear with the first rain, etchings uponicy lakes that must melt with the coming of spring.

Beachaficionados know him as “that surfer dude” or “the guyon Ocean Beach”. Also a chef and an organic farmer, he is oneof the founders of Outstandingin the Field, which aims to reconnect diners with the source oftheir food.

Hehas been compared to several artists. Like Christo, whose “RunningFence” transected Marin and Sonoma counties in the early andmid-1970s, and whose “Umbrellas”pocked hillsides and rice paddies on two continents in the mid-1980sand early 1990s, Denevan’s work is of enormous scale, and plays in,on and among natural features. Like Goldworthy,his work is composed entirely of natural materials patterned instriking geometric shapes. Others have likened his work to the sandmandalas of Tibetan Monks, to “alien”crop circles and to graffiti.

Q:You’re from Santa Cruz, a community that is largely oriented aroundits beaches. Howdo you think your hometown has affected your outlook on art and onnature?

DENEVAN:The ocean, of course, is constantly changing, and the conditions ofthe waves and the wind and the weather. I think of nature assomething that is changeable from season to season.

Igrew up in San Jose. There were a lot of suburban developments, but Igrew up next to

Surfers walking

Photo by Jim Denevan.

the Guadalupe River. When I was a kid there was practically no one down there checkingthings out. So I would make little constructions in nature, doingthings with the water, and little dams, and coming back every season,the dams were destroyed in the winter. That’s the origin of myinterest in imposing things on nature.

Q:The work that you do is made exclusively of natural media, mostlysand, earth, and snow. How does this affect the process and theoutcome of your work?

DENEVAN:It’s just as fascinating at the time of its destruction as the otheraspects of making it and composing the work. At the beach, the tideis pretty regular. But I have done things where there’s alsoweather, a forecast for rain. In its disintegration, it’sinteresting. A sand drawing on the beach when it’s half-destroyed isinteresting.

Ican see that change happen more quickly, in terms of a day or a week. That includes our lives. We go from being adolescents to youngadults to middle aged through the human life span and a work of arthas a birth and an existence and a death.

Q:What is the intention of your art?

DENEVAN:A few different things: Recently I did a drawing at Ocean Beach [inSan Francisco]. There’s an aspect of the art, especially when it’sdone in a public area, that people can visit, they can composethemselves within the artwork. The artwork will have some relationto the size of a person’s body. And the compositional elementsprovide a path by which they can explore the relationship of theirbody to the composition. Drawingin the sand is very human, it’s gentle and it’s grand at the sametime.

Iwent out two days ago for the first time in a long time and it wasvery, very soothing to me, very peaceful. And also it’s physicallychallenging to walk for a period of hours, and to use my strength topush the sand. It’s fulfilling to complete something. It’sdifficult.

CircleIhave been doing this for almost 18 years now, and I have kind mixedfeelings about it now. I have made a substantial amount of money inthe last year doing commissions in different places in the world. But generally there’s no money to be made; there’s no photograph tobe sold.

Q:When people, dogs, and frisbees come through, is that annoying?

DENEVAN:I consider the people something like the waves in the erosion of thedrawing, meaning that I appreciate their interest and their comments,but can’t control what they’re going to be doing at the beach, withdigging holes or who knows what. And I never stop anyone from playingvolleyball.

Q:Of all the different art that you have done in the Bay Area, whichone has been the most meaningful to you, and why?

DENEVAN:I have to say the drawings I’ve done on Ocean Beach. I reallyappreciate when people have come into the artwork and experienced itfor themselves, and the comments that they make, and the appreciationthey have for what I’m doing. It’s a little overwhelming. It’sprobably why I don’t do it all that much.

Q:Most people are very enthusiastic about your work. Some havecompared your work, perhaps critically, to either Christo orGoldworthy; or alien crop circles or Buddhist sand mandalas. What doyou make of those comparisons?

DENEVAN:Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a similarimpulse that I have to those that you listed. I think Christo andGoldsworthy, and certainly Australian Aboriginals or Tibetan Monks,are concerned with similar questions. It’s inevitable that expressionis going to evolve that’s going to be personal.

Q:If you could have access to any site in the Bay Area, and do any kindof composition


Photo by Jim Denevan.

there, suspending the usual laws, permitting rules andsocial norms, where would you choose and what would you do?  

DENEVAN:Somethingthat I’ve been thinking about for a while is the saltponds in the South Bay. When you fly in, you see the variouscolors that exist. What I would do is have brilliantly differentcolored circles, using the different times of the salt production. I’ve done a little research into that and actually, I’ve been meaningto go down there and walk around and get a feel for that whole area.I don’t think anyone would argue against that. I think it would befun and interesting and very beautiful, with the bright colors.

Q:What are the challenges you face in your work?

DENEVAN:I’ve had people that have been drinking alcohol on the beach and theycome up to me and try to ask me questions when I’m trying toconcentrate.

Andthen I’ll go up to a high spot, and I’ll see the mark of where theconversation was, where I lost my concentration. And you can seewhere the drawing went off course, which I think is kind offascinating and I can’t get mad. It would ruin it.

Q:How does your work affect the viewer’s perceptions of the localenvironment

DENEVAN:It touches them because it brings them closer to something I thinkthey already know, but maybe don’t see so much in their daily life,that things – whether they’re culture or nature – are transitory. They will be transforming to something else, and therefore,personally when people are experiencing the artwork, they arerecognizing their temporality, and that blends into the perception of- and the experience of – the day, and the experience of thespecificity of one day, one day in one life.

Q:Is there anything else that you would like to say?

DENEVAN: I’mjust excited and fascinated with the world and nature and how it isthat I’m alive. I feel that when somebody walks into a sanddrawing, we’re all in the same place. I mean maybe physically,walking into the sand drawing, but also in the sense that we’rehuman, that we can be sick, that we can die, that we can be injured;we’re all part of the physical phenomena of the world, in a temporalsense.  

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