The Emeryville Mudflat Sculptures were an anonymous folk art sculpture garden that utilized trash and driftwood as its medium for public art. Considering how it was constructed and the materials used, its power and intent were ultimately to make art by any means necessary. All these identities mingled in the mudflats to create a contemporary representation of who the people of the Bay Area were in the 1960’s and 70’s. As the 80’s ushered in a new conservatism characterized by the policies of then President Reagan, the window of creative output on the Emeryville Crescent began to close. As mysteriously as they came to be, the Emeryville Mudflat Sculpture Garden slowly faded out of the consciousness of Bay Area landmarks.
Examining the historical context of the real estate market of the Bay Area is the key to understanding how this infamous landmark faded into history. Since the Gold Rush, property values have shaped the migration and culture of the Bay Area. When the mudflat sculptures first started to appear in the 1960’s, there was a growing decline in American industry and subsequent devaluing of real estate in these industrial areas. Due to the pollution caused by this industry and the lack of resources to reclaim this industrial landscape after industry moved out, many vacated buildings sat empty. The impact was especially felt on a city’s tax revenue, especially a city like Emeryville whom had grown dependent on commercial industry.
In 1966, the City of Emeryville adopted a General Plan that aimed to save the city from its collapsing industrial landscape. Included in the plan was to “the development of the waterfront district in a manner that transforms the town.” The city planners saw the future of Emeryville not in industry, but in real estate. It set out to add a modern marina, business park, and luxury apartments to bolster Emeryville’s tax revenue. By expanding into the bay, the city of Emeryville made a move to create a new luxurious West Emeryville that avoided the removed itself from the inner city pollution and strife that effected the Eastern part of the city. Simultaneously, there was a growing movement to stop the filling of the Bay Waters.
From the Gold Rush to the 1960’s, 90% of the San Francisco Bay’s lowlands of mud and marsh had been filled and destroyed. The health of the Bay waters and animal habitats were in grave danger of completely disappearing. With great success, the “Save The Bay” campaign became a rally cry to preservation of the Bay and lobbied state government to form the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). This organization’s goal was to preserve the natural environments of the San Francisco Bay and it’s coastline. In its first action it created the McAteer-Petris act. This act stopped any future permits or plans to fill the bay waters for land use.
Above: (L) 1946 view after the construction of the Eastshore freeway. (R) 1988 after the creation of the Watergate Peninsula.
On September 15th 1965, two days before the McAteer-Petris act officially went into effect, the city of Emeryville granted permits to fill its muddy waterfront. Despite a lawsuit by the BCDC and public protest, the city of Emeryville grandfathered themselves into developing their Bayfront. Through the crafty work of the politicians of the time, Emeryville obtained the power to create a new Emeryville that abandoned the past. In 1969, because of this loophole, the city of Emeryville began to fill the 185 acres of the waterfront to create the “Powell Street Extension.” This gave way to the construction of the Watergate community, the Holiday Inn, and business park on the Peninsula.
In the following years, Emeryville sought to expand this new modern city along the rest of its coastline. This would have focused its energy on erasing its working class history and creating a landscape of skyscraper size luxury condos, hotels, and business towers all along the bay front. The extent to what was planned never happened due to many different factors. One of them was the growing want to preserve what was left of the natural environment along the Bayfront. When the BCDC could not stop the Bay filling to create the Watergate Peninsula, the larger local community began to be more conscious of such environmental causes.
The community of the Bay Area rallied behind stopping future grandfathered loopholes and development deals that would destroy what was left of the East Bay waterfront. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Environmental causes in the San Francisco Bay focused their energy to save one of the last salt water marshes of the San Francisco Bay, The Emeryville Crescent. They set out to establish the land as a wildlife preserve. The Emeryville Crescent was an accidental wildlife sanctuary. At the mouth of the Temescal creek, it was the home to many native plants, animals and migratory birds. Most notably it was home to the endangered Clapper Rail, now known as the Ridgeway Rail. Almost pushed into extinction in the 19th century, its numbers were fragile by the 20th century. The Ridgeway rail depends on an environment like the Emeryville crescent to survive. To this day, the Ridgeway Rail still is considered “endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It must be stated that large construction along the East Bay waterfront is a tenuous. The Watergate Community was knowingly built on top of a thousands of feet of soft mud trenches. It has suffered structural damage over the years due to sinking and settling of the bay mud underneath. After highway 80 was built by filling in the waterfront in the 1940’s, the highway suffered many structural issues including frequent deep cracks due to the unstable ground beneath. Anything built along the shoreline is continually compromised with its stability from liquefaction from Earthquakes. It is true that the mud along the water is ancient, and at anytime, slowly or quickly, all seen on the waterfront can return back into the mud.
The environmental awareness of the Bay and the creation of the Emeryville Crescent State Marine Reserve in 1985 greatly affect the radical aspects of the mudflat gallery. Because of all the work that went to creating the state preserve, it quickly became culturally unacceptable to walk and construct in the mudflats. The needs of the environment and removing man’s impact from a fragile ecosystem became more important than the tradition of making sculptures. This change in culture was quickly reflected in the final sculptures of the 1980’s. They felt almost desperate for attention and they were no longer getting it.
The work’s wonder and whimsy was replaced with a chaotic desperation. The use of paint became more prevalent. The earlier sculptures were built more out of trash and driftwood found at the mudflats and assembled with just hammers and nails. This directness of found material gave a response that reflected the contemporary environment. All of these kind of activities weakened the reflection of the environmental collective artistic happenings. There was a more of a reflection of individual artistic expressions. An example was the giant fish sculpture that first appeared in the late 1970’s. Even though it was a very popular and effective sculpture that used detritus, it had a fabricated armature that was constructed offsite and imported. It was an idea that was created in a studio and brought to the mudflats. This was a dramatic change for how and why sculptures on the mudflats were being made. Great pieces of sculpture were still being created on the crescent, but those works were becoming more obscured.
Vandalism plagued the mudflat sculpture garden in the 1980’s. The life span for sculptures in the 1980’s became short and sudden due to the increase in vandalism. This included taking down specific works by smashing and flattening the sculptures into the mud. Dismantling of sculptures and the lack of preciousness was always part of the radicalism of the mudflat sculptures; many makers knew that as part of the unspoken rules of the sculpture garden. The act of manipulating a sculpture and using the material of another sculpture for a new sculpture added to the vibrancy of the space. However, the voices of the vandals was disruptive to the delicate balance of the creative process. Since Emeryville, Oakland, and the Department of Transportation all viewed the mudflats as outside their jurisdictions, enforcement was lax.
The same lack of civic accountability that allowed the sculpture garden to thrive, was also the reason it began to unravel. The destructive activity became more frequent and began to outpace the creative activity. There were incidences of sculptures ignited by arsonists and many artists became disillusioned with making works among this kind of activity. The vandalism at the mudflats rose as the surrounding land value rose and the space became increasingly politically charged. Conspiracy theories involving sabotage spread within the community to explain the source of the vandalism. Many of the works at the height of activity in the late 1970’s were politically charged and pointing out the injustice of the government and authority. More times than not it was those works that were targeted by vandalism which fueled the conspiracies. It was also believed that the surrounding land owners like Santa Fe Railroad and the city of Emeryville periodically hired vandals to clear the standing sculptures to send a message to the makers. These stories were widely shared but never proven. The sculptures were a microcosm of the factioned political views ignited by the Reagan-era as the battle over development raged in the background. All these factors battled it out on the mudflats and the result were broken bits of vandalized artwork. The great change that were circling at the Crescent made the sculptures suddenly look small and insignificant.
After the 1989 Loma Preita Earthquake ravaged parts of Emeryville, a rapid redevelopment of Emeryville and its infrastructure followed. The activity of this new infrastructure changed the sightline of the mudflat sculptures from the freeway. The 880/80 flyover and other freeway construction made the Crescent less visible to those passing by and the audience shrank. In 1998, Caltrans spent millions of dollars to clean up the driftwood and garbage that was in the fodder that created the Mudflat Sculptures. Not surprisingly, Caltrans was opposed to the sculptures, as it caused hazards on the freeway. They finally had the political will to finish them off even if it was under the guise of preserving the ecology.
At one time, the sculptures on the mudflats were a vehicle for mass communication. By the late 1990’s other forms of mass communication became more accessible. The Emeryville Mudflats was a space of artistic creation and political expression by any means necessary. As it wasn’t truly dependent on a medium, it could be theorized that many potential makers moved on to more effective platforms to reach people within technology. All of these events and changes let to disappearance of the Emeryville Mudflats Sculpture Garden. Without makers out in the mudflats, without the material to make sculptures, and the ability for the public to fully see the sculptures, the Emeryville Mudflats Sculpture garden ceased to exist.
Since this was a radical folk art that did not depend on space or mediums or traditional ideas of sculpture, the art didn’t cease to exist, it just went elsewhere. Other, less visible spaces like the Albany Bulb Art bloomed into a vibrant folk art environment after the 1998 Catrans Clean up in Emeryville. The Emeryville Mudflats Sculpture Garden and other artistic environments like it depend on the idea of a “free space” that is open to use, access, and the output of creativity to all. This idea of space nurtures concepts and visions of the people who interact with it, not the people who try to control it. Today, as space and real-estate has become more and more valuable, places like the mudflats of Emeryville become harder to find.
Without nostalgia, idealism or preciousness, true human creativity will find a way to express itself. It was unrealistic and unthinkable that safe harbor of creativity could spring up in the dystopic ooze of the 1960’s East Bay, and yet it happened. Now, there is no reason why it wouldn’t or isn’t happening again somewhere else. The great lesson in the Emeryville mudflat sculptures is that the art of creativity goes beyond markets and political tides, it lies in the heart of the humanity. Learning from the Folk art Environment of Emeryville, there is great hope by cultivating creativity with the idea that art can manifest by any means necessary. With that kind of freedom from the tropes of making artistic expressions, any artist or arts community can have hope in the future, by any means necessary.
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The mudflat sculptures are gone, and the Powell Street extension will liquefy one day, but we will always have this remarkable history that links the sculptures to the culture and politics of their era. The essay and photos do a great service to Emeryville, whose history is surprisingly rich for such a tiny place.
I still have a lot of slides that I took in 1977. Great sculptures, very whimsical.
I am using then in an Italian language project in Washington DC in 2017,
Thanks for the pictures/memories of watching the Mud Flats for new sculptures in the 70’s!
Coming into the East Bay on Interstate 80 back in 1973, they were one of the very first things I saw and when I saw them my first thought was “I’m home.”
Was there ever a book printed containing a collection of photos of the artwork over the years?
There were a couple. The one I have is called “Driftwood Whimsy” by Douglas Keister. Joey, the author of this trilogy, is working on a book as well I believe.