Most people who have heard of the Emeryville Mudflat Sculptures know very little about them. If you have seen pictures of them, you are left with the question; “who made these things and why?” A random activity of sculptures, signs, and proclamations on the edge of a freeway in a pre-internet era didn’t lend itself to an abundant amount of information. The Emeryville Mudflats have always have been shaded in mystery. Their origin story is not widely known as the artists worked mostly anonymously.
They did not seek personal attention for their efforts. As the materials were not meant to last. Their motivations were more for the experience and the thrill of “making”. The stories of the works survive only in people’s memories of them and soon inhabited a mythical space. But through the works of two contemporary documentarians of the mudflats, there is a clear origin story about how the Mudflats became to be. The Emeryville Mudflats began as an exercise in fine art pedagogy and bloomed into itself as a self-governing public art for the people, a folk art environment for a post-modern era.
The San Francisco Bay was the center of subversive cultural activity in the 1950’s. Despite the larger American trend of its day, culture was being pushed in radical ways locally. The work of these radicals of the 1950’s greatly influenced the next generation of artists in the 1960’s who ended up defining what West Coast art was on the international stage. A defining part of West Coast art was the art of assemblage; creating art from debris. This was not a new idea. Making art from junk is a folk art tradition as old as time. Bohemians of the day were searching for authenticity through “folk” to establish their voice from the America they separated themselves from. The soul of these works gave the artist freedom of material and its urgency as a countercultural path in modern art. These young artists had to express themselves, no matter skill or financial situation, junk or beauty, by any means necessary.
Quickly these works from the bohemian community began to be widely recognized on the east coast and beyond, yet the wider local art community was still discussing its merit. There were many discussions on the widening art scene but there was one in particular that earns its moment in history. This discussion was in a sculpture class at The College of Arts and Crafts in the summer of 1960. Percolating in Professor Everett Turner’s sculpture class was the next generation of notable artists that were asked to exercise the merits of this contemporary trend. In this discussion they decided to get their hands dirty and collectively make a work out of detritus. Alameda native and a student in Everett’s class, Garry Knox Bennett, suggested a forgotten farming community of Bay Farm Island. Bay Farm Island sat between the municipal landfill and the Oakland airport. Once an Eden for foul, it was now covered in driftwood and garbage.
Supplied with a bucket full of nails and cases of beer, Everett’s CCAC Sculpture class went out to Bay Farm Island in the summer of 1960. They went there with no concept of what to build. Without much debate they just started building. The class gathered any kind of interesting junk they could find. Under the warm sun of that Saturday afternoon, a shape began to form. What started out as structural posts resting on the mud, spewed out an energetic interpretation of a ship. It was decked out with a flag on mast and a forgotten doll as a figurehead. To Garry and Silvia Bennett’s recollection, the class named this ship shaped sculpture “SS Eichmann,” assuming it was meant as an effigy of the resent capture of the Nazi War Criminal. The naming of the sculpture reflects the growing political consciousness of students of the time. Penny Dhaemers, a graduate student at CCAC, documented the Sculptural event and capturing the energy of that class experiment. To the class who witnessed this event, it was only an exercise. I am sure it informed their own artwork in someway, but I doubt they knew what was to be inspired from their efforts.
Two years later in 1962, Penny Dhaemers photographs of the building of “SS Eichmann” were displayed in a gallery on the Oakland campus of CCAC (Now known as CCA). Little is known about this exhibition but we do know that a young artist named John McCracken saw the photographs. McCracken would later become a mystical and prolific artist that helped define the California art movement of Light and Space. At this time, like most undergraduate students, was trying to find his way to his own artistic process and vision.
When McCracken saw these sculptures in Dhaemers’ photographs, he saw a freedom and urgency not weighed down from art history. This inspired him to want to make what he called “non-objective expressions” in a place he was familiar with, The Emeryville mudflats. McCracken said in an interview, “I choose Emeryville flats because they seem to be the catch-all for all the debris that floats into this part of the bay.” It had 50 years of industrial and construction waste piled along the freeway (McCracken died in 2011 at the age of 76).
Emeryville was a factory town and all along the bay was an industrial waste dumps for companies like the PABCO Shingle Factory. Since the turn of the century, it was a goal that the East Bay Coastline was to be filled in to create flat and build-able real estate. It wasn’t until the “Save The Bay” campaign in the 1960’s that changed the perspective of the inner coast of the San Francisco Bay.
Following McCracken’s six-month abstraction endeavors in 1964, more and more works started to emerge and it had little to do with abstraction. The two kinds of works that began to appear either were extremely politically charged, or extremely whimsical. The first two political works documented in 1964 was a figure and a sign built out driftwood stating “Barry the Bomb.” The other was a sculpture referencing Prop 14, which was a law that threatened the civil rights movement.
The first whimsical works can be attributed to an El Cerrito High School student named Wayne Saxton. With no artistic training or motivations to push the limits, the straight-A student started to build for the sake of building. He built a giant hand emerging from the mud, a dinosaur, and a Viking armed with a sword and a shield. Even though he intended to remain anonymous, these works began to great attention from the local and national press.
In June of 1964, the three works of Saxton gained attention from the press. First from the San Francisco Chronicle asking “Is This Art?” and then nationally it was reported on in Time Magazine calling the sculptures “Derelict Sculptures.” Without knowing it the press pieces brought great attention to the creative activity. The press called them derelict works and questioned if it was an art form at all. Despite this critique, it did not connect with the masses that saw the pictures of these mudflat sculptures. No matter the intellectual examination of these works, it was clear that this was an art to be reckoned with.
Things were changing in the Bay Area. It can be felt from the reports on the Emeryville Mudflats. The idea of someone expressing to the masses whether it was whimsical or political seemed extremely threatening. These articles came out months before the student protests at Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement is widely considered the beginning of the “1960’s.” The Emeryville Mudflats might have just been a lark of silly sculptures appearing alongside a freeway if it wasn’t the cultural earthquake that was happening that year.
The bay area embraced the mudflat sculptures. It became a cultural identifier. More and more sculptures began to appear after the summer of 1964. As it may seem, it wasn’t the artist or the radical that heard the Syrians of the mud. All walks of life began to hear the call to make their own sculpture down in the mud. Community church groups, nearby factory workers, and stay at home moms could understand the transformative power of making art and it being seen.
The City of Emeryville at the time embraced the activity. Even though it was trespassing and potentially radical, people embraced the artwork. By the time Time Magazine was writing an article on this curious phenomena in 1964, notorious Emeryville Mayor John Lacoste was newly aware of the activity. When asked about it he said he liked them and stated “they give this town some class.” Emeryville was an industrial town and it embraced the potential for public art within its boarders. Emeryville’s embracing attitude towards the Mudflats sculptures would change later as Emeryville further shaped its vision of itself from an industrial town into a modern commercial retail destination.
The complex events of the 1960’s and the need for hopeful future gave the Emeryville Mudflats its fodder for the next 30 years. In that time, this drive-by-gallery would come to live in the hearts of many of the citizens of the East Bay. The art of assemblage was returned to the people and put to use as a functional folk art environment. It was a community cork board, it was a place of whimsy, it was a place of peace, and it was a place for all of these things. Not only did this art form inspire were all kinds of people to make these things but it forced millions of people to see their endeavors. The origin of The Emeryville Mudflats can be traced to the bohemian art communities’ experimentation into found art, but it was the artists that would not call themselves artists that made it into a place of radical public art that has never been seen since.
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Great informative article. I’ve always wondered about the history of these works. Thank you.
What a great article! Super interesting. THANKS!
Awesome article, can’t wait for the other pieces.
Great story, so much fun learning about the cool history of this “rotten” place..;-)-
Thanks Joey, wonderful post, thanks for doing this!
I’d always wondered as a child growing up in the Bay Area about where these lovely bits of whimsy came from too- seeing them was always a favorite bit of coming home from visiting the mountains or the Central Valley. ‘Oh hey, we’re heading out of Berkeley towards the Bay Bridge: time to press my nose to the window and stare at those weird and fascinating sculptures!’ I would think to myself.
Thanks for filling in the gap!
Great article. Always nice to see this artwork get recognition. Tyler Hoare – a friend for many years – continues his work in those mudflats. I believe his attitude is to build it and leave it to nature to take it down. Sometimes this happens quickly, but more often the work stands against the wind and rain. It certainly adds to what has always been a bizarre mudflat immediately adjacent to a very busy freeway.
Tyler Hoare is a great artist and has a great legacy at the mudflats! Thank you for your comment!
I remember that day …much fun! surprised to see this pic….there I am in the red shirt with Marty (blue shirt) Art Rules! Arlene Streich (not Elaine)
Hi Arlene, I am so sorry about the mix-up on your name. I have updated the article! If you have anymore memories of that day, please email me. I would love to hear more! Thank you for reading the article!
As an elementary school student at John Muir in Berkeley, we went on field trips to the mudflats around 1969. One of the parents was an avid photographer and made a book of our visits, but I dont think we saved it. But the mudflats and the sculptures were always a magical place in my childhood memory.
I was there at the Bay Farm Island shipbuilding event. I collected the dessicated rubber doll we used for the figurehead. My Ex,Bob Bechtle, who was from Alameda, found the rusty rudder that was used. The railings were made of used beer cans. It all started at a party the night before at the Dhamers, where an argument took place about the nature of sculpture. Some maintained that sculpture should be sturdy and able to be rolled down a hill without anything falling off as Michelangelo maintained. Others argued that it could be valid if made out of toilet paper. The idea of doing something at the beach was suggested, and it grew from there.
Wow! What great information! If you have anymore memories and details of that invent please email me, I would love to find out more about the class and that day! Thank you!
Thank you for that wonderful memory! I have read about school trips to the mudflats but have not talked to anyone who went out there on those trips. If you are willing to share more of this memory with me please send me an email. Thank you so much!
What a great article! I always wondered about the mudflat art. For years I’ve taken AmTrak to Sacramento, and that stretch is one of my favorite parts of the train ride. I’ll always view them with a different perspective.
Brought back memories. I remember driving by and looking to see whether there was anything new. Miss the Bay Area.
I grew up in Emeryville,as a kid,we’d ride our bikes out there,and check out the new ones. No one ever vandalized them , back then. They were so kool. I never knew the background on who these people were. Thanks. Still in The Ville,to this day.
Thank you so much for the writeup. Driving by the mudflats, for me, was part of what made the Bay Area feel like home. I went there as a kid on an elementary school field trip; I can’t remember what I built, but the vague memory of going there & building _something_ did leave me with that sense of a personal connection even through to adulthood.
Loved the historic summary of Emeryville Mud Flats and the burgeoning Art Movement and the 60’s photos of the shoreline. Thank you so much! Sue Kelly
Visiting my brother in Berkeley in the early 70’s, I was impressed by the sculptures on the mud flats. I have since wondered if they were not the initial inspiration for what became the Burning Man?
I’ve wondered the same thing. Joey? What do you think?
Yes, on Labor Day Weekend, 1977, some of the sculptures on the mudflats were burned during the evening hours.
Enjoying your writing, this is going to get you a lot more good information! Looking forward to the rest of the story….Sylvia & Garry
Great read…..i too am a Bay Area native and a CCAC alum (20 + years after these were built) but i remember driving by these as a kid…..coming over the Bay Bridge or on the freeway right in front of them. I loved it, seeing the city in the back ground…..they were just so cool. Very fond memories, thank-you.
BTW…..wasn’t there a scene from “Harold & Maude” filmed there?
Check it out.
Why aren’t they doing it any more and why did it stop? Environmentalists?
1972, Contra Costa County California Marijuana Initiative constructed “Yes On 19” sign. We knew we were being observed and several times our 19 was changed to 16. I call the CHP and told the duty officer (?), person in charge that we built that sign and we didn’t appreciate them changing it to 16, a CHP increase in pay or something beneficial to them. It remained 19.
My book DRIFTWOOD WHIMSY is probably the best visual account of the sculptures in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here is a gallery of 45 images. http://keisterphoto.photoshelter.com/gallery/Emeryville-Mudflats/G0000Xsr8AORSoac/
For those in this comment thread that enjoyed this piece, Joey has published his second piece in the series here:
[…] time stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A lot of time munching Happy Meals in the car, admiring the Emeryville Mud Flat sculptures through the window, and trying not to drive Mom bonkers. Once in a while, our favorite commercial […]
Now 70 years old. In 1967 I was a 20 year old sailor training for the Vietnam War in the Mekong Delta. On weekends I took the bus from the Naval Base into Height Ashbury to decompress. The sight of the Mud Flat sculpture inspired me to get off the bus. I spent two days there, sleeping rough on the beach, and working with the artists. On the night I spent there, one of the artists burned his work to the ground. As it burned we danced and sang around its blaze. Transformational for me. Late the next day I returned to the base. A few weeks after that I went to Vietnam and spent a hellish year there. During that year in the odd quiet moments in the dark I would recall the pieces I saw and worked on. It was a small anchor from home to help me stay sane. I have never forgotten it. I’m retired now and planning my pilgrimage to Burning Man. Burning Man seems like a transformation of the Emeryville Mud Flats art.
[…] installed, both pieces intend to be visible to passing commuters from I-80 as our legendary Emeryville mudflat art once […]
I have pictures of some of the earliest sculptures we made in early 70’s
Flute/drum/guitar etc players
If you would like copies
Thanks for the nice article