story and photos by BOB SOMMER
Thirty years ago, a formidable dragon stalked the Humboldt Bay marshlands by day and by night, its presence confirmed by thousands of motorists driving Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata. The creature's height exceeded 20 feet, and a long, spiky tail brought its length to over 30 feet. In 1979, the marsh was visited by a flying saucer from which two green extraterrestrials disembarked. The flying saucer departed, but the two ETs became attached to the dragon and remained.
Dragon at right and above, 1977. Wheel man below, 1979.
Fabulations of a pot smoker? No way. Before the term "outsider art" became popular, the marsh hosted a most creative folk sculpture exhibition, one patterned after a sister gallery on the Emeryville mudflats. Although names and dates are lost, around Christmas time in the early '70s an anonymous group of young people, possibly college students, came to the marsh and built a driftwood sculpture of Jesus. The piece was quickly torn down by an equally anonymous group, said to be "townies" who considered the original work to be sacrilegious. The local newspaper, not known for its interest in the arts, editorialized against the needless vandalism, and within a few days the original artisans returned to create additional wooden figures using material gathered on the marsh. Apparently the newspaper editorial had some impact, as the new work was left undisturbed, encouraging others to come and build their own sculptures. Within a few years the marsh became a popular driftwood gallery with a guaranteed audience of travelers.
Unlike the flimsy constructions at Emeryville on San Francisco Bay, often made from splintery boards and bay flotsam and on their way to decrepitude even before completion, the local sculptures were quite durable. Some pieces, such as the dragon and the single-engine airplane, lasted more than five years. Credit was due not merely to the superior construction skills of the artisans, but to the materials available, the leavings of the regional timber industry. Located in a less urban area than Emeryville, the local marsh was spared the deluge of plastic containers, styrofoam packing, inner tubes and other urban detritus that went into San Francisco Bay. Since informal gallery rules restricted artisans to indigenous materials, artisans on the bay used different types of wood and bark to show variations in color and texture. The fiery tongue of the driftwood dragon was a manzanita branch.
The content of the sculpture gallery drew heavily from the surrounding area. The bay encouraged nautical themes such as boats, whales, dolphins and shore birds. Inspiration for the occasional wooden airplane and helicopter can be traced to the airport across the highway. Locale, weather and time of day, all affected the appearance of the whimsical constructions. The driftwood airplane appeared to have landed on a bed of ice plant. On some foggy days the looming head of the driftwood dragon was the only thing on the marsh visible to passing motorists.
The work was anonymous: There were no signatures or plaques to identify the artisans. This was standard practice in all driftwood galleries. The sculpture was made to satisfy the creative urges of the artisans, including art classes from nearby schools, and also to surprise and delight passing motorists. Unlike Emeryville, there was little abstract or political art — instead, the pieces tended to be representational and apolitical.
It's not totally clear why, but in 1986 the sculpture garden disappeared. The marsh was a wildlife sanctuary, and some said the constructions should never have been allowed. The marsh had known a brief flowering of driftwood art, a period less than 15 years. The only records remaining are the artisans' memories and the photo albums of visitors surprised to see a dragon along a busy highway.
story and photos by BOB DORAN
Who were the mysterious sculptors who adorned the mudflats between the Bracut lumberyard and the bridge into Eureka? Bob Sommer is right in saying that their work was anonymous, but it wasn't hard to find a couple of them: one of the artists who built the first sculpture and another who built one of the last.
"I did three," said Peter Brant when I spoke with him last Saturday at the Arcata office for his businesses, Brant Electric and Fire Arts Foundry. "One was a crucifix with a tire for a head; that was the first. Another was a head, just the top of it coming out of the mud with the eyes, the ears and the nose showing."
His most famous creation was the long-lived dragon, which he built with some friends in the early '70s. "We based the design on the materials we found when we got there," said Brant. "There was a telephone pole; we stood it up and started making humps out of the other scraps. Easy."
Brant said no authorities complained about the guerilla art projects. "We basically did them in broad daylight — weekends, because I was working weekdays. No one even approached us."
Noting that "many others" followed in his footsteps, he said he does not know who they were — aside from one sculptor. "Duane Flatmo did an airplane — nose down. The pilots ripped it to shreds; they thought it was bad luck. I think that might have been the beginning of the end. Then [the whole area] became a wildlife refuge. I loved the mudflat sculptures. I was sorry to see them go."
In fact, the marshland along the highway was protected as wildlife habitat for many years while sculptures were there. But Brant was probably correct in assuming that Duane Flatmo's airplane was the beginning of the end. That's how I remember it, anyway.
After Bob Sommer's mudflat reminiscence first arrived in my e-mail box a few weeks ago, I called Flatmo, now one of Humboldt's most prominent artists, at least in terms of visibility. His murals are everywhere you look, his paintings and sculptures are shown in the best local galleries, his trademark neo-cubist graphic style shows up on beer bottles, bags of compost and posters. And, of course, he is among the elite pilot/designers in this weekend's Kinetic Sculpture Race.
Flatmo related the history of his involvement in mudflat sculpting over the phone, at least as best as he could recall looking back 20-some-odd years. When we spoke in person at the Kinetic Lab on Saturday, where he was putting the finishing touches on his latest kinetic kontraption, he had a slightly different story to tell.
"I had seen those Cadillacs buried nose down out in the desert," he began, referring to Stanley Marsh's famous Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, Texas. "I thought, `Why not an airplane like that?'" he continued. "I didn't realize that people would take it as a crashed plane since it was right across from the airport."
At that point I had to stop my friend Duane and remind him that he had previously told me that he specifically coordinated the erection of the sculpture with the opening of an air show at Murray Field. He had also confirmed Brant's recollection that his airplane had been destroyed by angry pilots. He had noted that his response was to reassemble the offending plane, only to have it dismantled again by parties who left a threatening note warning him against a repeat performance.
He admitted his joke was a bit dark. "What was really terrible was [a local doctor] died about a week later when he crashed his experimental aircraft on the beach," he said with a note of regret. "His plane was the same shape as the plane in the mudflats. That was a bit weird."
The experience made Flatmo decide to give up on mudflat sculpture, but the furor he'd stirred up did not die. "There were all these letters to the editor. I think it was Judge Morrison who wrote, `It was like building a coffin in front of a hospital.' Some guy who was Harbor Commissioner told me [the sculptures were] an eyesore and all the wood out there was going to be removed because it was a wildlife sanctuary. They said the birds would eat the paint on the wood, and that some [wood] was pressure-treated, that it was unfit for the habitat. And it did get out of hand. It wasn't just my thing; there were tons going up out there. It had become a place to make political statements, and it got kind of trashy — along with the real sculptures. They hauled them all away."
And thus ended a chapter in local art history. But, you might wonder, could some mudflat phoenix ever rise again?
"Duane and I have talked about doing some midnight sculptures since, but we never got around to it," Brant confided. With a big grin he concluded, "Both of us are outlaws, but we don't want to be outlaws-in-jail. We've become a little more conservative."
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