Five days work etching a sprawling sand-sculpture mural into a sand bar on Tofino’s Chesterman Beach all washed away with the tides last weekend.
Yet Jim Denevan was content.
Usually, the internationally known land artist works alone. This time he wanted to try a casually collaborative process and see how many people would join him.
At all came together July 9 with the help of more than 100 rolling volunteers: rings of small circular ‘anti-mounds’ were surrounded by larger circles, resembling a tunnel illusion or a stylized flower-seed pod to the untrained eye. Denevan’s 420 circular sculptures added up to measure roughly 1,700 ft. (518 meters) by 1,300 ft. (396 meters).
The resulting blend of solitary work and community company left Denevan happy with his experiment.
“It was better than I even expected,” he said. “It was kind of nice for me to try something different.”
At some points, volunteers used all 18 of the extra shovels he bought. Families and individuals would come and go, with tourists and locals all working together, he said. Learning about the volunteers’ different walks of life reminded him of meeting people in his home city of Santa-Cruz, California.
During quiet times on the sand bar, Denevan enjoyed working alone with his son who is an artist of many mediums. Denevan is proud of 30-year-old Brighton Denevan’s photography career and enjoyed having him handle all the photos of the Tofino project, he said.
Usually, Denevan’s beach sculptures are washed away after mere hours, but he picked this location knowing he would have days without the tides’ disruption. He knew the weekend would wash away the drawing, but did not know the exact day or time.
He originally hoped for Sunday, but on Friday, as the waves were beginning to “nibble” at the edges of the sculpture, Denevan realized he was running out of time.
“That is when I knew I only had the one chance on Saturday,” he said.
He and his volunteers pulled through. At around 4 p.m., the project was complete. During the late evening, the tides crossed through the center of the sculpture as a crowd watched. Kids often reacted with delight while adults were more contemplative, Denevan said.
The worldly artist created land-art in various countries such as Argentina, Australia, Spain, Russia and Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Vancouver Biennale exhibited a freehand sculpture Denevan designed on Vancouver’s Spanish Banks Beach.
He also holds the Guinness World Record for the largest artwork created from sand, which he completed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert during 2009.
The record-breaking land-sculpture was an Apollonian gasket with a circumference of nine miles (roughly 14.5 kilometers) and 1000 nested circles, according to Guinness. The term Apollonian gasket refers to a geometric process of repeatedly nesting smaller circles in the negative space around three larger ones, within one large ring.
Although he does not use measurement tools for his work, mathematics informs many of his geometric etchings. His mother, Dorothy Denevan, was a mathematician known for her expertise as a Fibonacci theorist and died in 2000.
Denevan believes working with the geometric shapes gives him the same feeling she had while working with numbers on a chalk board. His strengths are patterns and improvisation, so he has a different relationship to math than his mother had — but he feels connected to the same feeling she had while solving problems.
“Maybe I’m solving problems, walking among the sand, in a different way. She solved math problems, and for me maybe it is the walking, and the motion, and the moving around the shapes and sizes that gives me a different kind of ‘math high,’” he said. “She seemed to be truly filled with this powerful personal and universal energy that came from working on math.”
When he is not creating land-art, Denevan travels to host events where people eat at the location of their food’s production, called Outstanding in the Field.
More information about Denevan’s sculptures can be viewed on his website: www.jimdenevan.com.