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Anonymous Art Revealed: The Stories Behind the Emeryville Mudflat Sculptures

Once there were whimsical sculptures built out of driftwood and other beach debris in Emeryville. Known as the Emeryville Mudflats, these sculptures were a series of large-scale driftwood installations in the Emeryville mudflats from the 1960s through the 1980s that provided a radically new forum for public art. A drive-by whimsical sculpture garden, these anonymous sculptures emerged from the muddy lowlands along the Nimitz Freeway. What began as an art school experiment became a mysterious cultural landmark of the San Francisco Bay. The Emeryville Mudflat sculptures were made by the masses, edited by the public and celebrated by an audience of drivers heading west on the I-80. It was an epic chaos that reflected the complex reckoning of history within the American Experience.

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Pyramid and palm tree sculptures, September 1976

Around five years ago, CCA Libraries acquired a special collection of photographs by UC Davis Professor Robert Sommer that provide a comprehensive visual documentation of the mudflat installations. Unfortunately, little exists of the stories behind the sculptures. So we partnered with Joey Enos, local historian and artist, to enrich the historical record of the Emeryville mudflat sculptures by recording the oral histories of key sculpture builders and participants. The Emeryville mudflat oral history recordings are available digitally in CCA's online archive. Funding for the oral history initiative was provided by a 2017 California Humanities grant.

Robert Sommer at the Emeryville Mudflats, 1981

Robert Sommer, Emeryville Mudflats 1981

The majority of the participants who built sculptures never considered themselves artists or considered the historic importance of their contribution. Yet it was passionate community members who were drawn to the mudflats to have an artistic dialog in a public arena. These sculptures and the artists who made them reflect a period of political upheaval in America, much like the current day, and a time of radical change in the Bay Area: the rise of free speech, the Hippie generation, the black panthers, the swinging 1970s, and the Reagan era. We wanted to understand what drove so many people, from all walks of life, out in the mud to make art out of garbage and driftwood in a very public space.

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Angel, windmill and knight sculptures, May 1978

The influence of the sculptures and the communities that created them can still be seen throughout the Bay Area and popular culture. Within Emeryville itself, the mudflat sculptures inspired a culture of public art throughout the city, culminating in the Art in Public Places program in 1990, which funds sculptures, murals and installations. The sculptures have also provided inspiration to cultural producers such as Chris Marker, whose short Junkopia is an homage to the works, and director Hal Ashby, whose cult classic Harold and Maude juxtaposes footage of the mudflat sculptures with one of the movie’s most pivotal dialogs.

We have our first batch of oral histories and digitized photographs up on our website. Check them out! Do you remember the Emeryville mudflat sculptures? Did you build some? Do you have any photographs? Share your stories with us on Anonymous Art Revealed on Facebook or contact CCA Libraries.

This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

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