Renowned sand artist up against the clock as tide threatens massive installation in Tofino, B.C.

·3 min read
An aerial view of Jim Denevan's installation in Tofino, B.C. The world-renowned artist is known for creating geometric sand paintings — called 'land art' — that exist briefly before succumbing to the elements. (Brighton Denevan - image credit)
An aerial view of Jim Denevan's installation in Tofino, B.C. The world-renowned artist is known for creating geometric sand paintings — called 'land art' — that exist briefly before succumbing to the elements. (Brighton Denevan - image credit)

Jim Denevan is about as zen as it gets when it comes to an art project he's creating in Tofino, B.C.

Four months of painstaking planning and execution will be washed away by the Pacific Ocean at 9:30 p.m. PT on Saturday.

But two days before it happens, he's still working away.

"It's a good life lesson," said the artist from Santa Cruz, California. "Nothing is permanent."

Denevan is a world-renowned artist who creates geometric sand paintings — called "land art" — that exist briefly before succumbing to the elements.

Erica Johnson/CBC
Erica Johnson/CBC

For over a week, he's been toiling on Chesterman Beach, one of a handful of beaches that stretch along the west coast in Tofino.

Denevan has produced massive pieces, primarily out of sand, in over 25 countries, including Spain, Russia, England and Uruguay.

Many of his installations are commissions — he's created a giant alien for a kids' movie, the world's largest footprint for a boot manufacturer — but this Tofino project is a labour of love.

Brighton Denevan
Brighton Denevan

"It's as good as it gets for me," he said. "Typically when I draw in the sand, it lasts three to five hours then it washes away. But … I can work [here] for an entire week. There's an elevated platform, so the sand stays drawable."

He estimates a high tide will start erasing his composition — which will be 1,000 metres by 200 metres — on Saturday night. But that doesn't bother him one bit.

"This is a natural area, a beautiful, beautiful place," he said. "It would be tacky, bombastic, to put something very large here that lasted more than a few days."

Brighton Denevan
Brighton Denevan

As he works, tourists and locals stroll by — all surprised to happen upon Denevan and his work-in-progress.

"One thing that's fun about this particular location and a large art work like this is that no one's expecting it," he said.

"People are just enjoying the day, they go for a walk. And the artwork is on the ground, not 100 feet tall. So it still feels gentle to them, not overwhelming. Even though the artwork is 1,000 metres."

'How is it so perfect?'

It was certainly unexpected for Antonia Smith, who's visiting Tofino for the first time, from Halifax.

"I've never seen anything like this," she said. "It's just incredible. How is it so perfect?"

Denevan uses a hoe, a stick, and a rake as his tools, creating works so symmetrical that they look computer-engineered.

Brighton Denevan
Brighton Denevan

For this project, he's inviting volunteers to rake and dig — most afternoons this past week have seen more than a dozen people helping out, he says.

The California native says he started creating art as a result of a tumultuous childhood. His father died when he was five years old, and his mother threw herself into her work.

 

He says he retreated to the forest to escape the trauma of his home, where there was virtually no parenting for himself and his seven brothers.

"It's half meditation, half physical exercise."

He does want some record of his work before it's all washed away. Denevan says he'll rent a helicopter to take pictures this weekend. The piece will be photographed by satellite, too.

Brighton Denevan
Brighton Denevan

But once it's gone, it's on to another artwork, says Denevan — once he recovers from the physically demanding project.

"I draw in the sand for my own enjoyment," he says.

"It's a creative outlet. Like a big sheet of paper."

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