The Sculpture Wonderland That Once Delighted I-80 Drivers

9 min
These are among the many creatures that used to inhabit the Emeryville Mudflats. (Courtesy of Walt Ringbom)

Back in the day, Bay Curious listener Lisa Schwartz remembers seeing something odd in Emeryville. Nestled in the armpit of The Maze -- across Interstate 80 from where IKEA is today -- was a stretch of muddy tidal flat full of creatures.

There was a ramshackle warrior riding a horse into battle. Fifty feet away – a wooden dog playing an electric guitar. And when the sun was setting just right, the silhouette of a toothy sea monster emerged from the muck.

If you were a kid in the back seat of a car, driving by the Emeryville Mudflats was magic.

Our listener, Lisa Schwartz, wants to know: What happened to those sculptures? Or was it all a dream?

For decades, artists would make, destroy and remake sculptures on the mudflats.
For decades, artists would make, destroy and remake sculptures on the mudflats. (Courtesy of Walt Ringbom.)

At the beginning of the 1960s the mudflats were a wasteland of space by the side of the freeway approaching the Bay Bridge.

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“The Emeryville Crescent was in probably the loudest, most busiest spot in the whole area,” says Joey Enos, a sculptor and historian for the Emeryville Mudflats. “You have three or four major freeways meeting right there.”

Tons of driftwood, trash and debris would float into the area during tidal changes. To many it was an eyesore … but to a few artists, it was an opportunity.

After an initial ad hoc sculpture popped up (accounts differ as to who was responsible for the first installation, though Enos likes John McCracken for it), the Mudflats became a venue for anonymous public art. Contributors included professional artists, students, local factory workers and housewives.

People built hands rising from the mud, vikings, dragons, sphinxes, kangaroos, birds and trains. These forms were built with driftwood, foam, hubcaps, brooms, plastic jugs and buckets -- basically, it was a lot of junk, nailed together to create something beautiful.

The lawless space for free expression lasted for about 30 years. Enos’ mother actually announced her pregnancy to his father by building a baby buggy sculpture at the Mudflats.

“It was really kicking in the ’70s,” Enos says of the Mudflats’ visiting sculptors. “Technically, they were trespassing, but no one bothered them. Emeryville loved it, because it made them look classy.”

It was not a static space. People would borrow pieces from one sculpture to build a new one. When activists heard about the sculpture garden, they used it to transmit political messages to passing cars.

“If you made anything political, it was asking for people to mess with it,” Enos says. “To either add to it, or flatten it, because they disagreed.”

This flattening and rebuilding process was called “editing” and it was actually shown in a deleted scene from the cult classic film, "Harold and Maude." The titular couple are sitting along the freeway enjoying the sculptures and a sunset over the bay when two figures emerge and start attacking a sign that spells out F-U-C-K W-A-R. When they leave, all that is left is the word WAR.

An expletive-free version of the "FUCK WAR" sculpture.
An expletive-free version of the "FUCK WAR" sculpture. (Courtesy of Walt Ringbom.)

Something else speaks to Enos about the Mudflats: It proved anybody could make public art, or augment it and make it their own. Even if academically trained artists got things started, ordinary people and folk artists were the ones who kept the space alive.

“I’m really into this idea that people showed up in California, and they had this beautiful Italianesque landscape around them and they were like, ‘You know what this needs? A giant artichoke! You know what this needs? A giant igloo in the desert!’ ” Enos says. “Making your own world, by any means necessary, is really interesting to me.”

On a recent visit, the only sculptures one could see were two horses made of buckets. That’s a far cry from the dozens and dozens of sculptures that once filled the area. So what happened?

Land along the waterfront in Emeryville was sold, and new Miami-style condos with floor-to-ceiling windows were built next to the mudflats. For the condo's new residents, all that junk art spoiled the epic views they’d been promised.

Around the same time the sculptures started getting flattened at rapid rates.

“There were a lot of conspiracy theories,” says Enos. “Some people suspect the developers themselves were dismantling the sculptures, smashing them to bits or even setting some on fire.”

Environmentalists in the Bay Area also disapproved of the sculptures. The junk and the artists were disruptive to the area’s delicate ecosystem.

Then in 1989 came the Loma Prieta earthquake. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake damaged sections of Emeryville, including the highway that ran alongside the mudflats. A new highway was built that no longer had a clear view of the mudflats. With less of an audience, artists were further disincentivized to make work.

Finally came the cleanup. In 1998, Caltrans spent millions to cart away tons of garbage and driftwood by helicopter. Without access to free materials, the sculpture garden was finished.