Anyone who builds a sandcastle, or doodles on the beach, feels the impermanence of such creations. It's one of sand's many qualities - for a material that lends itself to sculpture, writing, and drawing, and for all the toughness of the individual grains, it resists, in conspiracy with waves, rain, and wind, any kind of durability of form. Ripples shape-shift with every tide, dunes move on with every gust of wind - however nature or we may attempt to shape it, these works are ephemeral. There are stories, some perhaps true, many no doubt apocryphal, of Pablo Picasso sketching in the sand on a beach; in one, he is pursued by a woman asking for a small sketch, and he obliges by drawing a picture in the sand.
It is its ephemeral character that gives sand its role in the imagery of passing time - and its uniqueness as a medium. It is that very impermanence that is an intrinsic part of land art of all kinds, but of the work of one extraordinary artist in particular.
Jim Denevan walks out onto a freshly washed Northern California beach, bends down, and draws a circle, the size of a coin, in the sand with his finger. More circles create a spiral nest, the outer ones growing larger. Using a driftwood stick as his paintbrush, he draws bigger circles in the sand, each one nestling with the previous; the design grows fractally. Denevan does all this freehand—there is no outline, no preliminary design; the artwork simply flows from his mind through the choreography of his movement. His work evokes a Japanese karesansui, popularly known as a Zen garden, with its contemplative design of raked sand. Denevan’s design is monumental, ultimately occupying the entire width of the beach. He uses a large rake to highlight the outline and to fill in the spaces with texture. A few hours later, the tide destroys the art and renews the canvas. For Denevan, the transience is part of the art; it recognizes “some kind of truth about life—what is grand, or what is fragile. . . . Everything is transitioning into something else.” Denevan’s designs are diverse, ranging from huge perfect spirals, to representational images, to complex circles and linear shapes, suggesting a more fragile version of the Nazca lines, the gigantic figures in the Peruvian desert—themselves created by the removal of desert stones to expose the light-colored sand beneath.
For Denevan, the process, the dance, the intimacy with the sand is a fundamental component.
He recently made the world's largest freehand drawing, this time on a dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It's three miles across and he walked a hundred miles in eight days to complete it. A desert storm washed it away the following week.
Denevan also excels in a completely different form of ephemeral art - he's a renowned chef, creating unique culinary works inspired by local produce and landscapes. Outstanding in the Field is now staging feast tours internationally as well as throughout North America - Jim was incredibly helpful when I was writing my book, and I have an aspiration to coincide with and indulge in one of his events.
But to finish, I'll return to sand, and celebrate the pleasure of its impermanence through Jim Denevan's own words:
One part of drawing in the sand that’s really great is that, no matter what I do, no matter how big it is, I have a completely clean sheet of paper, meaning a completely clean strip of sand that I can return to every day, and there’s an incredible freedom in that kind of artwork.
[see https://www.jimdenevan.com/ and https://www.outstandinginthefield.com/. The Northern California Public broadcasting station, KQED, has a terrific short video of Denevan working and talking about it - https://kqed02.streamguys.us/anon.kqed/spark/jimdenevan.m4v]