Drapped in paint-speckled sweaters and jackets, Osha Neumann sat huddled over a piece of old driftwood, transforming it dab by dab into a mural-like panel of whimsical figures. Behind him lay the barren shores of the Albany Bulb, a man-made outcropping of dirt and concrete that stretches far into the bay. "This is the last wild, free space," he said, painting what looked to be a Push-Me-Pull-You of the elephant-dragon variety. "The other parts of the Bay Area are controlled and regulated."
The panoramic view of the bay from the northern tip of the Bulb seemed to prove his point. From San Francisco's skyline to the enormous Costco building in nearby Richmond, the shoreline is built-out. Directly across from the Bulb's northernmost point, the Chevron oil refinery sent plumes of smoke and flame into the fog-washed sky. But the Bulb stretches the definition of "wild, free space." A product of decades of dumping by construction and railroad companies, the 31-acre peninsula is made up entirely of concrete, metal, coke slag, and dirt. In the seventeen years since the dump trucks stopped coming, the Bulb has been left virtually alone, allowing vegetation to grow up around the twisted, rusting rebar.
In recent years, a great deal of artwork also has grown out of the old building debris and bay flotsam. Today, there are more than sixty huge pieces of art on display, from a huge foam archway anchored with rebar to a ship built from old pieces of driftwood to a concrete triptych depicting the crowd at nearby Golden Gate Fields. The urban wreckage and even the extreme weather are integral parts of the carnival-like exhibition.
"If these paintings were all sitting in someone's studio, you'd critique them totally different than they are now," said artist David Ryan, as he sat on one of the makeshift viewing benches lining the shore. "You really have to take them in context." Ryan, Neumann, and others say the toll the elements and vandals take on their open-air gallery is a small price to pay for the inspiration the materials give them. "In museums, the art is staged," said Neumann. "You know exactly what the experience is going to be. Here, I am allowed the freedom to do whatever I want."
Soon, however, that freedom may be challenged. The Bulb, owned by the city of Albany, has been designated open space for years. But there are plans afoot to incorporate the area into the Eastshore State Park, which, when completed, will encompass eight miles of shoreline from Oakland to Richmond. Partly in preparation for this, in 1999 the Albany City Council directed police to kick out a colony of seventy homeless people camping out at the Bulb. Neumann worries that was just the first step. "At some point there'll be a battle because it is very hard for bureaucrats to leave well enough alone," he said.
Discussion over the Bulb's future already has begun. Even though it is not yet part of the state park system, the Bulb was one of the hotly contested issues at two regional workshops held last month at Hs. Lordships Restaurant in the Berkeley Marina. Under one alternative, the Albany Plateau (bayshore parkland immediately east of the Bulb) would be converted into a sports complex, community center, and concession stand. Phillip Moss, president of the Alameda Contra Costa Youth Soccer Club's Mavericks program, said Albany sorely needs open space for playing fields. "We have 3,300 kids with no place to play," he said. "There is year-round soccer and year-round Little League, and still we don't have enough facilities."
But in a classic display of Bay Area contrariness, not all at the meeting agreed. "I don't want this area turned into some kind of amusement park," said Tanya Baker, an Oakland resident who regularly walks her dog in the area. Elin Hansen, also from Oakland, said highly intensive use of the Plateau would affect the Bulb nearby. "You get more and more people out there and pretty soon it won't be wild any more," she said.
That would suit Moss just fine. Even though the city kicked out the homeless and enforced a no-camping rule, Moss said the former landfill still is unsafe, and that homeless people still live under concrete slabs at the Bulb. "The last time an Albany police officer was attacked, it was right here," he said, pointing to the Bulb on a rollout map on a table. Back out at the Bulb, Ryan and three other artists worked on a huge piece of plywood. They spilled paint, elbowed each other out of the way, and flirted jokingly with one another's wives. "We share everything," joked Scott Hewitt as he painted a blindfolded female figure on the canvas. "Even our women."
The group, collectively known as Sniff, was painting a construction site scene, full of girders, cranes, and small-faced men with huge hardhats. Bruce Rayburn, who sported a captain's hat and Raiders training jacket with the logos ripped off, said he originally wanted this painting to be a building scene. "But as you see, the people are creeping back in." Figures of all kinds are on the girders, some sitting, some falling. A matador lies sprawled on the back of a bull running along a beam. Curiously, a down-and-out figure of Osha Neumann lies morosely on a girder while a rhesus monkey dances on his back.
"It just kind of unfolds and we argue it out," said Rayburn. "Sometimes we'll paint it and if we don't like it, we'll redo it."
Rayburn hopes the state will let them hang around once it inherits the Bulb, since they aren't hurting anything or anyone. "It would kill us to give this up," he said. "This has become a ritual of ours to come out here."
But if the artists want to keep their space they'll have to fight for it, said Ann Ritzma, Albany's city administrator. "No one is just going to hand them that space," she said. "They're going to have to stake a claim."
If the artists were to lobby to keep their open-air gallery, they'd be joining several other groups that already have made their preferences known during the first year of a two-year planning process for the Eastshore State Park. The Sierra Club, while approving limited recreational use, wants the Bulb's wildlife areas protected. Point Isabel Dog Owners favor continuing to let dogs roam off-leash at the Bulb. Bay Access, a nonprofit group advocating kayaking and sailboarding, wants the Bulb's lagoon to be used as a marina. "It's the urban dilemma," Ritzma said. "There are so many people and so many conflicts because there's not enough space for everyone and everything."
State park officials said they will try to balance having a public park and protecting wildlife, but the latter takes precedence. "Our classification system is based on the sensitivities of natural resources," said Steve Hammond, a state park planning consultant. "We work backward from that."
Once the Bulb becomes a state park area, Hammond promises lots of opportunities for public input. "There's no direct threat to the artists out on the Bulb," he said. But then he added that the state will go through the process of seeing whether the artwork is damaging the natural resources out there. Until now, the artists have kept a fairly low profile, enough to create some myths about who they are and how they do the art. Some residents call them a colony. Some say they are homeless. One visitor to the Bulb imagined they hid in the jungles of fennel, like woodland fairies, only coming out when people are not around. The artists roll their eyes at that one. "Can't we be elves or something, instead?" said Hewitt.
In actuality, the group members all have day jobs, families, and homes elsewhere. Rayburn, of El Sobrante, works as a general contractor. The others, who live in Oakland, are metal workers and carpenters. They say they show up only on Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. to noon to work on their art. Neumann, who usually creates sculptures and paintings by himself on the other side of the gallery, joins them. Despite the low profile, the five are slowly gaining notoriety via videos, news articles, and word of mouth. Recently, a local publisher came out with a 2002 calendar featuring their artwork on the Bulb. Ritzma said the interests of the artists and their fans will have to be weighed against various lobbies already calling for different uses for the Bulb and the park as a whole.
Bayfront artwork and its creators have lost out to nature before. Once visible from the I-80 freeway, dozens of wooden and tire sculptures in the Emeryville mudflats had to be removed in the 1990s because the area was prime habitat for a rare mouse. Albany currently is working on the landfill area's final environmental enhancements, which includes converting the Bulb's lagoons into wetland habitat. Several points off the Bulb are prime nesting sites for shorebirds, Ritzma said. Given that those enhancements will not be finished for a year and a half, park planners said it is too early to say what will happen to the Bulb.
However, Ritzma sees the artists as part of a dying breed, who eventually will have to give way to the dog walkers, the kayakers, the mothers with strollers, and society in general. In a big concession to soccer parents, Albany's City Council passed a resolution last month supporting sports fields and high-impact use on the Albany Plateau. "The artists are the last of the explorers and cowboys who headed west two hundred years ago," Ritzma said. "Back then there was plenty of space and they didn't have any rules. Well, there are not so many wilderness spaces any more."
Nevertheless, Rayburn said he hopes the state will let Sniff hang around. "It's a tough situation, because if you are trying to get back to a natural environment, this stuff is really unnatural," he said. "But then again, this is a landfill."
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