Composition: Driftwood dinosaur, with gulls and San Francisco skyline

The Mudflats are not exactly the kind of gallery most artists would like to display their work in. there are no docents here, nothing for sale, no protecting guards, no soft music, and few pedestrian browsers. The duration of each exhibit depends on the sturdiness of the work, the weather, the tide, and subsequent artists. And yet the Emeryville Mudflats have been called the "finest public sculpture gallery on the West Coast."

To this quarter-mile shoreline crescent between Berkeley and Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco, anonymous artists come whenever they choose, bringing merely saws, hammers, and nails. The site provides everything else they need to create this derelict art. The catchall basin offers parts of wrecked boats, mountains of driftwood, boots, bottles, buckets, cans, tires, fence posts, plastic, and Styrofoam in a hodgepodge only artistic minds could see beauty in.

If an artist finds nothing to inspire him at first, he just returns the next day -- the winds and tides that periodically sweep the floor of the gallery clean also bring more debris with which to work.

Working conditions, however, are not too good, since artists must work by the tide table, wade up to ankle deep in salty sludge, and often cope with strong bay winds and the general reek that accompanies any such collection of flotsam and jetsam.

At the same time, few studios or galleries can present such a dramatic background -- the San Francisco skyline and the brilliant sunsets behind the Golden Gate. Often a billowing gray fog bank will creep across the bay, silhouetting objects, showing them off to best advantage. And instead of the soft music the call of sea gulls and frequent other shore birds help to evoke a creative spirit in the least inspired artist.

Viewers at this exhibit, probably thousands more than at ordinary galleries, are most often doing 55 on the Eastshore Freeway.Every piece they see is unsigned, unsung, unhung, and "sometimes unsightly," the City Fathers used to say. But that was before the rash of favorable publicity proclaimed its artistic value.

According to some of this publicity, it was John McCracken, a young art student in the mid-'60s, who was first to see the mudflats as a display case for his driftwood art. Very soon his six original pieces were mysteriously joined by others. Appreciative photographers began to sell pictures to Bay Area media.

One of the earliest prhotogprahers was William Jackson of Berkeley, whose striking pictures of some of the better pieces of sculpture were published in newspapers, magazines and in his booklet Mudflat ARt (privately published, 10 full color photos, $5.95, P.O. Box 1222, Berkely, Calif. 94701).

And who are these artists who keep this idea going? Anyone and everyone who feels a creative urge and is willing to meet the demands of the terrain. The Mudflat sculptor must be willing to be superseded by the next high tide or the next artist who might build on his foundations. Today's imaginative, heroic knight could become tomorrow's dinosaur. This week's handsome locomotive might become a cowboy on horseback or reduced back to sea level debris next week.

Builders work alone and in groups, some merely for a day's entertainment, some seriously aiming to create an artwork. The closest any of them will come to preservation is through the photographs of people like William Jackson, four of whose 40-inch-by-60-inch pictures now grace the walls of the Emeryville City Council Chambers.

The city government, who originally frowned on this project, is now trying to decide whether to preserve the area, as artists and ecologists request, or give in to imminent development.

If the artists and ecologists lose their fight, the site, owned by Santa Fe Land Company, may spawn huge hotels like the nearby Holiday Inn and multistoried buildings like the Shaklee Corporation, displacing such endangered species as the California Clapper Rail.

The Mudflat Art Gallery is best viewed going south on the Eastshore Freeway. Don't slow down though. If you want a close look, plan ahead and take the Powell Street off ramp to the bordering frontage road where you can stop and admire and photograph. At least for awhile longer.

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