It’s three days before the opening of his new installation, and artist Shay Church still isn’t sure exactly what it’s going to look like.
“I have a general idea,” says the nationally acclaimed clay artist, who is sitting in the middle of his creation-in-process at the Radius Gallery in Santa Cruz. “But things will kind of evolve as the piece comes together. That way, there’s a sense of discovery for me, which is super important.”
He is not, however, starting from zero. Church has been invited to transform the interior of the Radius at the Tannery Arts Center as part of the upcoming Ebb & Flow River Festival. His installation is called Bend, and it’s a re-creation of a scene in nature—specifically, a river bend, complete with grazing, life-size animals—created with about two tons of clay.
This is what Church does. His specialty is to create enormous organic structures—elephants and whales are favorite forms—and build them in such a way that they will naturally decay, often in urban environments. He has created more than 20 site-specific installations nationwide. “I get to take over a space for a period of time,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a parking lot, sometimes it’s an abandoned building, sometimes it’s a gallery.”
Radius gallery director Ann Hazels thought Church’s particular style would be a good fit for the Ebb & Flow festival, which is designed to pay tribute to the ecosystems that depend on the San Lorenzo River.
Church is based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he works as a professor of art at Kalamazoo College and runs a pottery studio called Grayling Ceramics. He is not, however, unfamiliar with California; he earned a master’s degree from San Jose State University. When Hazels invited him to submit a proposal, “that got me thinking about California and about being out in the West,” Church says.
The result will be Bend, representing a mythical scene in which Church will play with a sense of geological time. “My goal is to create a piece that is not recognizable in time. Is it present? Past? Future? I’m really playing with those notions,” he says.
The animals and riverbank were all built from donated wood scraps, onto which are applied thick layers of clay. “At that point, the clay takes over,” says Church. “It’s going to be wet for a while, then it’s going to dry and crack.”
The changing nature of the forms in the installation, Church says, is the point of the art. He’s interested in the way the piece may change as the clay changes. “I started to think about the word ‘permanence’ a lot in grad school, just asking myself why is it important that I build this and the thing exists, when it was really just the building of it that I enjoyed.”
Similar to Church’s work will be installations from Big Sur artist Jayson Fann, who creates enormous “nest” structures from eucalyptus gathered for fire clearance in Monterey County. Fann will present one of his eucalyptus structures alongside another piece built on site from driftwood gathered by the City of Santa Cruz along the San Lorenzo and at Main Beach.
“I’ve never worked with driftwood before,” says Fann, whose work has been displayed around the world. The driftwood comes from a variety of sources: sycamore, oak, alder, redwood, cypress and more. “It all fits together,” says Fann, “like a puzzle.”
‘Bend’ opens Thursday, May 23, with an artist’s reception from 6-8 p.m. Installation through July 9. The Ebb & Flow River Arts Festival takes place June 7 from 5:30-9 p.m. at the Tannery Arts Center. Free. ebbandflowfest.org.