A blade of eelgrass in its bed in the San Francisco Bay is unspectacular. But eelgrass beds are vital to the health of the whole bay, providing safe spawning places for fish, harboring the small creatures the fish feed on, and serving as a piscine larder for osprey and other fisher birds. The blades’ gentle waving slows the motion of the tides, allowing sediment to settle and combat sea level rise, as their photosynthesis ability sucks in carbon.
“If people do stumble onto the edge of an eelgrass bed that is exposed on a low tide, they might see the plants splayed out on the sand or mud, but it won’t give them a sense of what this lush habitat is like,” said Professor of Biology Katharyn Boyer of San Francisco State University’s Estuary & Ocean Science Center.
One of the last thriving eelgrass habitats in the bay is Richmond’s 32-mile coastline. Three-quarters of all the remaining eelgrass beds and natural oyster reefs are located there, and scientists working to re-establish eelgrass in other places around the bay harvest the beds for replanting.
The simple elegance of eelgrass, as well as its crucial importance in the bay’s ecosystem, is celebrated in a new public sculpture, Changing Tide, being installed at the Richmond Ferry Terminal. As increasing numbers of commuters and tourists take advantage of the short but stunning ride back and forth from San Francisco’s Embarcadero, they’ll view the seven 20-foot steel depictions of eelgrass, complete with benches mimicking oyster reefs. For husband-and-wife artist team Jeff Reed and Jennifer Madden, this piece has evolved into something with significance beyond just its beauty.
The pair, who have been designing site-specific public art together for more than 25 years, were selected from 300 applicants to create a work for the Ferry Terminal. Currently Berkeley residents, they lived in Richmond for three years, and their studio is in one of the city’s several working artist enclaves. When they received the commission from Richmond’s Art & Culture Commission more than five years ago, their first idea was to use inspiration from the city’s storied World War II years. But as they researched, they realized multiple tributes to that era already existed. “We needed to tell another story,” Reed said.
So they began looking farther and farther back into the area’s history, uncovering plans that showed the original marshlands. They came in contact with people like Blue Frontier Campaign’s David Helvarg, who took them deeper into the ecology of the bay, describing the eelgrass beds as a “natural nursery,” home to Dungeness crab, sea hares, and leopard sharks, among many other species. The idea for Changing Tide emerged as both an ideal concept for the bayside setting of the sculpture, and a way to educate more people about a humble but essential plant that is potentially threatened by development plans.
A trip to Burning Man provided the spark for another evolution of the piece’s concept. “We saw all the energy that artists were bringing to their work in this ‘dream spot,'” Reed said. “We thought, ‘What if we could help bring that energy back to the default world?'” Reed and Madden have used LED lights and solar panels in other public art projects, so they re-envisioned the sculpture to include solar panels that illuminate the “blades” at night, and, eventually, motion sensors that will cause the light to respond to human movement, and speakers that will allow music and sound to be part of the piece.
The difficulty was, Madden acknowledged, that even with the estimated 7,500 hours the pair and their engineer partner, Stephen Heinen, have put into Changing Tide, and generous donations of time and skills from other engineers, machinists, and even Trans Bay Steel, who helped build the Bay Bridge, the money was not there for the complete reconfigured concept.
Undeterred, Reed and Madden built the light and sound capacities into the structure. Sleek green solar panels, created specifically for the sculpture, glitter like mosaics in the sun on the blades’ backs, and will glow with 19,000 tiny LED lights at night, allowing viewers a glimpse into the nocturnal ambiance of an eelgrass bed. The blades’ bases are engineered to serve as speakers for the sound that will eventually be part of the piece.
Reed and Madden launched a “donation” tab on the ChangingTide.info website, dedicated to raising the additional $200,000 needed to complete the interactive elements of the sculpture. Site visitors can also view a short “creation movie” depicting the evolution of Changing Tide.
The artists envision the site being used for live performances, and are reaching out to Richmond high schools to involve students in evolving ideas for live use.
Changing Tide will be officially unveiled on Oct. 5, at a free event that is also a benefit raising funds for the piece’s completion. The event will serve as the finale for Bay Day, during which environmental restoration work takes place all around the bay. Donors of $500 receive premier seating, dinners and drinks. Reed and Madden hope many people will attend to see the site’s potential, and enjoy its addition to Richmond’s “waterfront gateway.”
“I believe an art piece that honors eelgrass in such a public, highly trafficked spot, will make people aware of this rich resource and inspire them to want to protect it and all its many values,” said Boyer.
Changing Tide unveiling, Oct. 5, 6 p.m., 1453 Harbour Way S., Richmond, ChangingTide.info Free, but donations can be sent to Richmond Friends of Recreation: for Changing Tide, Box 70105, Richmond, CA 94807.