In light of the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project’s mission to help reclaim the Santa Cruz RiverWalk as a safe and inviting destination spot, there’s a sad poetry to the fact that local photographer/sculptor Geoffrey Nelson’s contribution to that event was marred by the same unsavory element that has turned this beautiful public park into an area that is unsafe to traverse after dark. Under cover of night, an unidentified vandal tampered with Nelson’s Guardians of the River, a piece that featured large-scale LED-lit statues of an Ohlone man and woman sitting atop the San Lorenzo River’s pedestrian bridge.
A few days after affixing the woman to the bridge, Nelson finished constructing her male counterpart. Literally two hours after completing the statue, he put the man up on the bridge and went to get some pizza downtown. About an hour and a half later, while driving back, he could not see the man on the bridge. Startled, he stopped the car and got out to look for the sculpture.
“It was a foggy night,” Nelson recalls. “I could see just little pieces of plastic on the walkway.”
Unable to find the sculpture in the river, the sculptor took down the woman and brought her back to his studio at The Tannery. The following day he got a call from Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation. “They said they had found the bits and pieces of the statue in the river,” he explains.
When he went back to the bridge to retrieve the remains of the sculpture, he found that “it was pretty smashed up—about 50 percent destroyed.” While there, he put the woman back up and left her there in the day. Fearing further vandalism, he removed her from the bridge just a few hours into the evening.
The artist then began the time-consuming task of rebuilding the man. “I was determined,” he says. “This was part of what Ebb & Flow was about: that idea of the citizens of Santa Cruz re-owning the river.” He adds that the very forces that make it uncomfortable for people to go to the river at night had tampered with his art installation. “So it was sort of that feeling that if you didn’t do anything about it and didn’t rebuild the man, they would have won,” he offers.
One GoFundMe campaign and a great deal of work later, the man and woman were reunited at October’s Glow Festival in new and improved form. This time around, the statues were fitted with addressable LEDs which could be individually triggered for color changing, strobing and chasing.
Geoffrey Nelson Sculptures
Nelson, who has worked as a commercial advertising photographer and fine art photographer for approximately 35 years, is now moving toward being a sculptor full-time. He considers his sculptures to be an extension of his fine art photography, which focuses primarily on the nude figure.
The sculptor envisions a new installation for the next Ebb & Flow event: a large metal fishing rod suspended over the river from the bridge as a woman dives into the water. “The colors would just glow and move up as if she’s splashing into the water, and she’d be this glowing figure doing this beautiful swan dive into the river right by Highway 1,” he enthuses. “And that way, I think it’s a little more vandal-proof, because you’d have to risk your life to try to destroy it!”
In reference to Ebb & Flow, Nelson offers, “I think it was really important to try to say, ‘Hey, let’s make this a community area that people enjoy. Hopefully this is the beginning of more ways to get the community to be involved in the river.”
Geoffrey Nelson: www.geoffreynelsonphoto.com.