Ephemeral Art

Human beings have an innate desire to create beauty—even if it doesn’t last for long.

Sometimes I forget this, amidst the ever-accumulating pile of potentially permanent ugliness we have managed put into the world of late.  However, two recent explosions of expression reminded me that we do still have this admirable drive to make art.

The first happened on the beach near the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, CA. I hadn’t walked there for several days; the area had experienced on of its most violent storm events of the last few years and I hadn’t been in the mood to brave the torrents. The river had flooded, the surf had come up over the road in places, and fallen trees had closed roads throughout the county. When the weather finally cleared and the sun came out, the beach was almost completely covered in driftwood and tree remnants. While some people arrived in pick-up trucks to collect firewood, others set to work constructing driftwood forts, stick sculptures, sand designs, and other forms of detritus-based art.

I was astonished by just how much post-storm art was out there. Sure, some of the expressions were five-minute assemblages of kelp strands and plastic bottles.  But others took the form of full-sized shanties complete with delicate gates and ornate walkways leading up to their doors. There were sculptures that required both balance and the careful selection of materials, and there were sand art creations that must have taken hours to complete.

One week later, I flew to Teton Valley, Idaho, where the county’s Great Snow Fest was underway. Among the events scheduled for this annual celebration of the area’s long, cold winter was a snow sculpting competition. In case you’re unfamiliar with snow sculpting, it’s actually become a fairly serious artistic discipline. Contests offer respectable cash prizes, and between these purses and the money that can be made sculpting works for restaurants, clubs, and city parks in snowy areas, a good snow sculptor can make a decent living during the winter months. Teton Valley’s snow sculpting competition has been taking place for six years now, and there are usually six or seven teams of participating artists who choose to portray a wide variety of subject matter in a diversity of styles.

This year, the winning sculpture was of a gracefully-executed giraffe. Tall, lithe, and delicate, this animal’s embodiment in snow required significant skill. It was clear to all that it was a winning creation; it was also clear that it wouldn’t be around for long. Just a little bit of warming would undoubtedly cause the giraffe’s head to fall or melt right off. I couldn’t help but wonder if the obviously short half-life of this sculpture contributed to the crowd’s appreciation of it.

For me, this is the connection between these two “art events.” While they transpired over one thousand miles, several states, and about fifty degrees of temperature apart, they are bound by their celebration of ephemerality.

Sand art rarely lasts for more than eight hours. After all, the Pacific Ocean experiences fairly dramatic tides, and very little sand stays above the tideline for long. If it does manage to escape a cycle or two, the bulldozers that grade the beach plow it under within a the week. The driftwood art might last a little longer; this last round was up for a few days before the heavy machinery came to haul all of the wood away.

Snow sculptures suffer from rapid deterioration as well. Some years, they have started melting and crumbling mere hours after their completion. In other years, the temperatures have stayed cold enough to preserve them, but the accumulation of new snow over top of the works has made their original forms unrecognizable. Knowing this, one member of the Buddha’s sculpting team told me that they had chosen to make a round seated figure because they knew his wide snow mound would outlast all the other creations. They didn’t think their sculpture would win the competition, but they figured it would still be around in March.

The snow sculptors spent the better part of a week carving their pieces. The sand and beach art creators spent far less time, but they still committed hours to projects that they knew would disappear. And they did them anyway.

In a world where legacy, “staying power,” and “timelessness” are so highly valued, I have to admire people who invest time and life force into making beauty just for the sake of beauty, or expressing themselves just for the sake of expressing themselves.

It’s a capacity that may well be unique to us human beings, and I like to see us exercising it.



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