Over the past several months, a curious sight has arisen from the waters surrounding Marin County. Four markers, painted in black-and-white stripes and adorned with nautical symbols, have been placed throughout the Bay to document the rising tides in a new visual model created by local sculptor Jeff Downing.
This month, Downing displays his aquatic markers at MarinMOCA in Novato for the exhibit, “Level Up! A Sculptural View of Sea Level Rise.” Opening on Nov. 21, the show will reveal sea level rise and its direct impact on communities in Marin.
Downing’s concept for “Level Up” came about in 2017 when he participated in an environmental art project in Mexico.
“There was a lake on the site that was full most of the year,” Downing says. “But there’s a drought season and the lake water goes out, and a lot of the things covered in water are exposed.”
Downing installed aquatic sculptures in Mexico to mark the diminishing water levels, though he was inspired to document the opposite effect when he returned to the Bay Area.
“I thought about working with water, and the Bay Area having its own water issues with drought, but it also has tidal flooding,” he says. “I became interested in the tidal surge and King Tides, which happen twice a year. King Tides show what tides are going to be like with sea level rise, and everybody’s learning now that sea level rise is progressing because the Earth is getting warmer and the ice caps are melting.”
According to data compiled by the California Coastal Commission, San Francisco Bay is projected to see a rise between 1.1 and 2.7 feet by 2050. To see exactly what that means for Marin, Downing began placing his aquatic markers in waters near the Richmond Bridge and spots like Gate 5 Road in Sausalito, where the Bay already rises dramatically.
In addition to being eye-catching works, Downing’s sculptures aim to raise awareness and to educate the public about the realities of rising tides.
“My project is about making something that is attractive and beautiful, but it also has a meaning,” Downing says.
An East Coast native, Downing moved to the Bay Area in the ’80s to play music, and he pursued ceramics at the Academy of Art. There, Downing met artist and longtime College of Marin professor Bill Abright, who inspired Downing to further refine his art.
To date, Downing’s brightly colored sculptures have been exhibited in galleries and public venues in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and throughout Europe. In addition to being a working artist, Downing is a full-time professor at San Francisco State University.
For the MarinMOCA exhibition, Downing will display several ceramic markers, as well as photos of them in the waters around Marin, with explanatory text accompanying the visuals. After the exhibit closes, the markers will be placed in the lagoon at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael as a public art display.
“They’re going to be a monument of sea level rise awareness,” Downing says. “It will be a public art sculpture with a message.”