Waterfront Artwork: An East Bay Tradition

Tuesday July 22, 2003

In the early 1970s, several unknown artists left their mark in the waters under and around the Bay Bridge. On wooden posts that jutted above the waterline, they mounted a series of wooden boats, trains and other statues. Though the “water art” frequently fell in high winds, or was swept away by large waves, it was often replaced within a few days. 

The space proved ideal: free, with an unlimited audience. “If you found an empty post, you could pretty much do what you wanted on top of it,” one Bay Bridge artist said. “Nobody knew who the other people were, but we were sort of working together anyway—if someone built a blue train, you might create a matching red one. It looked like we were all in on it together.” 

“They looked very pretty out there, rising in the air above the water,” longtime Berkeley resident Ann Corrigan recalled. “You always thought they would get knocked down, but when they did they always came back.” 

The statuary inspired Albany artist Tyler Hoare to add his own pieces to the bay, just off the Berkeley Marina. “I was coming home from an exhibit in Richmond where maybe 200 people had seen my stuff,” Hoare said. “I figured if I put it by the freeway in the water it would catch everybody’s attention and make some people smile.” 

In 1975 Hoare built a green airplane of lumber and canvas as his first addition to the water gallery. The 14-foot-long, six-foot-high plane—a representation of the Sopwith Camel from the Peanuts comic strip—became a popular attraction for residents. Eventually, Hoare added a representation of Snoopy’s Red Baron, so that the two statues appeared to be fighting each other from their different posts. (“I loved it,” said Oakland resident Charles Montgomery, who was about 10 years old when Hoare created his originals. “I would beg my parents to go down to the water so we could see Snoopy versus the Red Baron.”) 

Unsure whose approval he needed to mount the statues, Hoare wrote his own letters of permission, ostensibly from the mayor of Berkeley, the state governor and other area officials. Though no one tried to stop them, Hoare said he and his team were nervous: “The guy we left on shore with the fake letters was sweating bullets,” he said.  

Within a few years, the Berkeley Marina project became a collaborative effort, similar to that at the Bay Bridge, when someone added a doghouse to the Snoopy display. Hoare never found out who did it, but said the person stopped creating new versions when, in 2000, Hoare stopped posting new Red Barons and Sopwith Camels. 

That year, Berkeley resident Joshua Polston used the vacant posts for a new art project. Children from the Berkeley Marina Adventure playground created smaller representations of Snoopy and the airplane as a one-time display. Though the statues fell within a few weeks, Polston said they were a fun project for kids and a fitting memorial to Hoare’s work. 

“For that short time people could remember what it used to look like,” Polston said. “It brought back the nostalgia.” 

Today, most of the posts that held statues near the bridge and in the Berkeley Marina are gone, as is most of the art. Last week, however, the now gray-haired Hoare motored out to an empty post, just off of the Emeryville Shoreline, and amid the pitchings of his boat and the gusts of the wind, mounted a dozen new abstracts. 

But the statuary doesn’t satisfy everyone who remembers the past: “There is still a bit of art left in the water,” said the Bay Bridge artist. “But the glory days are gone—it was a different era, I suppose.”