Drawing a Line in the Sand
Diana Lynn Thompson's Beach Art Celebrates The Natural And The Ephemeral

By Robin Laurence.
The Georgia Straight, August 2003

You might be walking on Sunset Beach, or Locarno, or Spanish Banks. You might be at Jericho Beach, gazing out at a flock of skittery white sailboats contrasted against the dark, slumbrous hump of Stanley Park. Or perhaps you're watching a crow strutting along the water's edge and pecking at the remains of a starfish. You smell the ocean, feel underfoot
the seaweed and broken seashells deposited on the sand by last night's tide.

Unexpectedly, you come across a shimmering blue design in the sand, a swirling skirt of mussel shells. Wrapped around and spreading out from three low rocks, clearly not an accident of nature, this delicate mosaic, this simple yet considered work of art, is in danger
of being washed away by the rising tide. Which is exactly the point.

Part of an ongoing series of ephemeral works produced by Salt Spring Island artist Diana Lynn Thompson and collectively titled Gesture, the mussel-shell mosaic speaks of a meditative relationship to humble and repetitive tasks. It speaks of persistence and perseverance, the artist says, in the face of fleeting existence. And it recognizes an aspiration for art beyond its exhibition and sale within a commercial or institutional setting.

"The work is about the process of art, about making and giving, about anonymity, generosity, and observance of the moment," Thompson has declared in a written statement. Created each day for four days a week between April and October, on the public beaches of Vancouver, Victoria, and Salt Spring, Gesture's individual artworks sometimes command up to 14 hours of Thompson's time. And yet each is intentionally situated so that it will be washed away by the next high tide.

"I love the idea of giving something to the beaches you love," Thompson says now. She is working in the searing midday sun at Jericho and what she doesn't say--perhaps because it's self-evident--is that she is also giving something to the people who happen upon her art. Although Thompson has created other environmental works in natural settings in both Canada and Europe, she has exhibited many of her concept-based and installation works in museums and galleries. (Her themes have ranged from motherhood, gender politics, and violence against women to the cultural construction of the natural world. Three years ago, for instance, she numbered all the leaves on five different trees in Surrey's Bear Creek Park, and later exhibited the fallen leaves inside the Surrey Art Gallery.) In Gesture, however, she has chosen to communicate to a broader audience. "I'm interested in sharing my art, making it public, having it out there," she says.

After consulting tide charts, scouting out her chosen beach, and clearing away garbage, Thompson creates art with the natural materials she finds on site. These include the shells of blue mussels, mud clams, and varnish clams that wash up onto the beach; small stones worn round and smooth by the waves; wet sand raked and reraked into meditative patterns. "I'm trying to do work that does no harm," she says. So far, she has produced a number of simple, large-scale drawings with shells, laying them out in lines on the sand, attuning her organic forms to the shift and curve of the natural environment.

She's also made small "nests" of round stones on vast, stony beaches; immense grids of clamshells set in straight or undulating lines in the sand; a narrow circle of white sand drawn around the periphery of a natural, bowl-shaped depression in a dark outcropping of rock; concentric semicircles of raked, wet sand on an amphitheatre-shaped cove. "I'm purposely trying to do something that fits with the place," she says. "Making a connection between humans and the beach."

A man and woman walk by Thompson's work in progress, stop, talk with her, smile. "Random acts of art," the woman remarks happily. Another passerby stops, looks, and chats, too--then observes that Thompson's work is meditative, like a mandala. That's not far off, either. Thompson cites the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, intricate patterns that take weeks to create, then are swept away.

"When you sweep it away, there's always that moment of loss," she says. "But there's also knowing it can all be done again." It's an apt metaphor for life. "Some people ask, 'Why do something that's just going to wash away?' and I say, 'Well, why make a great meal when it's just going to be eaten and then you don't have it anymore?' "

Performance is a not-insignificant aspect of Thompson's project, not only conversing with
the public but also creating her work in full view of strangers. At Jericho, her labour is watched by locals and tourists, swimmers and joggers, sunbathers and picnickers, dog walkers, parks workers, and the privileged folk sitting on the deck of a nearby tennis club. "I've had positive responses," she says, "and that's been very encouraging."

A shy person, Thompson has tracked her own transformation through the first few months   of her project. "In April and May, I usually went out early, made something, and then left."   As the beaches have become more crowded through the summer, however, she has been encountering more and more of her audience. She has also steadily become more ambitious.   "I was feeling really nervous about imposing anything," she recalls. "But as I've learned how this all washes away, I feel more capable of doing something that's larger."

Although Thompson does not announce the sites of her individual works beforehand, she
does place small clues to the overall project, pinning snapshots of her artworks on public bulletin boards and publishing short, poetic descriptions of them in the classified ads of local newspapers. The photos and notices are like the artworks themselves: modest, anonymous gifts that the public comes across unexpectedly.

"The beach is just so generous. It gives and gives and gives," Thompson observes. "So you trust in that." She looks up from her painstaking work and turns toward the glittering expanse of sand and sea. "Looking at the world as this incredibly generous place--it's like returning to being a little child."

    Diana Lynn


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