Mister Sandman

The Bay Area's most prolific beach artist steps forward after years of anonymity

One man looks out of place milling around the penny arcade and gift shop at San Francisco's ocean-side Cliff House. This spot, precariously perched a few hundred feet above the Pacific, is usually overrun by tourists angling for views of crashing surf, sunsets, and wide expanses of sandy beach. But in his baseball cap, tattered jeans, and paint-stained T-shirt, Jim Denevan looks too local to be here. He doesn't fit in with the camera-wielding, Ghirardelli bag-toting crowd that lives by tour bus and hotel buffet. Yet the Bay Area native watches with desire the pudgy aliens sporting their white tennis shoes, Alcatraz sweat shirts, and accents from Fargo to Frankfurt.

A chef by trade, Denevan is a performance artist by passion, and he considers common tourists the perfect spectators for his creations. His canvas is the sand, across which he drags sticks and logs -- often as big as himself -- to draw giant, beautiful, mathematical spirals and Keith Haring-like figures that play out whimsical scenes filled with dogs, starfish, and happy people.

"I love tourists, because they're looking," Denevan says. "People who live in a place have forgotten to look; they are oblivious to their surroundings. But tourists are wanting to experience the day."

On this sunny Monday afternoon, a fresh crowd spills out from a double-decker Gray Line bus, and Denevan sizes up the members of his next audience as they wander about looking for the restroom or more film. At first, no one notices when Denevan begins to climb down the cliff, hopping along the ruins of the Sutro Baths, heading for the beach below. From the edge of a crumbling wall, with a 4-foot-long stick in his hand, he sur- veys the firmly packed, footprint-free sand. "I have no idea what I'm going to draw," he says, sitting down to remove his shoes. He rolls up his pant legs and jumps barefoot onto the cold, damp sand.

The late-day sun throws long shadows of Denevan and his stick across the pristine beach. Denevan crouches low, grabs the stick with both hands, and begins dragging it, deeply tilling the sand, as he quickly walks backward.

This strange dance catches the attention of an elderly couple making their way from the tour bus to the restaurant. They stop to peer over the cliff-side wall, squinting and smiling with puzzlement.

"What's he doing?" the wife asks.

"He's drawing," the husband responds, staring straight down, fixated on Denevan's prancing moves. The couple silently watches his performance.

"Looks like a fish," the man finally announces, now certain of what he is seeing.

"Yeah, there's the tail," the wife says, pointing.

"He's putting an eye in!" her husband interrupts, almost with glee.

"Oh yeah."

The couple continues to watch as Denevan adds more sea creatures, connecting them in a surreal scene with squiggly lines and spirals.

A gust of wind whips up from below, upsetting the wife's hair. She has seen enough and is eager to move on to an early dinner. The husband takes one last lingering look.

By now a dozen people have stopped to watch Denevan draw. They stare in silence, smiles on their faces. Some snap pictures, while others tilt their heads a bit trying to make out what he's drawing next.

More important than knowing what the sand drawings are, curious beachgoers have long wondered who is behind them, and why. For nearly four years, Denevan has been anonymously leaving sand drawings along the coast, from his home in Santa Cruz to San Francisco. His pictures range from small stick-figures that take just a few minutes to create to massive spirals hundreds of feet across that are intricately drawn over many hours.

Denevan claims to be the artist behind more than 300 beach drawings, none of which he signs. Newspapers in the Bay Area have run photos of Denevan's work, with headlines like "Mystery by the sea" and captions referring to "discovered drawings" by an unknown artist. One photo was even sent to newspapers across the country by the Associated Press wire service. Denevan revealed his identity for his hometown paper in Santa Cruz, but for the most part has remained anonymous. "I wanted to experience the moment and avoid being distracted. And I like that space between creation and recognition; it gives you time to contemplate," Denevan says. "I also enjoy the element of surprise."

But now he wants publicity in order to take his medium to greater heights. In September, Denevan made a 700-foot drawing in the southern Nevada desert. He won't say exactly where, but challenges someone to find it and photograph it. "I'd love it if someone would take a picture of it so I could see it," he says. "Really, only someone in an airplane would be able to see it."

Denevan does not have the bird's-eye advantage of a seaside cliff -- or an airplane in the desert -- to actually view what he is creating. As he tills the sand, he can only guess where the lines meet or how his subject proportionally takes shape. There is no plan, no preliminary surveying with any equipment or land markers. "I experience it only as a feeling as I draw it," Denevan says. "On paper, you can draw a line and instantly know where it goes; but for me, it can take me 15 minutes to walk that line with my stick in the sand."

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