Heron's Head Park in Hunters Point is one of San Francisco's secret treasures. On what was once a dumping ground, people now stroll one-third of a mile onto the bay on an artificial spit surrounded by California fescue, water, and some of the 100 species of birds that visit this wildlife sanctuary.
Last month, Malik Looper was walking in the park when he noticed some new forms emerging from the brown grass. A 25-foot stone iguana, a pair of giant tortoises, some lizards, and a meandering 40-foot serpent had been arranged so that they seemed poised to crawl toward the mainland along the edge of a path that goes the length of the spit. The sides of the creatures were smooth, like an expert stonemason's rock wall.
"I said, oh, wow, this is cool. It must have taken somebody a long time to do this," said Looper, executive director of the nonprofit Literacy for Environmental Justice, which manages the park under contract with the Port of San Francisco. "I like art. And I certainly like public art. And this guy has provided a gift to me."
But Porfirio Vazquez, the Guanajuato-born artist behind the stone menagerie, adopts a fearful, annoyed tone when talking about his creations.
He says one elderly dog walker has chewed him out several times for defacing the spit, once an abandoned industrial pier. Earlier this month, part of one of his sculptures was destroyed. He's stopped work on an additional giant tortoise — which was to be the garden's final piece — for fear he'd be harassed again. But he's anxious to resume making one of San Francisco's oddest parks one of its most beautiful.
"These are things I'd like to leave here for the people of San Francisco," said Vazquez in his native Spanish. "I'd like to invite everyone to come and see this artwork, which I'm giving as a gift. It's something pretty. It's something good. And I'd like people's support so that it doesn't get destroyed."
Vazquez, 38, is just over 5 feet tall, with dark skin and a quiet demeanor. His shyness changes to insistence when talking about his sculptures. He's worked as a stonemason since age 13, and has done jobs in the United States since age 16. During that time he has refined the craft of scanning a pile of rocks and calculating which ones to select, then laying them precisely in place to form a perfectly smooth-faced wall, path, or archway. Last year, while in Lake Tahoe to construct a garden waterfall, Vazquez was hit by a car. His hand was hurt. Unable to work, he started going stir crazy.
"I'm used to working. I don't like sitting around all the time," Vazquez said.
Unemployed, broke, and depressed, Vazquez made a habit of riding his bike out to Heron's Head Park to enjoy the quiet of the often-empty path into the bay. And he noticed the greenish, boot-sized stones used as riprap at the spit's edge. The color reminded him of the iguanas native to Mexican states such as Colima and Michoacán.
Vazquez began sorting through the stones, arranging them first in outlines on the ground, then filling in the base layers, and finally selecting the perfect stones to make the surreally smooth skin of what became giant reptiles.
"I started coming at 6 a.m. almost every day, working until my hand would hurt too much to continue," he said.
He's kept this pace for the past four months.
For Myla Ablog, a Literacy for Environmental Justice employee who serves as the park's resident ecologist, going to the spit's east end this winter has been like an early version of the 12 days of Christmas.
"We'd show up the next day and get really excited, because there's a turtle there. It's bringing more people out to the park because people are passing on the story of the sculptures," Ablog said.
The emerging sculptures became a fascinating mystery to the park's few visitors. When I visited in early December, one elderly couple asked me if I'd seen the sculptures, and whether I knew how they got there. Ablog says she hears that a lot.
"It's beautiful. He's awesome," Ablog said. "I've been trying to explain to him in my super broken Spanish that it's okay with me, but that there are a few people who are concerned that it's on the other side of the fence."
The fence is a cable suspended knee-high by wooden posts, with signs hanging every few yards warning visitors not to stray into what is supposed to be a wildlife preserve.
On Dec. 11, a few days after I'd visited with Vazquez at the park, he called me in a panic, saying a man in his 50s with two dogs was back, yelling at him, and accusing Vazquez of spoiling the area.
"He told me what I was doing was pure garbage, and that I should get rid of it," Vazquez said when I visited him again at the park.
It bears noting that Vazquez, who speaks little English and arrives at the park each day on a cheap mountain bike that may as well be duct-taped together, doesn't look the part as creator of an exquisite outdoor sculpture garden. And his installation does create a quandary for the nonprofit that runs Heron's Head Park.
Looper and Ablog's mission is to teach young people about urban environmental issues such as the pollution formerly caused by the PG&E plant that bordered Heron's Head. Literacy for Environmental Justice is about to complete a building it will call an EcoCenter, where kids can take classes in ecology. Providing space for stone sculptures doesn't precisely fit this mold.
More pressing is the precedent. If Vazquez gets to build things at the park's east end, why shouldn't everybody? And if they do, does that mean the goal of turning the abandoned landfill into an ecological oasis fades?
"Our worry is that one encroachment into a wildlife protection area would lead other park users to conclude that other, perhaps more disruptive activities (such as running dogs off leash, etc.), are also appropriate in the area," wrote Mike Lynes, conservation director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, in an e-mail.
Ablog, a former National Parks Service employee at the Presidio, said she'd like to work with Vazquez to make sure his sculptures don't encroach on any native plant species, which so far they haven't.
"Some people are up in arms that it's on the other side of the fence. But if I look at the other side of the fence as ecological manager, it's weeds and dirt, and there's not any reason not to put piles of rock there," Ablog said. "But there are in fact parts of the park where people shouldn't be walking around."
She plans on asking a Spanish-speaking co-worker to translate a letter to Vazquez, which would explain that Ablog would like to work with him to make sure his sculptures are confined to areas that are not ecologically sensitive.
"We actually have resident artists. It would be awesome if we could have him do that," she said. But "I want to make sure he doesn't get in trouble, first of all."
Looper, for his part, said that until last week he had no idea who had gifted the park with the sculpture garden. Now that he knows, he says he's got Vazquez' back.
"If this artist is willing to work with Literacy for Environmental Justice to do his installations within boundaries that don't negatively impact efforts to steward the park, I'm certainly open, and would be happy to facilitate a conversation between him and the Port of San Francisco, and any other parkgoer who has some concerns," Looper said.
Looper, it seems, recognizes the spirit in which the sculptures were made.
"They came from my heart, not from my head. I really hadn't planned on doing this," Vazquez said. "It's something I'd like to leave here for the people of San Francisco to come and see. It's my gift."