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A Bay in the Life of Humboldt

First Street Gallery presents A Negotiable Utopia



Rocky, man-made shores echo with barking dogs and squawking riparian life. Inky waters bob with seals, kayaks, porpoises and sputtering boats. Cyclists challenge 18-wheelers; hikers meet the homeless. High tide to low tide, day in and day out, Humboldt Bay is host to recreation, mariculture, economy and life.

"Simply by dint of its geographical power — its organizational reality — it's at the center of everything we do," says First Street Gallery Director Jack Bentley. "From transportation to our economy to its effects on our environment," he says, the influence of Humboldt Bay cannot be overstated.

This month, Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery presents A Negotiable Utopia, a show examining how the bay shapes life for and is shaped by the people of the North Coast, connecting us as a community and linking us with the rest of the world.

Situated a block from the bay, the First Street Gallery is in a unique position to examine these issues from an artistic perspective. A Negotiable Utopia is part of HSU's Art in the Environment series, combining the university's scientific strengths with artistic vision. Indeed, Bentley describes the work of the two featured artists as "artful design driven by careful scientific observation." Mary Mallahan's monumental sculpture details life below the surface, Cynthia Hooper's video and essay installations highlight activities above water.

Mallahan has created an interpretive sculpture that presents the bay's floor as a visual, color-coded map detailing natural and man-made fields. Over 18 feet long, 7 feet wide and 2 feet high, Mallahan's sculpture is composed of 41 individual pieces. Using satellite imagery and scientific reports, she divided the bay along its major water channels — those aqueous avenues still present during low tide — and crafted ceramic slabs to form a puzzle-like model of the bay.

With liberal artistic license, Mallahan took the generally flat profile of the bay and added a swelling undulation to reflect the local geography adjacent to it. The anticlines and synclines, mountains and valleys that outline the bay create a sloping topography for her sculpture, adding both visual interest and visceral form to her work.

Along the exposed edges of the piece, several distinct layers interpret the structure of Humboldt Bay's earthen strata. From the side, you can see protruding shell fragments, smooth clay deposits, sandy layers and rough-textured sediment. These layers, while based in science, are not accurate to scale per se, but remind us that the subterranean surface of the bay is comprised of countless levels of natural and human-made deposits.

For the top, Mallahan drew upon hard geological data to map out much more than mud. Using textured underglazes, the surface of her massive sculpture accentuates the diversity of plant life, terrestrial deposits and marine habitats on the bay, distinguishing tomato red regions of macro algae, silvery-green sections of patchy eel grass and chocolate-brown blotches of oysters and clams.

Hooper's interpretation of the bay focuses on human interaction with it — fishing cranes lining commercial docks, former pulp mills dominating the skyline and power plants anchoring the southern shores. Six documentary videos capture hard evidence of the sights and sounds that emerge from the water, and accompanying essays poetically explain how we've arrived at this historic clash of natural and economic forces.

"Humboldt Bay is this incredibly exhaustive topic," gushes Hooper. "Oh my God! There's so much to it!" Facts and figures fly from her tongue at breakneck speed and sentences barely finish before another passionate spiel spills forth. She's a voracious researcher, documenting the images and imprints that humans have made upon our waterway.

When looking at the politicized landscapes of Humboldt Bay, Hooper sees all sides. "We find common ground here and yet we find controversy in these places, as well," she says, noting that she avoids political stumping in her work, but "it's impossible to be politically neutral."

It's hard to argue with her videos, though. Averaging 10 minutes, each video documents one of six topics: water, power, transportation, conservation, shoreline and natural resources. Each topic gets its own video monitor and, to one side, an informed essay. Hooper says she's "cleaving to the factual" in her writings, yet "condensing the information in a manner that's entertaining and amusing and interesting and has my own artistic take on it."

The images can rest alone, but beg the viewer to look more closely at the explanations of how things got this way. Throughout the installation, the sounds of the bay mingle to create an aural simulation of the place and a metaphor for the overlapping intentions of those who use it.

Hooper shares a story about her project, describing how a First Street Gallery intern was unaware of the Coast Seafoods dock only a few blocks away, and how a fishermen Hooper met while filming at those docks had never heard of HSU's gallery.

A Negotiable Utopia, with its simultaneous scientific and artistic threads exposes the living organism as we've never seen it before, setting the stage for a wider discussion of our bay's historic and future significance to life on the North Coast.

A reception for the artists will be held from 6-9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4. The gallery's South Room will feature traditional landscape works by Stock Schlueter, Kathy O'Leary, Mimi LaPlant, and Andrew Daniel.


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