The folk art installation “Our Lady of the Harbor” by Petaluma-based David Best, of Burning Man temples fame, has stood on the vacant lot across from the Dance Palace Church Space ever since it was placed there in February as part of the Geography of Hope Conference film festival and public art exhibition.
The other pieces were removed in early June, but this one, with its Virgin Mary statue, upright wooden and fiberglass boat, nautical trinkets and benches inscribed with the names of deceased children of the community, was so well-received as a memorial and quiet refuge that Point Reyes Books owner and conference organizer Steve Costa, who lost his 16-year-old daughter, Anna, in a traffic accident years ago, and other parents attempted to scrounge up the funds to purchase it.
Then, early this summer, a woman phoned Costa and said she had become attached to the site and expressed interest in helping the community keep the installation permanently. Without notice, she walked into his bookstore the next weekend and handed him a $10,000 check to buy it. She wished to remain anonymous.
“I almost began crying,” Costa said. “I was taken aback by her generosity.” Property owners Jennifer Merrill and Mark Switzer had already agreed to let the piece stay and to revisit the agreement on an annual basis. Now Costa and exhibition curator John Mueller are raising money through the West Marin Fund for a modest redwood shelter that they, a group of volunteers and Best plan to build to protect the piece from the elements and solidify it as a long-term Point Reyes fixture. They are hoping to secure another $1,000 for materials.
“The reason for creating the structural shelter for the sculpture was to extend its life and protect its beauty so that it could continue to be part of the community hopefully for a long period of time,” Mueller said.
The piece was first commissioned as a temporary one last winter when Mueller recruited Best, a friend and fellow Black Rock Arts Foundation board member, to create something based on the “Reflections on Water” theme for the conference’s first public art exhibition.
“I needed a hook related to the [theme],” Best said. “And a family had lost their daughter in the estuary. That was automatically the hook for me.”
Best was introduced to Noel Gutierrez, who showed him the spot in Papermill Creek where his daughter, Alejandra, drowned in 2008, and the loss became a catalyst for his inspiration. He soon learned that Costa’s daughter had died as well. And when he began putting the piece together with a boat he picked up from a dump in Petaluma and a statue he had in his studio, Best soon discovered that another man, Dave Washer, who was helping him construct it, had also lost a child.
“The piece became richer and richer,” Best said. “The more you add to the soup the better it gets.” Costa asked around to see who else in the community shared their devastating fortunes. They compiled a list of children’s names, and parents showed up to help on the day of the installation. Soon after, Gutierrez built two wooden benches and inscribed them on their surfaces.
“There’s this convergence of different amazing people showing up to make this sort of vacant unused lot into a real powerful place for the community,” Costa said.
Best said the success of the piece, just like his other interactive pieces that focus on loss, depended on its reception.
“The sincerity seemed to come from the community that took the piece, that wanted the piece,” he said. “The intention was to make other people’s problems a little lighter for them. We carry one another. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but you carry less.”
His highest hope for the structure is simple.
“I hope that no other children’s names go on it,” Best said. “Aside from that, I hope that whoever has to put a name on there knows that a community will love whoever they lost.”