Renowned sand artist up against the clock as tide threatens massive installation in Tofino, B.C.

Jim Denevan is about as zen as it gets when it comes to an art project he’s creating in Tofino, B.C. 

Four months of painstaking planning and execution will be washed away by the Pacific Ocean at 9:30 p.m. PT on Saturday.

But two days before it happens, he’s still working away.

“It’s a good life lesson,” said the artist from Santa Cruz, California. “Nothing is permanent.”

Denevan is a world-renowned artist who creates geometric sand paintings — called “land art” — that exist briefly before succumbing to the elements.

Jim Denevan uses a hoe and stick as his tools. He has produced massive art installations in over 25 countries, including Siberia, Russia, England and Uruguay. (Erica Johnson/CBC)

For over a week, he’s been toiling on Chesterman Beach, one of a handful of beaches that stretch along the west coast in Tofino.

Denevan has produced massive pieces, primarily out of sand, in over 25 countries, including Spain, Russia, England and Uruguay.

Many of his installations are commissions — he’s created a giant alien for a kids’ movie, the world’s largest footprint for a boot manufacturer — but this Tofino project is a labour of love.

Jim Denevan’s installations, many of them commissions, primarily feature massive geometric patterns on beaches worldwide. His project in Tofino, he says, is a labour of love. (Brighton Denevan)

“It’s as good as it gets for me,” he said. “Typically when I draw in the sand, it lasts three to five hours then it washes away. But … I can work [here] for an entire week. There’s an elevated platform, so the sand stays drawable.”

He estimates a high tide will start erasing his composition — which will be 1,000 metres by 200 metres — on Saturday night. But that doesn’t bother him one bit.

“This is a natural area, a beautiful, beautiful place,” he said. “It would be tacky, bombastic, to put something very large here that lasted more than a few days.”

Tourists and locals are often surprised to happen upon Jim Denevan’s work-in-progress, he says. The artist has invited volunteers to help rake and dig for his installation in Tofino, pictured here. (Brighton Denevan)

As he works, tourists and locals stroll by — all surprised to happen upon Denevan and his work-in-progress.

“One thing that’s fun about this particular location and a large art work like this is that no one’s expecting it,” he said.

“People are just enjoying the day, they go for a walk. And the artwork is on the ground, not 100 feet tall. So it still feels gentle to them, not overwhelming. Even though the artwork is 1,000 metres.”

‘How is it so perfect?’

It was certainly unexpected for Antonia Smith, who’s visiting Tofino for the first time, from Halifax. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “It’s just incredible. How is it so perfect?”

Denevan uses a hoe, a stick, and a rake as his tools, creating works so symmetrical that they look computer-engineered.

A view of the circular shapes in Jim Denevan’s art installation in Tofino, B.C., which is anticipated to be washed away by the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, July 10. (Brighton Denevan)

For this project, he’s inviting volunteers to rake and dig — most afternoons this past week have seen more than a dozen people helping out, he says.

The California native says he started creating art as a result of a tumultuous childhood. His father died when he was five years old, and his mother threw herself into her work.


He says he retreated to the forest to escape the trauma of his home, where there was virtually no parenting for himself and his seven brothers.

“It’s half meditation, half physical exercise.”

He does want some record of his work before it’s all washed away. Denevan says he’ll rent a helicopter to take pictures this weekend. The piece will be photographed by satellite, too. 

JIm Denevan says he’ll rent a helicopter to take pictures of his installation this weekend. (Brighton Denevan)

But once it’s gone, it’s on to another artwork, says Denevan — once he recovers from the physically demanding project.

“I draw in the sand for my own enjoyment,” he says.

“It’s a creative outlet. Like a big sheet of paper.”

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