The Found Treasures of Beachcombing

There is something strangely compelling about beach combing. You never know what will turn up. Tar balls, dead jellyfish and medical waste are more likely on the Texas coast than a Jean Lafitte pirate hoard, but seeing what the ocean throws up is always fascinating. For All Time Finds: The Best of the Beaches, the current show at the Galveston Artist Residency, artist Bill Davenport asked people to bring in the best things they ever found on the stretch of coast between High Island and the Brazos River. He put out the call in emails, on Facebook and through posters on Galveston Island. People responded with toothy sheepshead jaws, a Karankawa arrow head, a headless Barbie, "beach turds" (aka fossilized marine worm burrows) and an a J. Geils Band album cover — among other things. Each object was ac­com­pa­nied by the name of the finder and a story of its finding.

"The Best of the Beaches" exhibition continues through May 25 and it's definitely worth the trip down to Galveston. The gallery of the Galveston Artist Residency is lined with shelves and vitrines displaying hundreds of finds from more than 40 people. There are things sentimental such as a chocolate box filled with sand and tiny exquisite shells collected 20 years ago by one Rose Clepper. Then there are things goofy. Susan Madsen's story is priceless. After a storm she saw a creature out in the water with its eyes glowing straight up at the sky. She sent her husband out to rescue it in his kayak. The plastic owl he "saved" was turned into a piggy bank by her daughter.

Clyde Longworth, lawn care business owner and Galveston treasure hunter, was another enthusiastic participant. The metal detector-wielding Longworth is exhibiting a box packed with the jewelry he has found on the beach — class rings, engagement rings, necklaces and a religious medallion all lost by unlucky beachgoers. (Longworth recently made the Galveston County Daily News by finding and returning a woman's heirloom engagement ring.) Longworth's statement about the objects he found: "Everything we carry to the beach has a tendency to want to stay there."

A strange, ridged and cylindrical item also in the display case is identified as an ancient horse tooth. It was found by Seawillow Edwards as a child. Hayden Quinn contributed a corked wine bottle she found in 2002 when she was eight. It contained a message and the address of a girl in the Hamptons. Quinn wrote to her and they are currently Facebook friends.

Alex Irvine, former director of the Galveston Art Center, and a beachcomber since childhood exhibits a number of discoveries. One of them is a stunning color-coded display of beach glass arranged on a light table. It looks like an early sculpture by Tony Cragg the British artist who would arrange cast off bits of colored plastic into shapes. Davenport credits Irvine as the real curator of the exhibition. She helped recruit donations from her beachcombing network, picked them up and brought the show together.

Some people contributed art they made with their finds. Davenport is showing a few of his own treasures and artwork. A collection of well-worn bricks from the Texas City Dike look like they could be Davenport sculptures. There's something that might be a chunk of old statuary that he theorizes is a knee. And his 1998 sculpture Seafoam Pencil Holder was lent for the show by Dallas collector Dee Mitchel. It's a stained and eroded chunk of blue Styrofoam with a seashell and a piece of driftwood stuck in it along with a few old pencils. It's intentionally humble and pathetic but oddly lovely, a landscape tableaux with the Caribbean blue foam and the peachy shell half stuck in like a rising sun, the driftwood a stumpy tree. When asked to explain the appeal of driftwood Davenport says, "It's a nexus, one of the most reviled genres of art meets the most pathetic objects. You use a piece of driftwood in art and you are immediately relegated to the lowest rung." Davenport isn't snarkily using kitschy materials; he has a sincere affection for the humble and the crappy.

The exhibition and Davenport's opening weekend "Driftwood Festival" were funded by a $3,500 grant Davenport received from the Idea Fund which gives grants for "new work that involves the public via process, production, or presentation." A three-day event, the Driftwood Festival featured a massive pile of driftwood visitors could use to make art. Adults and children dug through the pile looking for that perfect wood chunk. Davenport also provided a variety of art materials for the driftwood sculptures and was hand-painting T-shirts to give away. On the last day of the festival, an Antiques Roadshow-like panel of experts were on hand to identify visitors' beach finds.

Davenport worked with the Galveston Parks Board to execute his driftwood extravaganza. The Parks Board crews come up with a lot of stuff as they clean Galveston beaches. According to Davenport, Jesse Ojeda, Beach Cleaning Operations Manager enthusiastically embraced the project and would turn up every few days with a pickup load of choice driftwood. The Driftwood Festival ended opening weekend but there's still a mass of driftwood available for the taking outside the Galveston Artist's Residency. Whatever is left at the end of May will have to be hauled away. (At the festival, Davenport was actively encouraging my four-year-old to amass a giant pile of lumber to take home.)

Davenport's exhibition and driftwood event were refreshingly sincere. There is a lot of art out there right now that seeks to involve the public, (see "Social Practice," "Relational Aesthetics" et al) but often the people involved are unwitting dupes or merely tools to execute the artist's vision. When the work is ultimately about the artist rather than the people involved, the results can be patronizing and exploitive.

"The Best of the Beaches" is an intriguing and generous show all around. All sorts of people are sharing what they found and unlike some of the "Social Practice" art out there, Davenport devised his project so that it highlights the participants and their stories and creativity.