For years, artist Sterling Wells has made the urban waterways of Los Angeles an extension of his studio, drawn to the interplay of nature and the manmade, marine life and the detritus that inevitably collects in these oft-overlooked corners of the city.
“I’ve never wanted to just paint seamless nature,” Wells told Artnet News. “I always want there to be the contrast between the soft fluid marks of nature and the hard edges and geometric shapes of architecture and graphic design.”
Last month, in pursuit of that vision, Wells was out on Ballona Creek in Playa Vista on the city’s West Side. He was hard at work finishing the construction of a somewhat ramshackle floating studio where he planned to create work for his current solo show, “A New Flood,” at Los Angeles’s Night Gallery. Then, he heard the helicopter overhead.
Local news outlet FOX 11 had caught wind of the unusual vessel floating in the waterway thanks to Reddit, and a reporter was coming to investigate concerns that the art project was a homeless encampment.
“I got a book from the library about how to build homemade house boats. The base has these beams in a grid that are supported by rain barrels that kind of act as pontoons. I bought them from this Mediterranean import company in Gardena and they’re actually barrels for pepperoncini,” Wells said. “I had been building it for three weeks, and had just brought all of my stuff there to start painting.”
The goal was to use the raft to store his art supplies, but also to anchor in a fixed position so Wells could capture a single view over multiple days as the weather and water conditions changed.
The watercraft also had bird blinds, to help the artist observe the local water fowl without disturbing them. And yes, he probably would have slept there sometimes, to help avoid the 40- to 90-minute drive back home to Highland Park, 15 miles away.
They say no publicity is bad publicity, but the news story caught the eye of government officials. The next morning, officials from L.A. County Public Works arrived, damaged the raft pulling it out of the water, and forced Wells to apply for a permit for his waterborne studio. (The exhibition’s title is taken from the subject line of the city’s emailed response to Wells’s application, which read “A New flood—access Permit has been CREATED.”)
Unfortunately, however, the city put the kibosh on the project. Wells never got a concrete reason why, but he suspects an angry local—who claimed to own the property and disapproved of the raft—played a role.
“In one of my last conversations with L.A. County Public Works, I was told that according to the county code, people are not allowed to be in the flood control channel. I said, ‘you know, I’ve been painting at the site for a long time with no problem. Why can’t I just continue doing what I’ve been doing?’” Wells recalled. “And she said, ‘well, we weren’t paying attention to you—but now that we are, you’re not allowed to be there.’”
Nevertheless, the artist continued to create on site sans barge, transporting it to the gallery, where it is now the centerpiece of his solo show. (The hope is to eventually have a permit approved and get it back on the water.)
“The drama with the raft kind of was a big distraction from my actual paintings,” Wells said.
To finish the body of work in time for the opening, Wells got a nearby motel room for five nights, wading into Ballona Creek each day to paint.
“I chose this site because it’s neglected and unmaintained. It’s not a nature preserve that’s cleaned up. There’s a bird’s nest right next to drifts of litter and garbage, and there’s dead birds and the seagull that has a fishing lure stuck in its leg,” he said. “I like painting the trash—the water bottles and accumulation of things that are floating by. Old bicycles and shopping carts and all these things that are on the bottom of the creek that are covered in barnacles and mussels.”
The resulting works are Well’s largest paintings to date, painted not only , but while standing in the contaminated waterway. Each one captures the view of the surrounding salt marsh, but also peering into the shallows.
“They’re about the transition of looking down at the water where it’s transparent, to looking across the water as it becomes an opaque surface. I’m looking through the water, at light hitting objects at the bottom of the creek, at light hitting the surface of the water, and at things floating inside the water column,” Wells said.
That includes both the litter and the aquatic life that flows in and out of the creek with the ebb and flow of the rising and falling waters.
“I got really into the tide and the marine ecosystem. It’s two miles from the ocean, and there’s kelp and seaweed and crabs and mussels and birds,” the artist added.
With the raft out of commission, Wells worked instead with the smaller floating easels he had previously built using plastic bottles and milk jugs.
“To paint from observation, your head has to stay in the same position. And so the floating easel allowed me to work large, moving the paper around my body and up and down into the water,” Wells explained. “But getting these pieces of paper to stay upright out in the middle of the water in the wind is incredibly challenging. I mean, everything’s constantly blowing over and floating away.”
Through that process, the creek becomes not only the subject of the work, but a physical part of the painting. The artist even mixes his watercolor pigment powders with the creek waters, allowing the process to manifest itself on the page as mud and algae splash onto the surface.
“It’s depicting water,” Wells said, “but it also water.”
See more photos of the exhibition and the artist at work below.