Interview: Zach Pine – Nature Sculpture

/Interview: Zach Pine – Nature Sculpture
Interview: Zach Pine – Nature Sculpture 2017-06-20T02:10:10+00:00

© Ingrid Taylar, for


Zach Pine is a San Francisco Bay Area environmental artist with a unique approach to public art installations. He organizes events that engage both adults and children in hands-on creation — using natural materials like fennel stalks and stones.

The sculptures are designed to be temporary and non-destructive, sometimes integrating projects like restoring trails, clearing brush, and then using the discarded branches, leaves and natural materials for an art sculpture.

One of Zach Pine’s longest-running public events is the Earth Day Celebration at Stinson Beach on the weekend closest to April 22.

He’s also involved in ongoing public and private projects that involve a similar artistic theme and environmental ethic — from creek restoration projects that include some nature sculpture, to his Nature Sculpture Arenas at festivals and fairs where visitors can stop in to create their own natural vision.

You can see more of Zach Pine’s work and upcoming event schedule at his website: Zach Pine Nature Sculpture. And for a small sample of Zach’s public works, see a Nature Sculpture Photo Gallery.

You were a Selected Artist in the International Competition of Environmental Art [Paradise International Art Center, 2006]. How does one distinguish environmental art, from, say, a sculptor who’s using rocks to build a permanent installation?

There’s a link at describing what environmental art is. Environmental art is like an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different practices. What they have in common is that their aims are not purely aesthetic . . . . for the most part, there’s an aim that actually has to do with the environment.

There are a lot of different terms used to describe environmental art. I call my work nature sculpture. I think I’m the only person who uses that term. The term nature sculpture is just something I made up because I wasn’t aware of the larger environmental art movement when I started. As I became aware, I realized there were other artists with quite similar approaches.

Andy Goldsworthy doesn’t call himself a nature sculptor and he also doesn’t call himself an environmental artist. But his practice is very similar to my solo work. There are other artists who do things called land art orart in nature — or eco art. There’s a lot of overlap in these different subdisciplines.

To the best of your knowledge, are you the only person in this area doing exactly what you’re doing [with public participation]?

There are other environmental artists in the area, and at you’ll see some of them . . . . There are none that I know of who are doing participatory art events in nature. For me, that’s my primary aim right now. The solo art is a practice. If I were a meditator, I’d be doing my meditation and then I’d be doing my participatory events. It just happens that there’s a synergy between my solo work and my participatory work.

How long has the Stinson Beach [Earth Day] event been going on?

This will be the fourth year.

The balls of sand are amazing. I don’t know if this is a trade secret you can’t learn until you actually show up, but what is the trick?

It’s not a trade secret at all. I’ve taught hundreds of people how to do it. The secret is that you can’t treat the sand and water as if they’re clay. They don’t act like clay. They act more like something called oobleck. It’s what happens when you mix water with corn starch.

If you put just a bit of water with quite a bit of corn starch, you get a substance which is liquid until you apply force to it. And then it sort of turns solid. It’s maintaining that consistency as you build the ball, and then keeping the ball in the air. You have to actually throw the ball in the air to form it — it’s like a drop of water in outer space, the water molecules are all attracted to each other. So, you can’t rest it on the ground and add sand to it like you would if it were clay. You have to have it movement. It’s fun to do.

You mentioned the fact that they are temporary or semi-permanent — that the impermanence sort of represents the fragility of nature. Have you had revelations from people who’ve worked with you in these public exhibits in terms of their understanding of nature?

My solo pieces, especially, are intended to evoke a sense of uncertainty or impermanence. For example, I made a rock tower that was very tall. A woman came by, stood next to it and said “it looks like it will stand forever.” There was hesitation and then she said, “or it might blow over any second.” She was uncertain about the impermanence of it — was it really impermanent, or were the forces of gravity and the forces of nature constant enough that it could just stay intact? For me, that was a great success to have that conversation with her about it.

I imagine that could evoke a crisis in some people, especially people who rely on a sense of so-called security in this world.

One of the things that drives my own solo work in particular is using it as a way to confront and accept uncertainty in our daily lives. It’s kind of like a meditation practice in that way — something you practice doing which then affects the way you live outside of practicing itself.

With people who have done this work with me — especially the rock stacking sculptures — I warn them from the beginning that you have to come in with the intention that things are going to fall over. They often comment that they have a different feeling about the world leaving [the event] — that things are going to fall down and we’re going to rebuild them. So it’s not a disaster mentality I’m trying to evoke. It’s more of an acceptance that we can move on and rebuild.

It’s almost a Shinto concept of nature and impermanence.

I don’t want to make people feel that nature is inevitably going to swallow us up or fall apart. I want people to feel empowered, to do things to help nature — but to also understand how powerful nature is and how powerful natural forces are.

You mention that you used to just make stuff — and then at some point it transitioned to art. Were there any profound experiences that led you from the making stuff stage to the art stage?

It was a gradual transformation. I think part of it is living long enough to see things go wrong. As a child, I made things at the beach, and I think that was the beginning of my art making. But I had the innocence of a child. As I matured and saw that the world actually had painful experiences in it and that things fell apart, it became more of a serious endeavor. And then, eventually, it became something I wanted to share. . . . to show how much power people have especially in a group.

People say things like, “wow look what I did'” or “look what we did”– and “look how we all got along.” It’s especially true when I work with children, children who don’t even know each other. I think it’s because of a primal need to create. And when you’re creating, it’s hard to go back to all of the negative feelings.

What’s the most spontaneous you’ve been. Do you stop the car — do your friends get annoyed with you?

I don’t think I’ve ever taken a walk in Berkeley without picking up a leaf — maybe a few times if I’m in a hurry. My friends aren’t annoyed with me, they do understand. And I’ve definitely stopped the car to pick up branches that have fallen down, and put them in my trunk. I have this collection of materials and that’s where they’ve come from. It’s not stuff I’ve harvested from nature. It’s stuff that’s been left and discarded.

You talk about this at your website — about the idea of looking at an object in a completely different way. Attending your Nature Sculpture Arena changed my paradigm in that regard.

I think art making in general — and also art viewing, just going to a museum — tunes up your senses and it makes you see things differently. When I was working in the creeks [Art to Action on Berkeley Creeks] a child came over to me and said he wanted to show me something.

He brought me to the creek bed. We’re looking down through the water at some stones and he says, “I want to use one of those stones, but I’m not sure if that’s someone’s art piece or not” — because there was a triangle of stones on the bottom of the creek. My opinion was that the triangle of stones was a naturally occurring triangle. But because his eyes had been tuned up from the art making, he saw that pattern and he said, if it’s a pattern maybe it’s man-made. And maybe that stone isn’t free for the taking. I told him, “you know I think that’s made by nature and you can leave it there if you want or you can take the stone.”

You mention art being inherently helpful in terms of inspiring those types of creative ideas. Do people develop a certain degree of respect at the same time?

Yes, and some of the projects also are very distinctly about respect or protection of nature, like projects where we’ve pulled out invasive plants and then used them as materials. Then, in the course of making your art, you’re actually taking action on behalf of the environment.

What is the most difficult feat that you’ve achieved in terms of a sculpture?

The actual art making, even when it’s a struggle, to me it doesn’t feel difficult. There’s one sculpture at my website that only has three stones in it, but it took an hour to make. Those three stones had to be balanced in a very particular way. I mention in that blurb how I was sweating, it was a hot day, and they were big rocks. It took an hour. But as I was doing it, I don’t think I had a sense of difficulty about it. It was more like the feeling you get from a really good workout. Maybe it’s just my nature that I don’t view life as all that difficult in general. Or maybe it’s the result of having seen so many things fall apart and fall down – it seems less difficult.

There is a sense of attachment to permanence and loss that all of us have — particularly if you’ve experienced a lot of loss in life. I imagine this could be an effective form of therapy.

It’s therapeutic for me, and it’s also an inoculation against loss. it prepares you for loss. You practice doing it over and over.

I think there’s something to be said for going with the flow of what some people call chaos or crisis but what really just is the natural order of things.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the Day of the Dead. Death has been an important companion in my life and it’s been an important thing in my art. It’s a natural part of life that we don’t get to face that much. So, I think a lot of my artwork actually is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of loss.

What would you like people to take away from one of your shows, one of your public gatherings, one of your exhibits or even from this interview?

There’s a duality I hope people come away with — there are two dualities, actually. One, that nature is extremely fragile in some ways, and extremely powerful in other ways. And likewise, as humans, we are vulnerable and our lives are uncertain. But we also have the power to influence things. And in particular, we have the power to help nature and to protect it.


You can see more of Zach Pine’s work and upcoming event schedule at his website: Zach Pine Nature Sculpture. And for a small sample of Zach’s public works, see a Nature Sculpture Photo Gallery.

Ingrid Zommers