For nearly four decades, Berkeley artist Tyler Hoare has been adding a bit of whimsy to the East Bay waterfront with his salvaged wood creations: some 30 large sculptures including airplanes inspired in part by Snoopy comics; a submarine, a pirate ship, a viking ship, and a ‘King Tut ship’ with a gold-painted Egyptian-style figurehead; and, before most of the wood pilings in the water rotted away, spindly, rustic, 6-foot-tall sculptures Hoare calls his “post people.”
If you’ve driven on the freeway toward San Francisco, you’ve likely seen his work mounted on wooden columns hovering above the water near Berkeley and Emeryville. His sculptures have been part of the local landscape for more than a generation. And, though they once appeared as a highlight amid towering figures, made from debris and found materials, that defined Emeryville mudflat art, Hoare’s work has long since stood alone due largely to some geographic luck. As the last artist standing, he’s taken the responsibility seriously, and approached it with good humor.
“It’s been kinda my obligation to entertain the poor people in their cars stuck in traffic, and I’m glad to do it,” the 73-year-old said recently. “Usually it’s the kid in the backseat. It’s nice to have something to look at when you’re driving along.”
His most recent public work, installed nearly two years back with the help of a half dozen friends, involves two sculptures near the Emeryville fishing pier: A begoggled pilot in a bright red airplane, modeled after the Red Baron, faces off against Snoopy in his green Sopwith Camel fighter plane, complete with a string of bullets — “like the punk kids wear” — that Hoare bought on Telegraph Avenue, and many other distinctive touches. The planes, which weigh several hundred pounds, are about 6 feet tall, and 12 feet long in either direction.
Hoare said that, because of their proximity to shore, he was sure they wouldn’t last a week before being pilfered. Instead, the opposite has happened. Someone hung up a small hand-carved sign designating the area the “Emeryville National Airport.” And Hoare said he’s noticed repairs done by unknown others when maintenance was needed.
“They’ve been picking up sculptures when they fall. Sometimes they paint them,” he said. “My wife and I go to Chevys to eat, then we walk along and see how it’s going. And every time I go there, somebody has reinstalled something. They’re being very nice.”
He said he likes that kids can reach out from the dock and spin the propeller, and called the interactivity “very important.” Doors that open, buttons to push, knobs that turn, all of it adds to the fun and keeps the creations from being static.
For Hoare, seeing his sculptures by the pier is a bit of a déjà vu. When he first began installing his art on wooden posts in the San Francisco Bay in the 1970s, versions of the Red Baron and the Sopwith Camel were among his earliest pieces.
“It’s kinda like the original thing that happened here, the first battle,” he said. “Recreated now, years and years later.”
The journey to Berkeley
Hoare — pronounced “oar” — was born in 1940 in Joplin, Missouri, which is perched on Route 66, one of the nation’s original highways and most famous roads. He said he always knew he wanted to make it to California, particularly after hearing the popular hit song “Route 66” and its call to travel the nation and find adventure along its path.
He tried heading west in high school and college, but made it only as far as Denver. Even as a teenager, he had dreams of entering the art world. But it wasn’t exactly an acceptable pursuit among his peers.
“In Joplin, I couldn’t be an ‘artist’. They’d tar and feather you,” he recalled. “But you could customize your car. I had always, from 16, painted my car, lowered my car, fixed my car. It was full custom, and that was all right. I was no longer a body. I was a body with four wheels and an engine. There was no turning back.”
At 19, determined to become an artist, Hoare spent time in New York City’s Greenwich Village, then headed for the University of Kansas, where he met his wife and got his bachelor’s in drawing and painting.
The couple flew to Los Angeles in August 1965, after graduating. They found the city’s Watts neighborhood burning, its residents rioting, as racial tensions exploded. And, as Hoare tells it, “we got on the next plane to San Francisco. We didn’t want to stay there.”
They brought to the Bay Area a deep love for university towns, and chose Berkeley as the place to raise their daughter. The couple moved with their baby into an apartment on Sacramento Street, not far from University Avenue. It had a “great big basement with a fireplace” where Hoare set up his studio.
He and his wife bought a house in the North Berkeley hills in 1970, but recalled a memory from the early years, during the People’s Park conflict in 1969 — “when helicopters were dropping teargas on the kids and police shot a student up on Telegraph.” Hoare said, when he heard the news, he walked out of his studio and met up with a neighbor, a mathematician, who was similarly horrified.
“We said, ‘We can’t stand it, we gotta do something. Let’s go up and find the enemy,’” he remembered. “We went storming up to Telegraph to do battle with whoever it was, but we couldn’t find the enemy. He had gone home.… It was us against them. That was just a special time that was going on then. It’s been a fairly peaceful town the rest of the time.”
A long history on the waterfront
Hoare said he first got the idea to put his art — made from salvaged wood he’d find on walks along the waterline — into the San Francisco Bay in the 1970s. He had a small office he would reach by driving along the access road in Berkeley, and spotted two wooden posts in the water between University and Ashby avenues, about 100 yards into the bay.
“Once in a while, it would get really foggy. People would stop, and get out of their cars and talk to each other until it cleared,” he said. He began to ponder what he might put on those posts to entertain motorists without causing a wreck. An airplane — which he had built for an exhibit at the Richmond Art Center in 1975 — “was the most logical thing.”
Building the plane was, relatively speaking, the easy part. Preparing for the installation was a different matter. Hoare said he created “all kinds of fake papers” purporting to be from the university and the city in case he had to prove “it was all official, that we could do it.” He and some friends loaded up two trucks and brought the plane and two boats to the Berkeley waterfront: “We didn’t know what the reaction would be.”
At that time, unlike now, they were able to drive right up to the water’s edge. They laid ladders across the boats to create a pontoon to get the plane to the posts. They left one friend onshore with the paperwork — in case police came — and set out to install the airplane in the bay. They attached it to the posts, which took nearly an hour, starting with the bottom wing to create a base, then adding the body and, finally, the other wing on top. They paddled around, snapped a photo, and headed back to land.
It “happened to be a day when the bay was just like glass,” said Hoare, and it went off without a hitch.
Hoare then left for Kansas on vacation, and learned while he was there that his airplane had been stolen, though not without getting a good dose of media attention for its mysterious appearance and disappearance.
When he came home, he got to work on a new plane, which he modeled after the one flown by the famous German fighter pilot known as the Red Baron. One day, while fashioning it, he got a call alerting him that his missing airplane had shown up on the Caldecott Tunnel. He retrieved it, redesigned it to look like the British fighter known as the Sopwith Camel, and put the pair out together in the water in an homage to the Peanuts comics in which Snoopy flies the Camel against his nemesis, the Red Baron.
About a week later, someone stole the green plane, and it’s never been recovered. (Hoare said he always “figured it was in the basement of some fraternity up at UC.”)
To keep the Red Baron company, Hoare installed a submarine nearby. At high tide, only the periscope was visible, with a gun and cannon appearing as the water receded, until ultimately the body of the sub was visible at low tide. A variety of ships, from Chinese junks to pirate and Viking vessels, have joined the planes. There was once a Martian spaceship with battery-powered blinking lights. And, at one point, a shark, which was actually a fin mounted on a base that, when floating in the water, appeared to be the fearsome creature.
“I like doing the ships,” he said. “It’s just that they didn’t have a very long life. The waves are just too much and too hard. I’ve tried all kinds of things to tie it to post, but they won’t last a week. It’s really a problem. So I’d go out and find my things that were floating in the tide, bring them back and make something new or save some of the parts.”
They used chains. They used fancy nylon rope. They even tried using anchors. But, for the sculptures that floated, the strong currents flowing through the Golden Gate Bridge won every time. Most recently, he said, inspired by a blackbird that liked to land on one of those posts, he made a sculpture that looked like an angel with large wings. It lasted three days.
“I’m not even sure I got a picture of it,” said Hoare.
Hoare’s Red Baron airplane, on the other hand, flew above the bay for what he estimates to have been 20 years. About 10 years into that, he took it down and rebuilt it, and created a handful of other planes to mount, as well as a slew of ships. Installing the work can be a challenge, due to 6-foot swells.
“You have to have a hammer,” he said. “When it goes up, you hammer. When it goes down, you wait.”
At one point, Hoare said someone unknown installed a dog house on the second post, another homage to Snoopy and his battles with the Red Baron. The day Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz died, in February 2000, the house fell over. Hoare said he hasn’t used that post since.
He last used the sturdier post in Berkeley for his Martian spaceship, but someone moved it to the weaker post and, after about a week, it was lost to the bay: “I was so disappointed,” he said, in a rare moment of nostalgia.
“It’s just that they got run off and I didn’t”
In addition to the Berkeley posts, Hoare began using pilings in Emeryville, too. The city had a thriving “mudflat art” community for decades until authorities removed the sculptures to create open space parkland and bird habitat.
In the 1970s, Hoare was being represented by the John Bolles gallery on Gold Street in San Francisco, and was invited twice to take part in a soapbox derby for artists that was put on by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The derby made him realize that public art — putting sculptures out in the world where people could interact with them — was the path he wanted to take.
“I decided the mudflats were going to be my gallery,” Hoare said, adding that he had been deeply saddened by the removal of the other mudflat sculptures. “I was down the way, and I kept on doing it. It’s just that they got run off and I didn’t.”
The spot Hoare chose in Emeryville included 20 posts where he, for years, installed his “post people” sculptures. Most of those columns are gone now, which pushed Hoare to the location of his most recent Red Baron-Snoopy face-off, alongside a short pier near Chevys Fresh Mex on Powell Street.
“They’re in such bad shape now, my friends say, ‘Don’t you dare climb up on that.’ I’m surprised I outlived the posts,” he said. Then added, of the remaining columns near the pier, “When they go, I won’t have anywhere to put anything.”
As the posts rotted, Hoare often found pieces of them on the beach. So he’d pick them up and use them to fashion masks, which have ended up in art galleries for sale. He’d also roam the beach looking for pieces of his creations that had been tossed around in the water and “improved by the bay”: rusted, chipped, aged or otherwise weathered.
“I wait for Mother Nature to take care of it,” he said. “It’s just a cycle on and on. Basically everything comes from the bay and goes back to the bay.”
Now, without the Emeryville posts to mount them on, Hoare’s figures too can be found in galleries. (The Artworks Foundry in Berkeley recently picked up 10 of his sculptures, and they seem to be generating some buzz, he said. Other work is available at the Folk & Fine Art Gallery on Solano Avenue. Hoare regularly displays at fairs and art centers around the region as well.)
Friend and longtime artist Maestro Gaxiola described Hoare’s art as “a real fine addition” to the waterfront. The two met in the 1970s. Gaxiola, who lives in Albany, recalled the first time he saw Hoare go out to install one of his airplanes.
“He just waded right out into the water with his clothes on,” the 77-year-old remembered. “I was really surprised when he did that. I thought he should have put some shorts on or something.”
Gaxiola said, unlike many artists who tend toward isolation or have more gruff personalities, Hoare is “proof that you don’t have to do that.”
“I’ve been around art for almost 50 years now,” Gaxiola said. “Of all the artists I’ve ever met and known, he’s the nicest. He never curses. He’s just an easygoing guy. He never has a problem with anyone.”
Retired photographer Bob Colin — who created a short film of the 2012 Emeryville installation of Snoopy and the Red Baron — said he has admired Hoare’s dedication over the years.
“He decided a long time ago that he wanted to present art that everybody could enjoy,” the Point Richmond resident said. “The idea of having these fighter planes in the bay for traffic to appreciate and enjoy was a great idea. And the fact that he has maintained his focus for all these years is quite admirable. It’s a public offering of art that he has steadfastly continued to create.”
The philosophy behind the work
Hoare said he’d had a long fascination with World War I-era planes, and the idea of melding man and machine.
“I’ve always done drawings and sculptures that are part-man and part-machine. I think that’s what we are,” he said. “Once you get in your car, you’re a body with four wheels and a motor. If it’s a bicycle, you’re part of that. Or, if it’s computers, you’re tied to your computer. We’re not just physical hunters out in the woods anymore. We’re part-man, part-machine now. That’s just a given.”
He said his airplanes carry that theme through as well: the pilot’s legs come down to the wheels, which are attached to his feet. Hoare began with that concept in the 1970s, and hasn’t changed it much: “It was fairly crude, but over the years it got a little better, a little better. Maybe these are little more refined, a little nicer, but not that much.”
For much of his work, Hoare uses driftwood to make frames for his sculptures, then covers the wood with cloth. He stretches the cloth and paints over it, then uses a process called “gesso” to make the fabric rigid. The airplanes take about a month to build, and he estimates he’s made about 15 over the past 40 years or so, as well as 15 ships. All of his materials are salvaged or recycled.
He’s in his tucked-away Albany studio every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. On a typical day, he makes 10 collages — 220 fit into one sketchbook, and Hoare has filled about 300 of them. He aims to make one sculpture each month.
Through it all, Hoare has made his living as a designer, making drawings for home and commercial projects from kitchen renovations to 10 Mel’s Diner locations, including the one on Shattuck Avenue. He counts nearly 200 restaurants, bars and stores among his efforts, along with UC Berkeley co-op housing and, from time to time, smaller residential jobs. He takes on about one assignment a month to pay the bills.
But he’s also found recognition in the art world, taking part in a variety of museum and public art exhibits around the Bay Area. Over the years he’s had gallery representation and has 50 of his collage books in the Bancroft Library’s permanent collection, as well as numerous prints at the Oakland Museum of California. He hasn’t done it for the money, however.
“It’s never been that I could make enough money off the artwork to live,” he said. “In fact, 99% of the artists you know about never sold a single piece. That’s not why we do it. I just thought it was so nice that the public was there seeing it, and not just in a museum. That’s just something I do for the people.”
Identity a mystery for many years
It hasn’t been about the recognition, either. For the first 10 years, Hoare said no one knew who was putting out the waterfront sculptures, and that was fine with him: “It just wasn’t important.”
About a decade into Hoare’s installations, his identity became known when an Emeryville businessman named Joe Scoma began buying Hoare’s art to display in his restaurant, along with information identifying him as the creator of the sculptures in the bay.
Over the years, Hoare has displayed his work in a variety of galleries and exhibits. He had an airplane on the Embarcadero, and one of his “sharks” floated in the fountain outside San Francisco City Hall. One of his earliest public pieces went on display in 1977, when an art center in Berkeley engaged six artists to put installations outside City Hall.
Hoare planted a 4-by-4 post in front of the building and mounted one of his larger Red Baron airplanes, with a 14-foot wingspan, on a platform above it that allowed the plane to spin with the wind. It didn’t go over well.
“Some little old lady with a cane thought it was a Nazi thing, which World War I was not,” he said. “Somebody got angry and pushed it over.” Hoare fixed it up so he could ride in it for a soapbox derby in San Francisco, complete with a propeller (“just for looks”) that spun using power from a lawnmower engine. It ultimately ended up, in 1980, on permanent display at Albany High School, where his daughter had been a student.
“The kids, they throw coins at it once in a while, but it’s in pretty good shape for 30 years,” he said.
Of his most recent public work, the planes by the Emeryville pier, Hoare said it was the first time during his career that his wife joined him for the installation. Usually, she stays home and makes pizza for the crew’s return.
“I heard she was standing there with some of the ladies. She turned to one of them and said, ‘He seems to know what he’s doing,’” the artist, who is about to celebrate his 74th birthday, recalled with a smile. “I don’t feel 73 or whatever. I certainly don’t care about that. I’m going to be climbing around on ladders or boats until I die. Age just doesn’t seem to be a very important factor in terms of what I’m doing.”
Watch a video here by Bob Colin of that installation, and learn more about Tyler Hoare’s work.
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