On the southern tip of Staten Island, where the Arthur Kill meets the Raritan Bay, the fierce winds and steady waves of the Atlantic Ocean push driftwood and debris onto the sand dunes and bluffs where the Lenape once lived throughout growing and fishing seasons. The Conference House Park, named after a Revolutionary War peace conference held there in 1776, became part of the city park system in 1927. Today, the park is a well-kept secret for most New Yorkers who may not be aware of the 2 miles of shoreline on the southern most point (marked by a South Pole) of New York State. The park includes historic houses, trails, beaches, dunes and bluffs, and a reforestation site near the Lenape playground.
One September day while visiting the park to discuss with the director ideas for new interpretive exhibits in the visitor center, he encouraged me to walk the shoreline after our meeting. It was a brisk, fall day. The high winds were anticipating rain a day away. As I look out over Raritan Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, I’m spirited by this great expanse of water, which for centuries mariners have navigated through to the ports of Manhattan, New Jersey, Brooklyn and further up the Hudson River.
During my walk along the shoreline, I unexpectedly came upon a hand-built structure of driftwood. Nylon rope lashed the sea-sculpted wood together in the shape of a teepee, defining within a small protective place from the high winds. Fishermen, nearby, were casting their lines out into the bay and a small fire crackled behind the shelter—I suppose in preparation for cooking their catch. Colored bottles dangled from the structure, blowing in the wind. This structure amazed me, so close to a metropolis, defying park personnel or nearby landowners to remove it. A large embankment of newly placed sand obscured the structure from the distant houses behind. Yet so private, it seemed hidden from view. A trio of fire, wind, and lapping waves performed alone on the site in a kind of magical realism, breaking the rules of the real world.
Standing here in the sand near the waves and seaweed, I imagine for a minute the exclusive galleries of Chelsea showing bizarre works, challenging viewers to imagine “why was this done?” So much work today—in art, in exhibits, in public displays—is decontextualized—placed inside a white box and left to the interpreters to decode and reconnect to the world beyond. But here, on the south shore of Staten Island, a work remained that existed in the context of waves and wind that had shaped its materials. Bottles and nylon cord washed up on shore joined the wood in a magnificent collaboration to adorn the structure and take it beyond shelter to a place of wonder.
Urban Teepee, 2014 | Wood, nylon, plastic | Artist unknown