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Media Release: The da Vinci Fish on-site build March 10-17, 2019

Media release: The da Vinci Fish on-site build March 10-17, 2019

A fish on the move! From Colorado and Arizona our build team set out for California with our fish about 60 percent complete. This was no small feat in and of itself as John Murphy jack-knifed his trailer twice escaping a blizzard near Crested Butte to join the team. After 2 days a road weary crew pulled into Corvina Beach and grabbed a few hours of sleep in our cars by the shores of the Salton Sea.

We got up and made coffee, brushed the bugs off our fish fangs and headed for town. As we pulled into Bombay Beach our small caravan was met by friendly onlookers and groups of people with cameras wondering just what we were up to. Countless hands were shaken through our rolled down windows and we set up camp and towed our catch out to the old pier to take some photos of the fuselage with Sean, Royce Nita and John.

Sean had initially planned to place the fish with a beach view on a property provided by Biennale founder Tao Ruspoli. After surveying the proposed build-site, the team decided there were multiple problems. Final assembly would be difficult and the resulting exposure could lead to an untimely demise for the work, not to mention the liability of leaving a massive (even if well well-engineered) piece made of rusty sharp metal where just anyone might try to climb on it.

Bombay Beach Biennale

The Bombay Beach Arts and Culture Center (BBAC for short) proposed their facility would make a better permanent home and they quickly cleared a space for us to set up the base and hub tower. A small garden of cactus was up-rooted and the ground leveled in short order. Gordon Durkee, Greg Hill and Jay Cobe busted ass in the hot sun with volunteers from BBAC pitching in to prep the site.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, work began connected the base the to the tower as John welded away into the night. Rob Williams started applying hundreds of overlapping scales.

Rob Williams:

“Now at this point I’d point out that I’d met John a few times and I’d had a drink or two with Jay out at Brush Creek, but we had never worked together, much less on a project of this scale. Sean is an old friend of mine and I’ve done collaborative work with him before; but most of us had never met Royce or Nita. After a few hours setting scales we were well into the swing of it. Suddenly it was time for all hands on deck as the back-hoe arrived to move the hub tower, the pipes and I-beams on site and put all those together. This is a group of relative strangers working around heavy machinery, welders, grinders and occasional fire—and yet we all just settled into a rhythm. If we had a time lapse to show the process, I doubt there was much standing around on anyone’s part. We were a well-oiled machine making progress.”

Gordon Durkee:

“I really didn’t know much about the project just that Sean needed a hand and I was down in Quartzite and I thought it sounded like fun. When I got here and saw the fuselage I thought ‘Oh okay that looks like Sean’s work’, then I saw the big pile of metal that was the fins. Then I realized that it was all going together and thought, wow this just keeps getting larger and larger and each day we’d hit a milestone but when we mounted the tail… that’s when I first got a sense of how BIG this thing really was. As Sean drove it around the whole town got a sneak peek of what we’d been up to at the Ranch. When it moved the light just danced off of it, it’s pretty amazing. I was really glad I got to help be a part of this.”

Rob Williams:

“It was around Wednesday the accents started. Now Jay has a bit of a New York delivery when he talks, and he looks like a wise guy. 48 hours in, the chit chat starts up: I’d ask, “Hey anyone seen the tin snips?” Jay replied, “Do I look like the tin snip guy? You’re the tin snip guy.” And I’d answer back in my best Charles Bronson impression “I am a fishmaker, I make the fish.” Over the coming days we are all cracking wise like a refit crew at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Jay would shout out something like “Hey does this square here between the supports look level enough for bocce ball?” He’d get replies like, “Bocce ball? I ain’t got time for no bocce ball I’m makin’ a fish heyah.” Or “Yeah a little bocce would be nice, we’ll get all the boys from the fish crew and some chianti, maybe some prosecco.”

This is when Nita starts calling us “the fishy boys”.

Royce couldn’t mount the wings until the fish was on the pedestal, so we were in a mad race to get the scales and mosaics in place before our boom lift arrived Friday. By the time we moved the fuselage to the BBAC garden for final assembly Nita was chiming in on the wisecracks too.

Royce and Sean were rolling their eyes at our banter but Sean was throwing his dozens of actor impressions back at us.”

As the sun got hotter the work got harder and we sweated off pounds of hastily consumed cheeseburgers and beer. Burning Man veteran builder Rebel Dharma arrived late Friday with a giant fork lift and we all scrambled to move everything clear and get the spectators out of the hard hat area. It was a rush of noise, diesel exhaust and movement to fly the fish into space, check the fit and make any final adjustments.

Sean dared to ride inside the fuselage to mount the last bolts and crank her down. He stepped onto the descending ladder to a small cheering crowd and even he seemed awestruck by what we had achieved. “Guys we have created a masterpiece I mean it’s not even done, and this thing is just blowing me away.”

John unlocked the brake and we all watched as the fish began to spin noiselessly on the pivot. You could have heard a pin drop: no one there was daring to breathe.

Saturday came we hit our first real delay, the wind was howling and blowing, our staged supplies went flying. All remaining work was being done 12 feet up or higher in the air or higher—it just wasn’t safe to continue. But our mighty fish, even in heavy gusts, there was no pitch or yaw it just rode the wind and glittered in the sun. We spent the morning just watching it and. We policed up our scattered tools and can lids and took a break for lunch.

Miraculously the air stilled and as the temperature rose, we resumed work. Royce worked on one side attaching the complex series of tubes and ribs into pectoral fins as Rob screwed on hundreds more scales perched up on scaffolding.

Rob Williams:

“I was pushing on the tail to get each scale attached with a lath screw and I was feeling this wobble... like my platform was moving so I asked Gordon and Jay to come brace the scaffolding. The axle brake was on, so we had no idea what was to come. As I was setting a stubborn screw the whole fish moved away from me as I’m pushing my weight against the gun. Sean was up on a ladder at the center of the hub that movement was enough to knock the ladder sideways and throw Sean down in a sprawl against one of the I-beams. So yeah, I almost killed Sean.”


“He got a pretty good knock, but nothing was broken, his calf swelled up a bit. That all gave us a minute to reflect on safety. So, remember art fans: strap down your fish if you are going to be up on that thing.”

With a complex ballet of ladders and scaffolding Royce, Jay, Gordon, and Rob attached the final wing while Sean recuperated.

There wasn’t much wind that night as we lit the fires in the rings and spun the 95% complete fish by hand and just watched it for a while. We all took a collective sigh of relief and enjoyed t listening to other people come in and dine under our giant rotating trash fish weather vane.

We were glad to see no one balked at having dinner under the moving sculpture. These are just of the few of the things we saw and heard.

A mural painter on his cell phone looking up in wonder, “No seriously man face time me, this some eighth wonder of the world type shit and you NEED to see it.”

A house wife from Niland, “No really it spins? OH MY GOD IT’S SPINNING”

A Bay area volunteer, “Can you sit in that? No, I mean can I sit in that?”

A Bombay Beach scrapper, “That is a mean looking fish. What bait did they use?”

A photographer from Germany, “It looks menacing at night like cross between a viper fish and coelacanth and a dinosaur”

A film producer from England, “It’s like it’s made of jewels”

John Murphy:

“It’s really great to see people reacting as we are finishing. So many times I have to just drop off a piece and leave—it’s pretty special to just sit here and enjoy it in real time in this environment.”

By Sunday all that was left were a few hundred more scales and the rockets and bomb. Rob was back up on the scaffolding and we made sure to leash the fish down tight on what was our hottest build day. He was up there for four hours and we all went through a lot of Gatorade. Not sure Gordon ever thought he’d be loading bombs again (a job he once did for the US Air Force) but he clearly hasn’t lost his touch. Sean mounted the final touches: a Vitruvian man painting by Claudia Boklovich and a pair of bronze baby shoes donated by a local fan then closed the lock on the body of the fish for the last time.

At 3:15 pm March 17, 2019, after nearly a year of planning and work, the da Vinci Fish was complete.

Nita surprised us all with a celebratory green apple pie, complete with fish motif. We were done a week early an could finally relax for a few days before the Biennale.

Bombay Beach is a census-designated place in Imperial County, California, United States. It is located on the Salton Sea 4 miles west-southwest of Frink and is the lowest community in the United States, located 223 feet below sea level. The population was 295 at the 2010 census, down from 366 in 2000.

Read more about Bombay Beach Biennale »


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