Sarah Tobias never saw the same thing twice. This time, the red steel skeleton that represented the ghost of Liberty ships, built during World War II, hovered above her like the carapace of a mysterious insect. Few ever saw this sculpture. Nobuho Nagasawa’s Ship Shape Shifting Time was located in Islais Park, almost at San Francisco’s southern boundary.
The park was one of those out-of-the-way places Sarah visited when she wanted to see how other artists dealt with ghosts from the past. George Segal’s memorial to the Holocaust at the Palace of the Legion of Honor was another. It was tucked behind a concrete wall well outside the museum, easily missed, and yet a tribute to what ought never be forgotten. Was that what the only man standing behind the barbwire fence was thinking, a pile of bodies strewn behind him, as he looked out toward the Golden Gate Bridge? –If I can escape this place, what can I say or do that will keep memory alive and yet heal the wound this heinous act has gouged into my soul?
Old industrial buildings and a graveyard for decrepit trolley cars surrounded Islais Park. It was, for Sarah, an oasis. The park lay at the mouth of once substantial Islais Creek. By the 18th century, its waters, which drained down from Twin Peaks and other hills, had created a broad delta along the shore of San Francisco Bay. It provided the water supply for the Franciscan friars of Mission Dolores, founded in 1776, one of the chain of missions built by the Spanish along the west coast. Later, the creek was channeled into an aqueduct, and then converted into a sewer in the late 1800s when scores of slaughterhouses sprang up along its banks. For a while, it was the largest meatpacking district west of Chicago.
Thanks to vast amounts of landfill introduced in the early 1900s, miles of the creek’s shoreline delta were converted into a location for piers, docks, and an array of buildings dedicated to the then flourishing maritime industry. That industry began to fail by the end of World War II. The construction of Liberty ships had been part of the final boom. The now decaying industrial zone was about to be reborn as part of the endless task of rescuing a city from its own ruins. The park and sculpture were harbingers of that effort. The visible portion of the creek, the final part of its run into the bay, had been reduced to a short stretch of neglected canal.
Sarah had begun coming here as a youngster as an escape from her family troubles. As a native San Franciscan, she loved learning about the city’s history. The very early history, a tale about a magical paradise for the Ohlone and other bay area tribes, was not well-known then or now. The Ohlone met all their needs from the fields and pastures, the redwood forests and live oak groves, the pristine streams and placid bay. “Islais” the cherries were called that grew here. They had provided a welcome food and now the word was just a strange name for the place.
As a child Sarah had sensed Ohlone spirits watching her in the field this sculpture occupied. They taught her that all is not seen without openness to the unseen. So sparse, this sculpture, stripped down to the barest outline of a ship, was far beyond what Sarah’s camera could achieve. As a photographer, she set out to capture, not strip away the surface of things. At best, she captured the visibly strikingly, and sometimes conjured the shadows, the mysterious ghosts and troubled spirits within what could be seen. To expose an underlying core reality could only be achieved obliquely, through hints, suggestions, traces.
Today, as she gazed over the scrub that surrounded the murky waters of the canal, she saw this place as it might have been but with modern descendants of the Ohlone people slipping oysters into their briefcases, salmon into their shopping bags, deer meat into their backpacks. They followed an inland trail to their village and nodded as they passed her. Sarah smiled.
The massive sculpture spoke to another history, also lost. The carapace of a gigantic ship or grasshopper, perhaps, Sarah thought, as she continued to ponder its silent bulk. A grasshopper would no doubt have hopped away from here just as all the cargo ships did when they moved to the deeper waters of Oakland, in the East Bay. Henry Kaiser’s Richmond Shipyards, across the bay, built the Liberty ships Nagasawa honored. They were welded together by Oakies who had fled the dust bowl, by local blacks in need of work, and desperate wives and mothers—noble Rosie the Riveters—all still scraping by as the Depression lifted. Their spirits lingered within the hulls of ships that carried troops or cargo wherever they were needed.