Art in the Lake Herman Spillway

Young artists are at work in Benicia, but they don’t have studios in the Arsenal and their creative expressions are not on display in the library gallery or on traffic signal boxes around town. Their art is in an old concrete ditch—specifically, the Lake Herman spillway. The spillway is both their canvas and the gallery in which people can view their work.

When big storms dump heavy rains, occasionally the lake overflows and the excess water is sent down the concrete spillway to a natural creek in a ravine. Eight months out of the year the ditch is dry, and this is when the Keith Harings and Jean-Michel Basquiats of Solano County bring out their spray paint cans.

The forms and figures they have created are colorful, fun, funny, amateurish, messy, cartoonish, slapdash and thoughtfully conceived.

One blue and white heart pays tribute to a lost friend or sweetheart: “RIP Tony.” A black and white face with three eyes and three noses on both sides of its head caused one female observer to remark, “It looks almost like a Picasso.”

In the unlikely event that the city’s art aficionados ever organize a tour of this outdoor Louvre of Benicia street art, they would park the bus at the Lake Herman Recreation Area on Lake Herman Road. People would pile out and marvel at the splendid views of the lake and the hills while passing by local fishermen at water’s edge who would probably be wondering, “What the heck is going on here?”

After a short walk of a few hundred yards the crowd would spill into the spillway with its walls and floor marked by such creations as a boy who looks like he belongs in an old-time Archie and Jughead comic. One clever rendering is of a smiley face on top of a yellow and green arrow and the effect it produces is that of a grinning stick-figure child.

Other renderings are more abstract.

The artists—whose work is, of course, unsigned—tend to fancy block-style letters and curving free-form patterns that are infused with vivid whites, powder blues and lime greens outlined in the midnight black of a semi-gloss protective enamel Rust-oleum can. Gratefully there are few obscenities visible and little overt political messaging. It’s spillway art, for spillway art’s sake.

In the wine world capital of Bordeaux, France, they have flipped the script on the plague of graffiti defacing public and private property by setting aside certain areas of the city to street art. Mature artists as well as perky young up-and-comers whip up their creations on the walls of buildings in broad daylight with the grinning approval of passers-by. Its street art has even become a tourist draw.

Benicia’s spillway art scene will never attract tour buses or critical attention. But it hurts no one, provides a creative outlet for young people, and makes a playful little contribution to the city’s reputation as a home for artists and art.