LOS ANGELES — An artist’s floating studio, conceived as part of a project to bring attention to LA’s contaminated waterways, was damaged as it was being dragged out of the water by local officials. LA County Public Works removed artist Sterling Wells’s makeshift studio-raft from Ballona Creek after news reports and online posts described the piece as a possible unhoused encampment.

Wells typically creates his plein-air watercolors of polluted waters as close to the source as possible, sometimes while partially submerged, standing in barrels buried in shallow water and working from an easel. He embraces the moments when water hits the paper, washing away paint and leaving an accumulation of mud. 

In preparation for his solo exhibition opening July 8 at Night Gallery, Wells built a studio raft to float atop LA’s Ballona Creek, a contaminated waterway that feeds into the Pacific Ocean. Anchored in a fixed position, the raft would allow him to work on paintings over multiple days, leave items overnight, and capture the changing conditions. “The easel and barrel setup allows me to paint everything in front of me and just under the surface of the water, but I wanted to push my practice and the convention of plein air and work larger,” Wells told Hyperallergic.

But after building the raft daily for three weeks, a Reddit post and local media coverage drew attention to the project, and LA County Public Works eventually pulled the studio from the creek, destroying parts of it in the process. The experience brought Wells down a path of bureaucratic frustration and revealed deeper issues rippling through LA.  

LA County Public Works has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. 

Remains of Sterling Wells’s raft being transported to Night Gallery (photo by and courtesy Sterling Wells)

Wells’s problems began on June 1, when a Reddit user posted an image of the artist standing in the water as he constructed the raft. Hundreds of commenters voiced concerns about the polluted waterways of Ballona Creek and debated whether the artist’s use of the water fell under maritime law. Users also speculated about Wells’s presence, with some saying he must be avoiding LA’s notorious traffic and others reflecting on the cost of living and housing crisis in the city. 

“Houseboats helped with the housing crisis in Amsterdam in the ‘60s, why not here?” commented one user.

“Charming studio apartment with views of the water. No A/C but great ventilation. $7000/mo.,” joked another.

Wells typically creates his plein-air watercolors of polluted waters as close to the source as possible.

These concerns were partly why Wells wanted to work in this spot on Ballona Creek. He scouted the site over a year ago and chose it for its uncultivated nature as well as its location at the confluence of two creeks that borders several jurisdictions and is under the management of different agencies overseeing the land, water, and embankment. A triangular stretch of marshland sits in the creek and bears evidence of past unhoused encampments, as well as pylons from a stalled bridge construction. 

The creek is also home to many seabirds, which Wells intended to paint through bird blinds in the raft that allow for close observation without disturbing them.

Following the interest on Reddit, Wells’s issues snowballed. On June 6, Fox News published an aerial video of the artist lying on a cot behind a drop cloth. “It looked like I was living on the raft, and I think that was the problem,” said Wells. “I finished construction late the night before and brought everything to paint the next morning. I lay down when I arrived. I knew it was a mistake, but it was the only time I slept there.”

Wells heard a helicopter overhead and saw a reporter flagging him down on the embankment. “I kayaked over and found out they’d been watching me for a while and the moment I slept on the cot, it made the news,” Wells said. Having talked with Wells, Fox reported that the raft, thought to be an unhoused encampment, was indeed part of the artist’s practice. CBS also filmed the raft and reported it as the boat of an unhoused person.

“The area is in this protracted battle with the unhoused,” Wells explained. “I saw it constantly. The fence was opened, people set up their homes, the encampments were removed, and the cycle started over again. At the same time, people in the neighboring apartments walk their dogs and go jogging, so there’s a gray area of who can use the space and how.”   

The next morning, on June 7, Wells returned to find LA County Public Works dragging his studio out of the water. Despite having been on the site at various points for over a year, including painting last spring and summer, it wasn’t until he built the raft and it resembled a home that issues were raised. He credits the complex jurisdiction with enabling him to stay under the radar for so long. 

Wells’s floating studio prior to the incident (photo by Nik Massey; courtesy Night Gallery)

After the raft was removed, Wells and Night Gallery applied for a permit to be on the site, called a flood access permit, and Public Works allowed them to leave the structure on the embankment during this process. At this point, Wells discovered the jurisdiction was more complex than he realized, as some of the land is privately owned. On June 14, he received a call from someone who claimed they owned the property and was upset that the raft was there.

“The next day, my permit with Public Works was denied,” Wells said. “We were never given a clear answer as to why it was denied, but after all my follow-up calls, I think the media coverage and angry property owner definitely had something to do with it.”

A week later, the raft was taken to Night Gallery to be displayed in Wells’s upcoming show, now titled A New Flood in reference to the flood access permit emails. As of June 23, Wells said Public Works told him that he can’t be there at all. 

“I’ve been painting in the water for a year and now that they’re paying attention, I can’t be here,” Wells said. “I’m being removed little by little, but I’m still painting. And I haven’t given up on the raft. I want to use everything I learned and try again with a permit in the future.”

Annabel Keenan is a writer based in New York. She specializes in contemporary art and sustainability. Her work has been published in The Art Newspaper and Artillery Magazine among others.