BENICIA -- For the next 18 months, Benicia's waterfront will be Oakland-based visual artist Mark Brest van Kempen's palette.

Brest van Kempen, 50, known for several public art projects, including the Free Speech Monument at UC Berkeley, is embarking on a residency with Arts Benicia focusing on the city's prized shoreline.

"A lot of history resonates right there," Brest van Kempen said. "It's also this kind of merger of a natural system and a human system ... this wetlands and the Carquinez Strait kind of smashing into Benicia. That kind of negotiation between the human and natural worlds is just very interesting to me. It's also a beautiful site."

Titled "Benicia Waterfront Social Sculpture," the project will consist of a series of three six-month-long art

installations at various sites.

Each installation will explore aspects of the site, such as history, ecology and hydrology. In addition, each of the installations will be accompanied by a set of public events, including discussions, seminars and performances, according to the nonprofit arts organization.

The project is funded by a $30,000 Creative Work Fund grant.

"We're really excited to be working with him," the group's executive director, Larnie Fox, said. "Our goal is to educate our community and have really interesting public art."

Another goal, Fox said, is to spark a dialogue among artists, community leaders and others about integrating public art into the city's proposed waterfront park project. The project, which will modify the First Street Green, is still in the design phase.

"One thing that temporary art has going for it is you can do more experimental stuff," Brest van Kempen said. "That's one of the main goals for this project, to try some things and see how it flies with the public."

From projects at UC Berkeley to the National Academy of Art in China, Brest van Kempen's work is known for exploring the relationship humans have with the environment.

He's also held teaching jobs at the San Francisco Art Institute and Stanford University and spoken around the U.S. about the possibilities for art to function outside of galleries.

"There are certain things art can do that other fields can't do as well," Brest van Kempen said. "I think the main thing is seeing things in new ways, revealing things in new ways, making things visible to people and the idea of creating things out of nothing ... making something new."

The Benicia project is still taking shape. City approval may be required, depending on the final design of the installations, Fox said.

Meanwhile, Brest van Kempen said he has several ideas, including creating a "floating marsh" that would use plants to clean and filter water discharged from city storm drains.

"It's kind of like a barge ... but the roots hang down into the water," he said. "A constructed marsh could actually be built that's actually like a maze or labyrinth where the water has to work its way through. That can help absorb the pollution."

Having worked on projects in San Francisco and Seattle, the professional artist completed his most recent outdoor piece in rustic Nevada City. Called "Sculpture to Temporarily Slow Decay," it involves a temporary support-structure built around a decaying tree.

He's currently working on another public art project for San Jose's wastewater treatment plant.

Rather than do art that's "decorative," Brest van Kempen said he prefers to use the landscape to "reveal what's really there."

"The approach is to help people connect to the place they live," he said. "How art can do that is part of the puzzle."

Contact Tony Burchyns at tburchyns@timesheraldonline.com or 707-553-6831. Follow him at Twitter.com/tonyburchyns.

PROFILE
Name: Mark Brest van Kempen
Age: 50
City: Oakland
Occupation: Visual artist
Quote: "I think the main thing is seeing things in new ways, revealing things in new ways, making things visible to people and the idea of creating things out of nothing ... making something new."