Cal State Long Beach student Sierra Brown took the long way to school on Monday. She swam 11 miles through the ports to her campus as part of an art project. Brown dreamed up the "Port To Class Supercommute" as a way of encouraging people to get out of their cars and take alternative forms of transportation.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: It's an understatement to call 28-year-old Sierra Brown an outdoorsy type.
Sierra Brown: I moved to Australia when I was in high school and started surfing there, and I got so into surfing. I moved to Hawaii and back to Australia, so I always surfed and I raced mountain bikes for about five years.
Guzman-Lopez: Which athlete does she admire most? That's easy.
Brown: One I can think of right now is Lynne Cox. I've been reading her book. She swam across the Bering Strait.
Guzman-Lopez: Sierra Brown also likes art. So who's her favorite artist? Well...
Brown: That's a harder question. I've been studying art for a long time. But, uh, there aren't any really in particular. Sometimes I get some of my inspiration from South Park.
Guzman-Lopez: It's 6:00 in the morning at Berth 75 in San Pedro. Brown lives close by. In about an hour she'll dive into an endeavor that's equal parts athleticism, irony, conceptual art, and environmental activism. It's part of her work toward a Master of Fine Arts degree at Cal State Long Beach. She describes the seven-week effort as "endurance art."
Brown: I'm just going to jump in the water at seven and swim all the way through the ports, along the breakwall and down past the port of Long Beach, and then turn into Los Alamitos Bay, swim into Los Alamitos Bay up to PCH.
Guzman-Lopez: From there she'll walk the mile-and-a-half to campus. Along the way, she'll cross four shipping lines in the western hemisphere's busiest port complex and paddle through chemical pollution and trash. Next week she's riding a bicycle through the harbor area to campus. The week after that she'll rollerblade. She wants people to consider alternatives in this car-dependent culture.
[Sound of Brown getting ready at the dock]
Guzman-Lopez: It's time to begin the art project. Sierra Brown's 60-year-old economist/triathlete father will paddle in a kayak next to her. A support boat with a three-person crew will follow on the other side. Before diving in, Brown reminds everyone, including her dad, that she's counting on them.
Brown: Are you guys just going to catch up with me? OK, Dad, I'm following you.
[Sound of Brown splashing into the water]
Guzman-Lopez: Brown conceived this "Port To Class Supercommute" a few years ago, after she moved from Sunset Beach to San Pedro. She'd wanted to keep riding her bicycle to Cal State Long Beach. But she found that few bike paths and lots of 18-wheelers along her new route made the trip potentially deadly.
In class she found inspiration in the work of British conceptual artist Hamish Fulton. He takes long walks, then draws and writes about them.
Kyle Reidel is Sierra Brown's graduate thesis advisor at Cal State Long Beach. Purists, he says, may not consider her project art. But Reidel argues it is.
Kyle Reidel: She always has this humor or something outlandish about the project. And this is so amazing that it captures people's imaginations. So she's both, making political comment but also using art as a way to show us this problem in an interesting way.
Guzman-Lopez: Six-and-a-half hours after his student dove into the murky waters off San Pedro, Reidel waits for Brown on a dock eleven miles from her starting point.
[Sound of support crew yelling encouragement, and Brown gasping for air]
Guzman-Lopez: Brown's out of breath. Her support crew pulls her out of the water by her wrists. The swim felt long, she says, and her right shoulder is sore. Other than that, she feels all right.
When it's over, Sierra Brown says she feels more like an artist than an athlete, because no endurance athlete in her right mind would swim through an industrial harbor like this one. But – to drive home a point – an artist would.