Doubly ‘Outstanding’: Land artist/al fresco pioneer Jim Denevan embraces the grand scale of outdoor places

Jim Denevan works at a scale that no gallery or museum space can hold
As a “land artist,” Jim Denevan works at a scale that no gallery or museum space can hold. Doing his art he likens to a solitary spiritual practice.
(Via Patrick Trefz / “Man in the Field”)

Two June Santa Cruz events celebrate the work and life of local icon Jin Denevan. For First Friday, he’ll be on hand at the unveiling of a self-titled exhibit at Minnow Arts Gallery on Locust Street, focusing on his life’s work as an artist. Then on June 14, he’ll bring the Outstanding in the Field dinner to downtown.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

In a world where most people would consider themselves lucky to find one great, life-sustaining passion, Jim Denevan has two.

Denevan is known all over the world for two avocations — and in both of them he is recognized as a pioneer who has carved out his own unique niche. Depending on whom you ask, Denevan is either a committed artist who draws grand, large-scale geometric shapes and patterns on vast natural landscapes, or a fine-dining entrepreneur responsible for liberating California cuisine from the confines of the restaurant and serving people in breathtaking outdoor settings.

Friends and fans in his hometown of Santa Cruz tend to know him as both the disciplined “land artist” whose canvas is remote beaches, deserts and dry lake beds, and as the visionary of Outstanding in the Field, the Santa Cruz-based company that stages gourmet outdoor dinners in a variety of stunning natural and urban settings, usually at one absurdly long table.

In June, Denevan is going to be unusually visible in Santa Cruz. As part of the month’s First Friday observance, he will be on hand this Friday, June 2, at the unveiling of a self-titled exhibit at Minnow Arts Gallery on Locust Street (at the site of the defunct bookstore Literary Guillotine), focusing on his life’s work as an artist. Then on Wednesday, June 14, he’ll bring Outstanding In the Field to downtown with a dinner to be held on Cedar Street (which will be closed to cars) in front of Gabriella Cafe, where Denevan worked for about a dozen years.

For his Outstanding In the Field,
For his Outstanding in the Field, Jim Denevan has established as his trademark the absurdly long table that is often set up to enhance the surrounding environment.
(Via Patrick Trefz)

Denevan’s two passions are linked, at least thematically. Both are about superimposing a human sense of clean order — whether that means circles drawn in the sand or a table draped in white stretching across a meadow — onto the grandeur of vast outdoor spaces. Both evoke a sense of wonder, and both translate well in sites around the world, regardless of language or culture.

But in another way, his twin passions represent two different orientations that Denevan takes to the world. His sand art is a solo endeavor, a task that takes enormous amounts of time and planning, and that Denevan approaches much like a spiritual practice. By contrast, the Outstanding dinner events call on a community to mobilize, a hierarchy of people playing their roles. Denevan stands at the head of these events — which have now traveled to all 50 states and 24 other countries — like the conductor of an orchestra or a director of a big-budget movie.

It took renowned local artist Jim Denevan and his team two days to build the installation that’s drawn wide notice on...

“With the artwork, it’s pretty demanding, but it has a therapeutic effect as an individual,” said Denevan, 61, reached while he was in Mexico on a surfing trip. “[Outstanding] is more social and is more about community building.”

The “Jim Denevan” exhibit at Minnow Gallery is curated by surf photographer and filmmaker Patrick Trefz, who directed the 2020 film on Denevan’s life and art titled “Man in the Field,” and hosted by Christie Jarvis at Minnow, both of whom have known Denevan for years. The exhibit, which runs through June 28, will contain images of Denevan’s astonishing large-scale land art. But it’s also concerned with outlining a bit more about where his artistic ideas came from. That means it will also feature a wide variety of Denevan creations from drawings to poetry. Denevan, who is often known to sing at some of the Outstanding events, might also do a song that evening.

As long as spaces like Nevada's Black Rock Desert exists, Jim Denevan will always have big spaces to do his art.

“He’s famous for wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat,” said Trefz, “so we’re going to display those. We’ll have a mini-version of his big red bus that he drives around to the Outstanding in the Field events.”

The June 14 Outstanding dinner is already sold out. Denevan said he expects about 170 people at the event, many of whom will be his own invitees, as a kind of old-friends reunion from his days at Gabriella. “It’ll be amazing for me,” he said. “We’re going to [set it up] so you can see the restaurant really from the street. I’ll see some of the waitstaff I worked with years ago.”

Like so many who grew up locally, Denevan’s first passion was surfing. “He was the guy that, you know,” said surfer Peter Mel in the Trefz documentary, “we’d be out at the point and he would know the exact time to surf, even know what the wind was doing, would know what the swell was doing, and this was pre-internet, but somehow he had this way of knowing.”

As an artist, Denevan began drawing his large-scale geometric shapes on unpopulated beaches in 1994, while he was working as a chef at Gabriella. “That were no drones back then,” said Denevan. “I had to go to the top of a small bluff to take picture, or sometimes rent a helicopter for a thousand bucks.” After a while, the practice attracted big media attention, from National Geographic to the CBS show “Sunday Morning,” as well as the subject of documentary films and, memorably, as the theme for a national television ad campaign by Range Rover.

Outstanding in the Field has just begun its 2023 summer tour, which includes the downtown Santa Cruz event. (The very next event on the Outstanding calendar is Saturday, June 17, at the Everett Family Farm in Soquel, for which there are still tickets). After shutting down the dinners during the pandemic, Outstanding returned in a big way in 2022 — maybe too big, Denevan said. Last year, he said, the company had about 180 public and private events: “Yeah, that was a bit too much. Really, the great number of events was an effort to get out from under shutting down for 15 months. But it was overwhelming.”

Breakfast at the Westside farmers market to vino with a view to dinner al fresco in Boulder Creek and Soquel, summertime...

The first Outstanding event dates back to 1999, and featured three events, including one at the farm owned by Denevan’s brother.

“Jim’s genius was in trying to connect people to where food is grown,” winemaker Randall Grahm said in “Man in the Field.” “It’s an emotional experience eating a meal in the place from which the food has been grown. I can’t even articulate why it’s so powerful, but it really does seem to move people. Jim discovered this, and I think he’s totally brilliant.”

An Outstanding in the Field event is no one’s idea of a cheap meal. Usually, a ticket is about $375, that for a full meal often from a celebrated local chef, and often taking place in the very field where much of the food consumed was grown. The core Outstanding traveling crew numbers about 20 people with many more brought in from the local community for setup and cleanup. Denevan estimates that about 700 people worked at at least one Outstanding event in 2022.

For more than two decades,
For more than two decades, Santa Cruz’s Jim Denevan has balanced a career as a one-of-a-kind environmental artist and a role as the head of the ambitious Outstanding in the Field model of fine dining.
(Via Patrick Trefz)

The 2023 schedule has Denevan’s crew and his trademark red bus traveling to all regions of the U.S., mostly in California, but also in the Midwest, New England and the South. Internationally, the crew will travel to Canada, France, Tuscany and South Africa.

Denevan’s success as an artist has allowed him to attract commissions from private parties, so his artistic career is soaring just as Outstanding in the Field comes back in a big way following the pandemic. “I thought at first, this will never work,” said Denevan of his passion for creating art in the sand. “I thought, I’ll just focus on making Outstanding in the Field a success. Strangely enough, it has all worked out.”

“Jim Denevan” opens at the Minnow Arts Gallery, 204 Locust St., Santa Cruz on Friday. The opening reception takes place Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. It’s free.

Latest Stories


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.