Mr. Green Jeans
Don Wobber brings jade from the sea, and reveals its inner beauty
Thursday, March 18, 2004
Every morning Don Wobber, Pacific Grove’s Jade Man, wakes at the crack of dawn and heads out into the yard of his Grove Acre house where, surrounded by a garden of jade glistening with fog dew, he listens for the ocean.
If he hears the distant crack of wave on rock, he’ll work all morning in his studio making sculptures from the tough green stone.
But if the sea is calm and quiet, he’ll load his mini-van with dive gear, drive 65 miles south along the breathtaking Big Sur coast to Jade Cove, a series of rocky beachfront coves that hold the world’s only known underwater concentration of jade.
Both the Chinese and the Maori associate jade with longevity, toughness, and spirituality. Nephrite jade, the variety to which Wobber has devoted his life, is considered the toughest stone in the world. It simply does not chip. Neolithic tools made of Nephrite jade sit in museums around the world today, as perfect and whole and useful as when they were made.
Wobber is 76 years old, but he still carries 100 lbs. of scuba gear up and down Jade Cove’s deliriously steep 180-foot marine terrace. Frequently diving alone, he descends 30 feet or more into the cold, green Pacific water and hunts for stone beneath the sea.
For over 50 years he has come here to dive for jade. Something of a Jungian mystic, Don likens diving for jade to diving into his own subconscious and plucking jewels from its floor.
His adventures at Jade Cove are the stuff of legend. Before laws were enacted restricting the quantity of jade that could be extracted from public waters, Don would retrieve huge jade boulders he’d discovered by floating them off the sea floor using inflatable pontoon bags and nets of wire mesh.
The most famous of these stones, a 9,000-lb monolith named “The Nephripod,” took Wobber and his partners eight months to bring out of the ocean in 1971. They buffed it up, loaded it onto a homemade trailer, and paraded it through San Francisco’s Chinatown, figuring they’d find an appreciative audience. They were right.
Today “The Nephripod” resides in the Oakland Museum. The story of its journey from sea to museum provided the basis for Wobber’s book, Jade Beneath the Sea: A Diving Adventure.
But the ocean is more to Don than just a repository of jade. Diving with him is a delight. He may occasionally creak and tilt and scare people in his Speedo on land, but in the water, he is ageless.
An accomplished marine biologist who has been profiled by PBS’s Shape of Life series, Don’s knowledge of the sea and its inhabitants is a true treasure. Decades underwater have spawned endless stories of close calls, startling finds and amazing encounters with white sharks, orcas, and even a gray whale. He’s traveled the world seeking out the world’s jade and the fellow artists who sculpt it.
In 1987, National Geographic ranked Don “among the best of the world’s contemporary jade sculptors.” His work is a smooth, languid reflection of the stone itself and the sea from which it came.
Each sculpture is a study in strength, patience and meditation. After wrestling the material from the sea, he painstakingly wears the stone down with diamond-impregnated metal, carborandum and six different grades of silicate carbide sandpaper.
By subtracting the smooth material grain by grain, he accentuates its natural sea-worn line until it glows with astonishing depth. Wobber’s sculptures are gorgeous, tactile creations that resemble miles of cold green ocean compressed into a few feet, or even a few inches. They are impossible to keep your hands off.
Wobber represented the United States in an international Pacific Rim Jade Sculptors exhibit that traveled through New Zealand and brought special equipment to Guatemala to teach native carvers techniques for sculpting large jade stones. He has shown and demonstrated at gem and mineral shows, county fairs, and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
His polished jade boulders squat all over the Peninsula: at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, the Monterey Custom Framing Gallery, and, until recently, in the gardens of the Barnyard Shopping Center in Carmel.
Currently, he’s in negotiations to install a jade garden at Big Sur’s Ventana Inn & Spa. The proposed installation would consist of two pieces, “The Moveable Garden” and “Dolphin Island,” exhibited in a raked sand area outside Cielo Restaurant.
“It will be a garden in the Zen meditation tradition of Japan’s Ryoan-ji,” Don explains, “designed to create a deep resonance with the natural environment.”
Transporting these sculptures to Big Sur will be slightly less relaxing. “The Moveable Garden” is, at 3,000 lbs., not really all that moveable. At present, it rests in the outdoor native plant garden at the PG Museum of Natural History. To get it out, the City of Pacific Grove will have to take down a fence and use a crane to lift the boulder onto a truck.
But Wobber will get it there. That’s for certain.
To arrange a tour of Don Wobber’s Pacific Grove gallery, studio and sculpture garden, call 646-9972.