A new design idea by two Berkeley artists for public art on San Pablo Avenue light poles — abstract sculpture that moves with the wind — won support Tuesday night from the El Cerrito Arts and Culture Commission.
The commission's response stood in marked contrast to its of the first plan by the husband-and-wife team, Jonathan Russell and Saori Ide, who had initially proposed to mount 50 colorful icons of people and objects on light poles the length of San Pablo.
"I have to say I'm really pleased," said commissioner Nancy Donovan. "...I'm so happy to have this be moving forward in a really positive way."
The two artists have been awarded a $100,000 commission by the city to mount the largest public art project in city history as part of the multi-year San Pablo Avenue Streetscape Project. The streetscape project is essentially complete except for the art component, which has been delayed by disagreement over what direction it would take.
The 12 sculptures would be copper in its natural color and partially surrounded by circular open steel frames designed to echo the steel bicycle racks installed on San Pablo.
Their first proposal for the San Pablo Avenue icons had been criticized as resembling clip art and not representative of El Cerrito. The artists said their proposal had followed the guidance they received from the commission over several months, but that they would nevertheless be happy to return with a new approach in keeping with the commission's request for work that is "abstract" and made of copper or metal.
The pair Tuesday night offered two types of design for moving sculpture on 12 light poles. One type was representational, such as a fish or a cluster of oak leaves with an acorn. The other was abstract forms.
Commission members said they preferred the abstract approach.
"I think when we use the more realistic images, it's sort of limiting," said commission chair Joyce Hawley.
"We agree with you completely," Russell responded. "...Especially when you're doing imagery, less information is oftentimes more. We like to allow our viewer to take a leap of cognition."
"Both of us, we love abstract art," Ide said.
But when doing public art, Russell and Ide said, they've found that more realistic images are often preferred, so they decided to give the commission a choice. "Oftentimes we find (in public art), almost always we find, that people are looking for more representational art," Russell said.
Though the commissioners supported the abstract approach instead, Hawley and others indicated a strong liking for the one of realistic sculptures that was meant to represent raindrops.
The artists showed the commission three sample images for each type, with the understanding the images were intended to reflect the concept, not the final designs, and that further refinement of the sculptures would be shaped by a "conversation" between the artists and the commission.
The commission and artists agreed that Russell and Ide would return to the panel's November meeting with a more fleshed-out proposal, including more designs for the proposed sculptures.
The tentative size would be 4-1/2 feet in diameter, subject to refinements in the design process, the artists said. "It doesn't have to be huge to have a presence," Ide said. "It is moving."
The artists began their presentation Tuesday by showing the commission other possible new designs they had considered that would not have used the streetlight poles. One idea was for a single 22-foot-tall abstract bronze column at Baxter Creek Park. Another called for three 16-foot-high pieces with abstract wind-moved sculptures mounted on slender pillars.
Months ago, when the commission members expressed dissatisfaction with the earlier icons proposal, some said they were impressed with another public art project by Russell, "Cod in the Wind," a 30-foot-high sculpture in Boston made of copper fish that move with the wind.
The rejected icons would have been steel plate, painted with boldly colored images.