Berkeley couple’s sculptures to adorn San Pablo Avenue

Saori Ide and Jonathan Russell's first sculpture that they completed 12 years ago.

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More than 10 years ago, a woman from Japan walked into a Bay Area art studio and met a man from Boston who shared her strong interest in sculpture.

At the time, Jonathan Russell had moved from the East Coast to establish his own art studio, and Saori Ide was doing art consulting in San Francisco after attending school in New Mexico.

“Saori walked in, and that’s how I met her,” Russell said. “It took about five years for us to get to know each other better.”

The friendship gradually blossomed into something more, and eventually the couple married, merging their lives and their art. Now, years later, the Berkeley-based artists’ latest work — a dozen abstract copper sculptures — will soon adorn the street lights of San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito.

One of the sculptures is currently being displayed in front of City Hall, where it is installed temporarily before it will be taken down to be worked upon further. The rest of the artwork is expected to be permanently installed by early next year.

“We feel great,” Russell sad. “It has been a lot of work. For the artist, it’s a very tricky needle-to-thread (process) to get your vision through a group of people who have very different ideas.”

While the couple differs in aesthetic styles, they considered how the art will blend in El Cerrito with the surrounding environment and designed their sculptures accordingly.

“We drove back and forth many times on San Pablo Avenue just to get a feel of what the street is like and where the people are,” Ide said.

In 2009, the Arts and Culture Commission for the city was tasked with finding an artist to create a public art piece for the San Pablo Avenue Streetscape Project — which aims to distinguish the area along the avenue.

“The city of El Cerrito had $100,000 for public art, and we put a call out for proposals,” said Nancy Donovan, co-chair of the commission. “We had a committee that reviewed all the proposals, and we narrowed it down to four artists that we met with personally and then chose Jonathan and Saori.”

Donovan said the couple submitted initial designs to the commission that were deemed to be too much like “clip art.” The final designs feature 12 sculptures using copper and stainless steel with a kinetic component that moves with the wind.

Russell and Ide have worked together on public art installations for cities like Boston and Charlotte in North Carolina, following their first art installation in 2000 for San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“Our relationship has been based on this kind of cooperation right from the get-go,” Russell said. “We’re doing now what we did on our first date. On our first date, we were drawing sculpture ideas on paper napkins.”

Russell said people are often amazed when they find out that he works with his wife, but he and Ide both said that their working partnership has been beneficial for each other.

“There are a lot of challenges, but I have to say that the good thing is, we each have our own thing that we are good at,” Ide said. “It’s really hard to get a huge project done by yourself, but by having a partner, we spur each other on to get things done.”

But despite working on difficult art installations, Ide said that raising their two sons — 5-year-old Kizuki and 9-year-old Satsuma — is their most difficult project to date.

Russell said they chose to settle and work out of Berkeley for the benefit of their family, saying the city offers a certain type of multicultural education that cannot be found anywhere else in the area.

“It’s the hugest collaborative work we’ve ever undertaken — our 5- and 9-year-old boys,” he said. “That was a serious collaborative effort — it makes the sculptures look easy.”

Contact Andy Nguyen at [email protected].