At first glance, the red handrail that spans San Luis Obispo’s Santa Rosa Street bridge seems ordinary enough. Look closer, and you’ll see the repeating squiggles are actually the outlines of the Seven Sisters, the craggy volcanic peaks that define the San Luis Obispo County skyline, rendered in powder-coated steel.
Look closer still, and you’ll realize that the design -- sinuous shapes framed by rectangles and topped with square nubs -- subtly echoes a similar motif decorating the nearby Kundert Medical Clinic designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s. It’s no coincidence, either, that the railing is painted Cherokee red, Wright’s favorite color.
“It’s probably one of my more admired pieces,” acknowledged San Luis Obispo sculptor Jim Jacobson, whose “Seven Sisters Bridge” was installed in 2000. And it’s just one example of how Jacobson has helped shaped the Central Coast’s public art landscape with thoughtful pieces rooted in the region’s past.
“Jim always tells a story of who we are,” said Betsy Kiser, who oversaw San Luis Obispo’s Public Art Program as director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “He ties together time and place and history.”
“I’ve taken an interest in our local heritage,” Jacobson said, although, he added, “I’m not sure why.” Perhaps it has something to do with the way “accenting the history of the site makes you feel more a part of your community. You have a better understanding of what has gone in the past, not just what you see today,” the sculptor said.
Jacobson, who hails from Humboldt County, never planned to be a “starving artist,” as he puts it. After graduating from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he entered the Peace Corps in 1969.
His first post found him serving as an auditor for cocoa and coffee cooperatives in the west African country of Ghana. “I made a mobile for my little one-room apartment” out of calabashes and bamboo, Jacobson recalled. “That was the beginning of my interest in design.”
Back in the United States, he started building wooden mobiles. The hobby followed him as he and his family moved from Washington, D.C., to Micronesia to Saipan to Botswana; he even exhibited his work at the National Museum & Art Gallery in Gaborone, Botswana, in the mid-1970s.
Jacobson and his family eventually settled on the Central Coast, moving 30 years ago into a hillside home on the southern outskirts of San Luis Obispo. (Jacobson, who supplemented his master’s degree in public administration with a handful of arts classes, designed the sleek structure himself.) It’s here that his hobby has blossomed into a full-bore profession.
Jacobson’s first public art project was “Flames of Knowledge,” a large-scale metal mobile positioned in front of the city of San Luis Obispo’s Parks and Recreation Department. Playful shapes in primary colors recall the property’s past as the site of Emerson School.
“At the time I didn’t know how to weld and yet I proposed a piece of sculpture” that required welding, quipped Jacobson, who recruited the help of two expert San Luis Obispo fabricators, Brad Cliff and Doug Brewster. (He also apprenticed with Brewster, a Cal Poly faculty member.)
“Flames of Knowledge,” installed in 1998, marked Jacobson’s transition from wood to more durable, weather-resistant materials such as powder-coated, stainless and Cor-Ten weathering steel. It also signaled the start of a new career. “That’s what moved me from a desk job to working full-time as an artist,” he explained.
Over the decades, Jacobson has developed a visual vocabulary that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who’s seen his free-standing sculptures, mobiles and wall reliefs. “Even my grandchildren, when they were two or three walking through downtown [San Luis Obispo], would go, ‘Oh, there’s grandpa’s sculpture.’ They’d recognize it,” he said. “It says something about an artist when he has a style that he’s been able to pull out of [his] mind or what is pleasing and stimulating to him.”
According to Jacobson, he gets his interest in Art Deco and midcentury modernist design from Wright, his love of mobiles and kinetic sculpture from Alexander Calder and his passion for bright colors from Joan Miro. And then there’s his fascination with human history and the natural world.
Take the trio of sculptures he designed for downtown sites at San Luis Obispo Creek near Mission Plaza. “Chumash” celebrates the first inhabitants of the San Luis Obispo area with human-like figures based on ancient pictographs, while “Fish Life” calls attention to two types of native fish -- steelhead trout and three-spined stickleback -- and “Sycamore and Budding Thistle” pays lyric tribute to the Chorro Creek bog thistle and California sycamore. All three sculptures were installed in 1999.
Jacobson revisited the Chumash pictograph motif in 2003’s “Haku,” located in downtown Lompoc. A sculpture, he said, “shouldn’t just be a piece of art that looks nice. It should represent the site it’s at in terms of the environment.”
Jacobson collaborated with glass artist Will Carlton and graphic designer Erick Wand to create the obelisk “The American Spirit,” installed in 2003 at the corner of Osos and Palm Streets in front of San Luis Obispo’s City Hall. Befittingly located in close proximity to a bus transfer station, the totemic sculpture, which pairs images of a grizzly bear and a palm tree with stylized wheels and tire tracks, recalls two centuries of transportation in San Luis Obispo County.
Sixteen etched metal panels around the base feature sketches and photographs of vehicles ranging from the Chumash tomol to the stagecoach to the steamship. “The American Spirit” is topped with red, green and yellow glass tiles in “X” and “O” patterns -- signifying stopping and going -- and crowned with amber-colored glass flames.
Jacobson, who served as team leader, said the artists consulted closely with the History Center of San Luis Obispo County in designing the piece. “A fascinating part of the art [project’s] development is to dig into the history of each site,” said Jacobson, who does extensive research in preparation for each piece.
To design 2004’s “Devaul Ranch Development Storyboard,” a powder-coated steel, brick and river rock tower at the intersection of Los Osos Valley and Madonna Roads in San Luis Obispo, Jacobson pored over historical property records. Each of the area’s past owners or occupants is depicted with an icon, such as a cattle brand.
When San Luis Obispo nonprofit Peoples’ Self-Help Housing commissioned Jacobson to create an artwork for its Courtland Street Apartments affordable housing project in Arroyo Grande, the sculptor decided to honor the generations of Japanese Americans who had farmed in the area. His "Japanese Lantern," installed in 2014, marries the design of a traditional lantern with the motif of the short-handled hoe once used by local farm workers and banned by the California Supreme Court in 1975 as unsafe.
Four Japanese characters -- signifying “family,” “honor,” “peace/harmony” and “water” -- mark the sides. Jacobson settled on those by presenting a selection of 75 to 80 characters to a group of elderly Japanese residents and asking them to pick their favorites.
“[Jacobson] explored the values and essence of the Japanese families in the Arroyo Grande area of the pre-World War II era with a great deal of research and care,” former Peoples’ Self-Help Housing board chairwoman Carolyn Johnson, who worked with Arroyo Grande Public Arts on the selection process, wrote in an email. ”He looked to the heart of their service rather than simply showcasing pieces of their culture as we saw with the other folks who submitted [proposals]. The selection team was most impressed with his sensitive portrayal showcasing their values in a simple but powerful way.”
“Pardon me as I get a little flowery about Jim's work,” added Johnson, now the planning director for Curry County in Oregon. “[It] takes a special person with a servant’s heart to recognize and portray the culture and service of these hardworking folks who made such an impact in the AG community!”
According to Kiser, that careful attention to context is typical of Jacobson, a juror on San Luis Obispo's private commissions art committee since 2000. (He's also served as vice president and president of the board of directors of Arts Obispo, the Arts Council of San Luis Obispo County, and a member of its Art in Public Places Committee.) “Every one of his pieces gives you a sense of place,” she said.
“Public art should [be able to] go anywhere and enhance the environment,” Kiser said. “It becomes part of the fabric of the town.”
See more of Jim Jacobson's work on his webpage.
Top image: A kinetic sculpture by Jim Jacobson. | Photo: Sarah Linn.