For sculptor and former trucking company owner Richard Katz, and many others like him, West Berkeley’s Harrison Fields used to be their playground.
As Katz strolled the athletic fields Monday where a sculpture garden once rose above broken bricks and stone—his Panama style hat unable to conceal a wide-eyed grin—one would never guess that UC Berkeley has given him just two weeks to find a new home for two sculptures it took he and his friend eight years to complete. His friend, in fact, never lived to see the finished product.
“Look at this,” Katz screamed as, peeking behind some bushes, he spotted a sculpture he identified as the work of his friend Paul Horesby. “Imagine turning around and finding what you’re looking for,” he said. “It’s like a dream.”
When it came to Katz’ work, about 80 yards east, UC Berkeley apparently wasn’t even sure what it was looking at.
In the April 30 edition of the Daily Planet, the university, in accordance with state law, posted a notice stating that the university intended to remove “two steel objects” deposited on UC property and offered them to any interested buyer who would remove them before a June 1 deadline.
Although it couldn’t identify the structures, the university knew they were too close to the banks of Codornices Creek, which the university is widening as part of a restoration project slated to begin next month.
Katz was all smiles Monday, but he was not amused when he learned of the notice. In a letter he wrote to the UC Board of Regents, he said his sadness arose both from the death of his friend and “from the apparent fact that the University of California, Berkeley, recognizes not that this was even a work of art at all.”
The two sculptures, Katz said, were primarily the work of Alan Ross, a UC Berkeley trained artist, who—just as he was finishing up the project—was shot to death in his Oakland studio by a gunman who had knocked on his door complaining of noise.
Katz and Ross had dubbed the work “Soap” because the steel came from the vats of the 19th century Pioneer Soap factory in San Francisco.
One sculpture, designed almost entirely by Ross, has a curved top and a zig-zag body that Katz said represented electricity and raw energy. Katz had a bigger role in the second sculpture, a web of jaded steel above a smooth soap vat that Katz, a former UC Berkeley cellular biology student, said represented mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell.
“We went from the rawest of energy—electricity with thousands of volts, killer shit—to the most finely tuned bio-physical thing I know,” he said.
Had everything gone according to plan, the duo’s work would never have ended up on the UC site, which at the time sculptors used both as an outdoor exhibition center and as a tool to obstruct future UC development on the land.
As part of the deal to remove the steel soap vats from the factory, Katz said the developer of the building offered to pay the artists to make a sculpture out of the vats. The owner reneged and without funding or a home, Katz and Ross labored on and off for eight years until Katz planted the sculptures on the UC land.
At first they resided about a football field away, but in 1995, UC agreed to build soccer fields on the site. Katz, with the blessing of the sports field users, moved the sculptures to their present home beside the creek.
Katz insists he also had UC Berkeley approval to relocate the work, but Lloyd Lee, an attorney with University of California Office of the President, said there was no evidence of any such agreement.
Nevertheless, Lee has accepted Katz’ claim to the sculptures. What that means for Katz and the sculptures is unclear.
Katz has now taken the lead in finding a new home for them and is searching for a private buyer.
Should he fail, he could remove the sculptures himself—an expensive proposition, which last time cost him about $500 to move them across the field—or leave them for the university to remove. Even though Katz is now recognized as the owner, Lee said the university wouldn’t “stick him” with paying for the removal if a new buyer steps forward.
Despite the sudden demise of his art space, Katz isn’t bitter at the university or nostalgic for the sculpture garden that preceded the sports fields. “I’m a practical guy about the art,” said Katz, who insisted he was happy the university ultimately sold most of the land to Berkeley to build more sports fields. “The irony is that without UC there would never have been all this sculpture,” he said.
Katz acknowledged another ironic twist. As the owner of a trucking company in the 1970s, he worked for UC to help unearth Codornices Creek—a project that remains a source of pride.
“I care about the creek. That’s why I dug it up. That’s why it’s green here now,” he said.
The latest Codornices Creek project, headed by the city of Albany, in conjunction with Berkeley and UC, seeks to unearth the watercourse all the way from San Palo Avenue to the rail road tracks just east of Second Street. A foot bridge is slated to go near where the sculptures stand and a bike path will also traverse it, said Crystal Barriscale of UC Berkeley Facilities Services.
Barriscale was also responsible for finding potential bidders for the property. Monday was UC’s deadline to accept bids, and although the university received some inquires, Barriscale said to her knowledge no one had made an offer.
Katz, though, thinks the work is too good not to find a new home. “We built a monumental, abstract, minimalist sculpture as good as any other monumental, abstract, minimalist sculpture as far as I can tell,” he said.