A Match Made in the Heavens

For married artists, his aerial photos inspire her custom jewelry.

Writer: Suzanne Behnke

Even longtime partners can discover new ways to connect.

After 27 years of marriage, artists King and Ann Au are working on their first collaboration for an upcoming exhibit, “6 Miles Up+Down to Earth,” which will open Sept. 6 at 2AU Limited.

He is an accomplished photographer with business that regularly takes him out of Iowa, including frequent trips to San Francisco. She is the founder of 2AU, a custom jewelry and craft art gallery in Valley Junction. The two live in the Drake area and have raised their two sons here.

“6 Miles Up+Down to Earth” showcases a newly discovered connection between these very different artists. One captures grand photographic vistas from the perspective of airplanes. The other crafts jewelry inspired by those images, expressing their beauty in rings, brooches, pendants and more. 

Ann says the collaboration helped the couple realize how their work ties together. There’s a connection “that we’ve had all this time,” she says. “It’s this under-the-surface sort of connection.”

In fact, the project had its genesis about five years ago. 

King Au often travels across the country for his photography, and he began what he calls a “visual journal.” From thick airplane windows he would gaze out at the landscape below, taking photos whenever something struck him.

“My lucky fortune is to travel, for many years, decades,” King Au says. “So the method in a way is simple: The window seat, put the camera by the window, take that picture.” 

  Encased in sleek brushed aluminum frames, the images in the exhibit mimic the airplane view. But there’s no glass to separate viewers from art; King treated the images to give the impression of smudged glass or weather effects—and the images can be touched. “It’s a luxury and a privilege to be included in something that includes all your senses,” King says.

Of the 32 black-and-white images in the collection, some show dramatic cloud formations, others the changing landscape of Utah or Colorado or Iowa. Some include rivers or bays, others crop circles and patchworks of fields. 

Ann’s inspiration for the corresponding jewelry pieces came from those images. For instance, the lines of a highway bridge stretching across a bay made Ann think of a black coral she found at the Iowa State Fair one year. Also a part of the pendant: A striking green stone—a 2-inch-long uvarovite garnet drusy—represents the green and blue of the water, she explains.

King says his and Ann’s aesthetics complement one another. “It is probably like musicians getting together to jam,” he says.

Their collaboration makes sense, says a longtime friend. “I find that both Ann and King are fine artists, but they’re also entrepreneurs, innovators,” says Lynette Pohlman, director and chief curator of University Museums at Iowa State. “They’re always seeking new dimensions; they’re never satisfied. They are always looking at what’s coming next.”

Husband and wife King and Ann Au have collaborated on an upcoming photo and jewelry exhibit called “6 Miles Up+Down to Earth.” From a plane’s window seat, photographer King Au used his smartphone to capture scenes, such as this landscape of fields near Garden City, Kansas (left). The image inspired custom jewelry maker Ann Au to create a pendant of jasper, freshwater pearl and silver. The dot pattern in the jasper complements the curves of the fields, while the pearl resembles the puffy clouds stretching across the vista, Ann says.

For an upcoming exhibit, photographer King Au and custom jewelry maker Ann Au marry their distinct artistic talents. The exhibit opens Sept. 6 with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. at 2AU Limited in West Des Moines.

King Au spied this plane, with its contrails sailing behind, above Otis, Colorado. Ann Au matched the contrails with a piece of black jade jutting into a disc of mother of pearl.

A patchwork of fields near Denver, Colorado, is the basis for this two-piece pendant and necklace made of Brazilian agate, Montana sapphires, silver and gold. 

While King Au’s photos are in black and white, some images blazed with color in Ann Au’s imagination. Here, a cloud hovers over Council Bluffs, with the hard line of the horizon in the background. Ann Au envisioned the rich colors of the sun on the cloud and chose a pink-purplish quartz set in silver and topped with little orange sapphires. Silver backs the quartz to showcase the color.

A highway bridge near Foster City, California, cuts through the nearby San Mateo Bay, as caught by King Au on his many business trips to the West. Ann Au believed the piece of black coral in this pendant matched the curve of the highway, while the green bar of uvarovite garnet drusy would match the greens and blues of the bay. The piece is set in silver.

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