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Two young interns sit at a table in a workroom at Cornerstone Sonoma, painstakingly bending slips of galvanized wire into cloud shapes.

They will spend hours and days of their summer break engaging in this repetitious meditation, all in the service of art.

They will do it until the job is done, until there are thousands of these silvery little cloud shapes, enough to sheathe a giant Chinese Lantern 12 feet high and 18 feet wide.

Time and cost never enter the equation when landscape artist Andy Cao creates his visions.

"Ifs never worked for us. If we did it in the traditional way, looking at the materials and doing all the research and figuring out how much time it will take and what it will cost, none of this would happen. You would just keep thinking about those numbers. It's too intimidating," Cao reflects.

He is seated at a table laden with wire, where Matt Moffitt, 20, a landscape architecture student from Penn State, and Christian Berman, 29, a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, go about work that manages to be both mindless and mindful.

Cao creates his dreamscapes not only without thinking of practicalities like time, but also without conventional plans. Years ago, he gave up the pencil and paper. His ideas are sketched out only in his head, eventually to be digitally rendered by his Paris-based partner, Xavier Perrot.

He never really knows how those concepts will materialize until he begins making them. But that serendipity and discovery becomes an integral part of the process.

He has spent weeks assembling two new installations at Cornerstone. Like Cao's work, the place defies easy definition or labeling.

An eclectic mix of shops, tasting rooms and a cafe, it borders what amounts to a 9-acre outdoor gallery of exhibition "gardens," spaces that are more three-dimensional outdoor art pieces that draw the viewer in for exploration, interaction and contemplation.

Cao, whose works have drawn praise on multiple continents, contributed one of the first installations at Cornerstone when it opened in 2004. He just completed a Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and now he is doing two new spaces.

One he calls "Bai Yun," or "White Cloud." It dramatically remakes "The Lullaby Garden" he did seven years ago, an undulating mini-mountain range covered with carpets hand-made by Vietnamese villagers out of 300 yards of fishing line.

Last week, he and his team worked sunup to sundown, floating out chicken wire clouds and hanging 5,000 light-capturing droplet crystals for an effect like a cloud chandelier. He will keep the rolling surface but this time carpet it with wildflowers and humble flowering weeds.

"When you see these two materials, crystals and chicken wire, they have nothing in common," he says. "But when you put them together, something happens. By taking things out of their context, you give them a whole new application and association."

His second installation, "Red Lantern," has thousands of delicate wire clouds that reference the Chinese immigrants who came to California in the 19th century and toiled on its railroads. It takes over an installation spot previously occupied by landscape architect Martha Schwartz of Harvard, whose unorthodox visions were pathfinding and inspired Cao.

The Los-Angeles-based designer caught the art world's notice 10 years ago with his sparkly recycled glass gardens. A 2001 installation at Chaumont-sur-Loire — a festival of gardens that was the inspiration behind Cornerstone — led to a year-long fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

Since then, he and Perrot have been pushing the edges of landscape design, drawing on unexpected and seemingly dissonant materials to create what they call "hybrid environments" that blend art and landscape "to make a place for dreaming."

Evoking sparkling bubbles, their steel tree made of 20,000 mother-of-pearl leaves took the Grand Prize in the 2009 Jardins, Jardin show in the Tuileries garden in Paris. And they are in the process of creating a new 600-acre central park in Shenzhen, China, after winning an international design competition.

Cao refers to his artistic approach to landscapes as "incidental placemaking."

"In the end, the only thing I need is my intuition and how I see and that's it. The rest? I just make things," says Cao, who draws his inspiration from art, poetry, music, fashion and photography.

Unlike many artists who just design and leave the fabrication to someone else, Cao and his team are hands-on. They believe in the luxury of "hand-made" and the value of improvisation if something needs changing in the execution.

"The machine can do everything perfect, but you don't feel it," he says in a voice that, at times, is barely above a whisper. "When you make something with your own hands, even if it's imperfect, if you accept those flaws and make them work for you, then those flaws become beauty markers."

Cao fled his native Vietnam in 1979 at the age of 13 with his mother and four siblings, surviving a 9-month horror as they hopscotched from island to island in rickety boats until finally reaching the U.S.

The Asian diaspora and the refugee/immigrant experience of cultural assimilation informs much of Cao's work.

Visitors will be able to walk inside his "Red Lantern," following a railroad track pathway that submerges into a pond. The area will be surrounded by the kind of crushed gravel you see along railroads.

It summons, for Cao, the jarring, disorienting experience of the 19th century immigrant Chinese of California. And it draws on something deep within his own story.

"I just intuitively do it but don't consciously think of what it means," he says. "When I look back, however, there's always that link."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.