Microgrants, local landmarks and Palo Alto’s 45,000 public trees help our artists thrive.
What do a whimsical marching band, a playful sculpture, data about municipal trees and a scavenger hunt have in common? As the COVID-19 pandemic lumbers on — keeping performing arts venues shuttered, museums and galleries limited and Zoom fatigue very, very real — the Palo Alto Public Art Department is ready to spruce things up with some colorful, uplifting new projects that can be safely encountered.
“Temporary public art has become a really big field,” the city’s Public Art Program Director Elise DeMarzo said in a recent interview. “There’s a really big focus right now for everyone because, while we like our big splashy permanent artworks and our big architectural artworks, those take a lot of time to engage. People really need some joy and relief now.”
In addition to offering something to the public, it’s also a way of supporting numerous artists during a tough time, she added.
First up in the new batch of works are the eight site-specific murals bringing good vibrations to the Downtown and California Avenue business districts. The project was commissioned in conjunction with the city’s Uplift Local initiative and more funding is available to continue the program if the murals prove popular and more potential host sites come forward, DeMarzo said. The images are printed on aluminum, applied like wallpaper, recyclable and expected to remain in place for up to a year.
The work of Downtown North artist Lauren Berger has what she calls a “bohemian California feminist idealism,” reflected in her mix of 1970s inspiration and fresh, contemporary aesthetic. Her new mural, “See You Soon” is located close to home, at 542 High St.
“My digital illustrations typically live out their existences on screen, so the opportunity to have my digital artwork printed 8 feet wide for a public audience of passersby was really exciting to me,” Berger said.
“See You Soon” depicts an engaging scene of current life in the slice of downtown Palo Alto in which it’s displayed, complete with Stanford Theatre marquee, outdoor dining and safely masked socializing.
“I was inspired by the supportive and interconnected nature of our community during this difficult and historic time,” she said. “Our dependence on one another has really come into focus for me this past year, whether it’s risking one’s health to provide important services, supporting local businesses or simply wearing a mask.”
Another Palo Alto artist, Robin Apple, uses iPhone photography to create colorful, abstracted and collaged images, often inspired by local nature. Her “Sunrise at the Baylands, 2020” is installed at 668 Ramona St.
Apple, who’s also a clinical psychologist, said her work is informed by emotion within a cultural context.
“In today’s divisive world, I’m eager to create art that expresses themes of diversity. Because my phone serves as my art studio, I’m able to encounter all kinds of interesting and stimulating environments and situations,” she wrote in her Uplift Local application, which she shared with this news organization.
Over at 265 California Ave., Damon Belanger’s “California Avenue Marching Band” offers the neighborhood some welcome cheer, with a host of intriguing characters parading by. “They may look a bit odd, and they might play off key, but everyone’s welcome to join in and sing along,” according to the mural’s description from the Palo Alto Public Art Program.
All eight murals can be found with the help of an interactive map, which provides information on each artwork, in addition to its location.
Meanwhile, the city and Uplift Local have continued to offer funding and receive applications on a rolling basis for its $1,000 Artlift microgrants, aimed at sparking nontraditional artwork, interactions and performances.
“It’s a good mix of projects, some from high-traffic communities and other ones that are very neighborhood-specific, which is really the intent,” DeMarzo said of the proposals received so far. “Everyone’s been isolated for a long time. This could be a good way for people to find connection, even if we have to isolate a little longer.”
The first of the microgrant projects have started to appear around town, including Connie Chuang, Debra Cen and David Peng’s “Trees of Gratitude in Old Palo Alto: Lunar New Year Celebration, 2021,” which is located at Bryant Street and Lowell Avenue (a new version of an installation that first appeared in December). A scavenger hunt by Palo Altan Susan Meade is likely the next to launch. Meade will be creating artworks from her daily walks around Palo Alto and leaving small reproductions for finders to keep and post online, DeMarzo said.
Atherton artist Priyanka Rana’s upcoming installation involves help from the youngest members of the community. Her project will be a sculpture made up of small toys donated by kids — an ode to how children have struggled and persevered over the past year and a way for them to participate in art.
“I want to tell them, ‘We are proud of the resilience that you’ve shown,’” Rana said. “My proposal was that public art often neglects children as viewers, which is a shame because they are the most curious of us all.”
She wanted her microgrant work to be installed somewhere accessible to children, so locals will soon be able to find it at Edith Johnson Park. She’s enthusiastic about public art in general, especially with museums and other venues still pretty restricted. “Let the museums come to us,” she mused. “Let the art come to people.”
Rana said she was touched and inspired by how many busy families have gone out of their way to contribute toys to the project so far.
“I hope they bring the kids to the park and see this art piece,” she said. “They can see how their individual toys come together and create one form. The toys tell their own stories.”
She also hopes kids will be inspired to take things that may be destined for the landfill and recycle them into something new.
“It’s fascinating because my kids have contributed toys (to previous projects) and said, ‘What a waste, mom! Why are you wasting toys in a sculpture?’” she said with a laugh, “but they also love to see how it comes together.”
Other potential microgrant ideas DeMarzo mentioned include a plan by a high school student to restore, paint and make available a piano to the public; a songwriter who wants to compose something for getting kids excited to return to school; and a proposal to use a meditation exercise to create a mural at Gunn High School.
While the intent of the microgrants program is indeed to fund an eclectic mix of projects outside of what may more typically constitute public art, DeMarzo acknowledged that, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, projects that involve in-person interaction or live performances are less feasible at the moment. Still, with funding secured for up to 40 projects through September, she encourages performing artists to apply.
“We’re not seeing as many of those types of applications at the moment but we would love to,” she said.
King Plaza, in front of City Hall, has been home to temporary artwork for long before the COVID-19 crisis hit. Starting this week, the plaza will be host to a very Palo Alto-sounding project — Adam Marcus’ “Arbor.” Marcus took data about Palo Alto’s more than 45,000 public trees from the city’s Open Data Portal and turned it into a sculptural, three-dimensional map of sorts, representing all the trees in every direction, radiating out from King Plaza.
“This is like a data geek’s perfect artwork,” DeMarzo laughed. This data spatialization of Palo Alto’s urban forest, inspired by zoetropes and cycloramas, is anticipated to be in place for about 10 months.
While all of these recent and upcoming projects vary wildly in style, media and scope, what they have in common is the goal of enhancing the city’s vibrance and lifting public spirit. DeMarzo also hopes the initiatives will continue giving opportunities to emerging and local artists in particular.
“Everyone’s looking for some creativity and some joy,” she said. “Hopefully we can continue to deliver that.”
For more information, go to Palo Alto Public Art Program.