On a recent evening, a man and a woman stood waiting for a southbound train at the California Avenue Caltrain station. The man drew the woman's attention to a sculpture -- visible across the tracks, on the opposite side of Alma Street, in Bowden Park -- and wondered aloud about the story behind it.
The pair bantered back and forth for a time about the statue -- a car, supported by two thick human legs, frozen in mid-sprint. After less than a minute of rumination, they moved on to the next topic of conversation, perhaps to never again contemplate the piece.
Elise DeMarzo, manager of the city's Public Art program, assumes conversations like these are common in Palo Alto.
"I think people really don't know where to go" (to find out what something is), DeMarzo says. While many may reflect on the murals and sculptures they encounter while going about their day, she figures that many don't engage in the art much beyond a passing glance.
That may soon change, however, now that the Public Arts Commission has mostly completed and launched a searchable online database of Palo Alto's public art. The page, which went live at the beginning of the year, contains images and brief descriptions of the majority of the city's art. It even has information on that car with legs.
The sculpture is called "Rrrun." It was created by a Los Altos artist, named Marta Thoma. A quick search of the database reveals that Thoma is also responsible for "Go Mama" -- the large bronze sculpture of a figure with a child's face for a torso and cartoonish, painted-on eyes, which stands at the corner of California Avenue and Ash Street.
Larisa Usich, a six-year veteran of the commission, said she was the one to initially propose the database. "I brought this idea to the city when I joined the commission, and it has been quite a process to get it here," she said.
When Usich began her tenure on the commission, she found that the city didn't have anything approaching a modern database to track its art collection -- even for its own record-keeping purposes. Some of the information about the collection was on paper, in manila folders, and she recalls a list of all the works on an Excel spreadsheet, "but that was about it."
Upgrading the system wasn't simply a matter of converting Excel files and old paper files into a single digital database. According to Chris Caravalho, the city's IT project manager, building the database was a "large undertaking" from a technical standpoint.
The city's web vendor had to create a custom portal, which functioned differently than the rest of the city website and turned the art commission's internal database into something that would be intuitive to the searching public.
On top of the technical aspects, there was the huge logistical task of gathering images of the art and getting permission from the artists to display it on the site. Many of the works of art in the city -- particularly many of the sculptures -- had to be rephotographed. Many had been photographed for internal documentation purposes, but the quality of the photos was low and unsuitable for such a public database.
Palo Alto resident and photographer Michael Kern helped coordinate this process. In 2011, he and a group of his fellow Palo Alto Camera Club members joined forces with the art commission -- going out into the field to capture photos of 69 outdoor works of art in the city.
Kern recalls the project fondly, describing it as a "scavenger hunt" of sorts and noting that the city has many works of public art that most people either don't know about or simply don't notice.
"I live in Palo Alto and I drive by these pieces all the time, but I never really paid attention to them until this project," Kern says.
The photographer says he came to appreciate how certain works of art really become a part of the landscape -- changing with the light, the time of day, the weather, and the way in which people and the environment interact with the works.
One of his favorite -- "Streaming" -- was created by Ceevah Sobel. It consists of several wave-shaped strips of aluminum installed above a storm-drain pump on San Francisquito Creek, near an entrance to the Bay Trail on the north side of Highway 101.
"I never even knew it existed," Kern says of the piece, explaining that, for him, documenting the public art was a process of "discovery."
Kathleen Kavanaugh, chair of the art commission, says she hopes the database will function as a "catalyst" to help others discover local art and engage with it on a deeper level.
Giving an example of how she envisions the database in action, she recalled driving on Middlefield Road recently. As she passed the Lucie Stern Center, she noticed a sculpture she had seen but didn't know much about.
"I thought to myself, 'Gosh. I don't actually know who that is,' so, I went to our database. Anybody could do that," Kavanaugh says, adding that she is eager to "help people learn and help people get excited."
When Usich took her seat on the commission, she made it a priority to create an electronic database -- first for the purposes of better record keeping, but with an eye toward more technologically savvy ends.
"Capturing the information in a database is just the first step," Usich says. She hopes one day that the city might develop an application, which draws on the database and allows people to take smartphone- or tablet-driven art walks or simply pull up information about a given piece on the fly, by scanning a QR code on a sculpture or mural.
The more accessible the city's art collection is, the better, in her opinion. After all, Usich says, while the city is the steward of these works, everything in the collection belongs to the people of Palo Alto. "The art is for the public," she says. "it's for their benefit."
Five works of Palo Alto public art
Palo Alto has 336 pieces of permanently sited and portable works of art in its collection, according to Elise DeMarzo, manager of public art with the city. Some are better known than others. Below is a list of five public art works and the stories behind them.
OLDEST: "Nude in Steel" by Hans Wehrli | Palo Alto Main Library, 1213 Newell Road
This statue was the first piece of art purchased by the Public Art Commission. It was acquired in 1976 in commemoration of America's bicentennial celebration. It is currently hidden from view -- inside a large box to protect it from the surrounding construction going on at the library. According to DeMarzo, one of the city's librarians told her that the sculpture has a secret admirer, who places a flower behind the statue's ear every few days. "I think somebody loves her," the librarian says.
NEWEST: "Wild" by Beth Nybeck | Hoover Park, 2901 Cowper St.
This trio of boxy metal bears is not technically the newest piece of art in the city, but some of the more recent acquisitions, from artists including Nathan Oliveira, Bruce Beasley, Roger Stoller, Brad Oldham and Mark Verlander, aren't visible because they've yet to be placed or are hidden by construction at Mitchell Park. "Wild" was truly a community effort, DeMarzo says. Over the course of a few years, the art commission visited with the Midtown Residents Association and asked what the community wanted before putting out a national call. Beth Nybeck won the commission and the locals seem happy. "Every time I'm out there, I see kids climbing on the bears," DeMarzo says.
WELL KNOWN: "Digital DNA" by Adriana Vallera & Nilton Maltz | Lytton Plaza, 202 University Ave.
Everyone knows this piece even if they don't know its name. It's the giant egg! This project was initially approved around 2000, but several delays pushed its unveiling back, even after the piece itself was finished. Then a warehouse fire destroyed the original, and the artist team had to start from scratch on a new egg. It was finally placed in 2005. Comprised of many pieces of computer circuit boards -- and intended to reflect on how technology can bridge language and culture -- the piece has taken a beating from the sun and rain. It was recently refurbished, but the art commission and city are considering moving "Digital DNA" somewhere where it faces less punishment from the elements.
LESSER KNOWN: "Bliss in the Moment" by James Moore | San Francisco Bay Trail
Located on the San Francisco Bay Trail and visible from Highway 101, this abstract rendering of a cyclist gazing off into the distance of the baylands is meant to memorialize Bill Bliss, the influential San Jose cycling activist, who worked hard to advance causes, such as the Bay Trail and bicycle-safety infrastructure all over the state. According to DeMarzo, the odometer on the front of the bicycle portion of the sculpture has the number of miles Bliss traveled on the Odyssey 2000 cycling tour around the world -- 20,126.
MOST FAMOUS ARTIST: "WIGS" by Pablo Picasso | Currently in storage
Though this ceramic plate is far from Picasso's best-known work, it is a Picasso nonetheless. A gift to the city by Don Goldeen. It was originally displayed in the city during a 1981 exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, titled "Picasso Ceramics: Limited Editions from California Collections." The plate was produced in France, sometime around 1947, when Picasso began working in the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, Southern France, according to information obtained from the arts center exhibit. During that time, he created molds and designs, which the master potters at the pottery then used to create limited editions.