But now 4030 Transport St. contains canvases instead of camis, tubes of paint instead of tunics. Old Navy bowed out of the space when the economy faltered in 2001, and the artists started moving in two years later. Now these walls house Palo Alto Studios: 26 artists working in 18 studios.
Like many other artists up and down the Peninsula, the folks at 4030 Transport have company coming soon. The month of May brings the annual Silicon Valley Open Studios event, when visitors can peer into creative spaces all over the area.
This weekend, May 8-9, Open Studios is in southern San Mateo County, featuring studios in Menlo Park, Atherton and nearby towns. On May 15-16, Palo Alto Studios and other spaces in Palo Alto and north Santa Clara County will open their doors. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Some studios are one-artist affairs in the home, while larger spaces show and sell a range of works in one building. In Palo Alto, these multi-artist sites include Cubberley Studios, the Pacific Art League and Gallery House as well as Palo Alto Studios.
"Since we have multiple artists, we get a lot of visitors. We're pretty lively," says Leslie Lambert, whose ink drawings, paintings and collages share a capacious room in Palo Alto Studios with painter Jane Peterman. She sees Open Studios as a chance for many people to experience a working artist's studio: kids whose school art programs have been cut, adults who think they could never paint, and artists who don't yet dare to rent their own space. It's Lambert's fifth time showing at Open Studios.
Hosting artists get to mingle with the public, adds Peterman, who's taking part in Open Studios for the seventh time. And, she says with a smile, "Number one, it's an opportunity to sell art."
On a recent morning, Peterman and Lambert wander through their convivial space with a couple of journalists. Peterman's dog Kaja follows, surprising the visitors by batting their fingers with a cold nose.
Peterman's side of the studio has some of her bold abstract acrylic paintings hanging on the wall. Brushes, palette knives and other tools cover a table. Her work can have print elements: She likes to apply paint to plastic strips, draw patterns in it, then rub it onto the canvas. Spraying the paint with water or alcohol changes the texture.
On the other side, Lambert's table is awash with fabric and paper scraps and glue for her collages. She affectionately fingers bits of shiny paper cut into lacy patterns with a laser cutter. Then she holds up her figurative drawings, lush with ink.
The two artists — who have known each other for years, since their kids were in school together — set up shop here in 2007. Before that, Peterman recalls, "I used to do open studios in the front yard of my house."
Peterman has a background as a certified public accountant. After starting art classes in 1999, she came to find painting "all-consuming." She's also a member of Gallery House. Lambert worked in various galleries, then let her art slide after getting married and having children. She's now come back full circle.
Whereas Lambert's art is compact, Peterman found that moving into Palo Alto Studios allowed her to spread out. Her canvases grew until she found the optimal shape, 52 by 54 inches. Why this particular size? She spreads out her arms to demonstrate her artistic wingspan. "It's enough."
Now, muted conversation from other artists carries over from another studio, but the place is mostly quiet. Many of the artists have other jobs and come here only on nights or weekends. Some studios are larger doubles like this one; others are smaller single spaces. Upstairs, there's a print studio that six artists share, coming and going.
Down the hall, Hedda Hope, one of Palo Alto Studios' original artists, shares another spacious studio with fellow painter Gertie Mellon, who has been here almost five years.
The patterns and shapes in Hope's abstract oils are often drawn from nature. "Hide & Seek," hanging on the wall, represents a maze of redwood roots from a fallen tree she saw in Sebastopol.
At Open Studios, Hope enjoys connecting with other artists to get inspiration — and, sometimes, energy. This life is solitary, and the muse is often elusive. "I'm a full-time artist, as full-time as one can get." She smiles with a touch of rue. "Being an artist is exhausting."
While Hope delves into nature, Mellon's oils and acrylics recall the verve of the cities she's lived in — Dublin, Ireland; Chicago, New York. Her paintings tend to go one way or another: precise and geometric or spontaneous. She says she alternates between styles to clear her head.
Mellon's huge acrylic triptych on one wall has carefully placed strips of paper cut from phone books. Bristling with angles, it represents overcrowding in cities, she says. "I'm really fascinated by the vibrancy of the city, the time passing, the speed." Another triptych has the grids of a cityscape, warmed by orangey-yellows like a sunset reflecting off a high-rise.
A native of Ireland, Mellon has both an art-school and an advertising background. She's in Open Studios for the fourth year. How does one prepare for the event? She gestures at her paint-covered smock. "We clean up physically."
It sounds like there's some emotional readiness, too. "It can be stressful," she says of the event. "Generally, we're kind of quiet people." She smiles as Hope paints on an easel in the background, adding texture to her canvas with bubble wrap.
But it's all worth it to help get her art out there, Mellon says. She says the business of art can be difficult: creating a website, writing an artist's statement, pounding the pavement trying to get into galleries.
That may be why Open Studios often attracts new artists or those new to the area, who find it tough getting known. The event is also non-juried, making it easier to take part.
Many artists also emphasize the educational aspect of the event, encouraging questions from visitors about the creative process, the artist's life, the current art market.
And some, like Peterman, want to make sure visitors have a hands-on experience. At Open Studios, she sets out materials for an art project visitors can participate in: a canvas, paints, a brush, water. She holds up a canvas from a past event. It's a sort of group floral still life, incorporating brush strokes from many hands.
"It's really fun to have someone who's never held a paintbrush make a mark on this experimental canvas," she says.
Peterman is practical, too. She puts out acrylic paint — oil is not so easy to clean up. Just a few colors, and just one brush, "to keep the mess down." She laughs. "I've had one incident of a kid sort of bathing in paint."
What: Silicon Valley Open Studios, an annual event organized by the Campbell nonprofit Silicon Valley Visual Arts
Where and when: This weekend, May 8-9, studios are open to visitors in southern San Mateo County. On May 15 and 16, the event moves to cities in north Santa Clara County, including Palo Alto. The studios are generally open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Admission is free, with art for sale.
Info: For studio locations and other information, go to http://www.svos.org .