Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 1, 2011

A vision of sustainability

Painter sees positive lessons, relevant commentary in his art

by Leslie Shen

When asked for some insight into the title, "As Bold As California," of his just-opened exhibition in Palo Alto City Hall, artist Michael Killen gestures at the 24-foot-wide, 5-foot-tall painting that is the centerpiece of the show and gives a simple non-answer: "Well, isn't this bold?"

A dizzying stretch of thick acrylic color — deep oranges and greens, watery blues — spanning four canvases, the piece unquestionably makes that case. But its boldness, and the boldness of the exhibition, also lies somewhere beyond initial visual arrest.

"I can't just paint," Killen said in his at-home studio in Menlo Park. "I have to have big ideas."

Big, he explained, as in globally significant. This painting, titled "Sustainability," is one in a whole body of works aimed at "increasing awareness and helping to educate the public" not only about conserving nature, but also about making it viable in the long run. In "Sustainability," that need is represented by depictions of solar, wind and geothermal energy, painted alongside strokes of coal black that caution against prolonged use of fossil fuels.

"I make paintings like this so that they bring attention to finding ways to use less water, less coal, less oil, and finally to get the new energy we need," he said. "The paintings create news, bring people in and get people thinking about the good messages coming out of Stanford and NASA about sustainability, about the need to think about climate change."

When it comes to exhibiting his work, Killen is no novice. His paintings were displayed in City Hall last fall, and this round of showing, while it starts here, will move outside the local bubble to the county seat in San Jose, then possibly to NASA's new Sustainability Base building by the Ames Research Center, and then across the country to Lake Wales, Fla., according to Killen.

But his time as an artist began more recently, and poignantly, than one might expect — roughly two years ago, he said, after the six to seven years he spent recovering from an injury that forced him to retire from his position as leader of a think tank.

"It broke my heart losing my profession," Killen said, "but somebody got me started painting and it went like that, and then the environmental people grabbed me, and it went like that. I never studied art, so everything is new for me."

These days, he seems to be looking forward rather than back, seeking out people willing to share creative and environmental thoughts and inviting them to speak on programs he broadcasts from the Media Center in Palo Alto. Local figures who have made appearances include Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa, former mayor Pat Burt and Ric Ambrose, executive director of the Pacific Art League.

"I give them a chance to talk and share salient comments they have that are good for us," Killen said. "It's one of my ways of learning."

Among his projects is a documentary in the making, "Painting to Change the World," which follows his artistic journey and interactions with experts in the fields of science, business and education. According to Palo Alto environmentalist and graphic designer Carroll Harrington, a collaborator of Killen's since early last year, his creativity and inspiration are one of a kind.

"Michael's ability to use his business-information expertise to create his dynamic and bold art is awe-inspiring," Harrington said. "Watching him interview climate-change experts and then translating these complex ideas into art is quite an adventure."

Of the interdisciplinary nature of his efforts, Killen said: "I'm a TV guy at times. I'm an artist at times. I'm going to touch people and change how they think."

And thinking, ultimately, is what the art is all about. Every image in a Killen painting stands for something, symbolizes some urgent concept. It could be a mast and billowing sail — a nod to wind power — or the infinity figure eight, which Killen calls "the icon of sustainability" for the sense of future and continuation it elicits in his mind.

"My practice," he said, "is thinking clearly about issues and then thinking, 'What's the imagery?'. In a way it's very simple."

An image that stands out as being particularly significant to him is the image of the infant and child. Youngsters are almost everywhere in "Sustainability," skating precariously on the curves of the figure eight — curves that form the brink of a yawning void. It's intended to be cautionary, according to Killen: a warning against environmental irresponsibility and the consequences he believes will take their harshest toll on the very young.

"I want to get the word out that we should be concerned about what we're doing for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren," he said. "I want to get personal, get us tuned in to the things we should be tuned in to. It's only about you and me in terms of what you and I do, but it's really about the children that come after us. They may not have choices. Maybe they won't be able to breathe the air, or maybe they'll be starving, if we're not careful."

He's even affixed pictures of his own grandchildren to the canvas, which he said makes it that much more personal for him.

"I love my granddaughters," he said, "and I want them to have a better life than we have."

What: "As Bold As California," an exhibition of paintings by Michael Killen and by Arabella Decker, plus a reception.

Where: Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto

When: Exhibition through July 28, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reception on July 14 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://killen.com . To RSVP for the reception, contact painting@harringtondesign.com by July 11.

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