The non-traditional "self portraits'' — most of them created by Gunn High School students in acrylic on canvas — come with narratives explaining each artist's ideas behind the work. All are displayed anonymously to protect the privacy of students and families.
The project, in which students were asked to portray what it's like to be "themselves growing up in Palo Alto," was part of the curriculum in this year's drawing and painting classes taught by artist and veteran Gunn art teacher Deanna Messinger.
Additional self-portraits were produced by local teens in two recent "art retreats" held by Break Through the Static, a Bay Area nonprofit that aims to support teens affected by suicide.
Starting this week, the works are hanging in local small businesses — Mike's Cafe, Bon Vivant, Vino Locale and two Philz Coffee shops — culminating in a City Hall exhibit from March 19 to April 1.
Though some of the student work touches on a devastating cluster of Palo Alto student suicides in 2009 and 2010, most of the self-reflections focus on the wider array of concerns facing teenagers almost anywhere — gossip, fear of not fitting in, college-admission pressures, smothering parents, spreading oneself too thin, the joys of solitude.
In an untitled painting of a child overshadowed by a roaring lion, a Gunn junior pondered the contradictions of parental love and ambition.
"Without a doubt parents have only the best of intentions for their children," she wrote.
"They wish only the greatest success for them, and yet their love, which drives them to push their kids for a better future, is often misinterpreted. As teens we often don't see the love behind their actions but only a ferocious and snappy predator attempting to enforce their will on us, the unfortunate and reluctant prey of their high ambitions."
Another Gunn junior described his overscheduled life in the painting, "Icarus."
"Just like how Icarus wanted to get a closer look at the sun, this year I wanted to try a lot of things," he wrote.
"As I threw myself at things, I found myself spread thinner and thinner. Eventually, I felt worn out and mentally dead. I wanted to illustrate this, so I chose the Greek myth of Icarus. Just as he ventured too close to the sun and burned his wings off, I feel like I tried to do too much and ended up only tiring myself."
The emotions of "infectious happiness" and "oppressive sadness" were explored by another Gunn junior through an image of a zipper, titled "The Difference."
"In anyone's life there is one or more thing that ultimately controls our happiness," the artist explained.
"This zipper holds the two extremes of infectious happiness and oppressive sadness together but has the potential to pull them apart at any time."
In "Harvard," a painting of toy wooden blocks marked with "A," "B" and "C," a student reflected on the often-frustrating struggle for good grades.
"In the Palo Alto community many students are pressured into getting 'A's' in all their classes," the junior wrote.
"The attitude that is portrayed by students and their parents makes it seem that any grades other than 'A's' are unacceptable. However, this is not true; moreover, getting straight 'A's' can also be unattainable and out of reach for some, leaving them frustrated as they struggle."
Another Gunn junior discussed the unexpected rewards of spending time alone in "Fulfilling Solitude."
"Solitude doesn't have to be loneliness," she wrote.
"There is a peace to being alone, waiting to be discovered if you let go of your emotion and simply embrace the solitude. You may find that you're not really by yourself after all."
The exhibit grew out of a chance meeting last summer between Messinger, who has taught art at Gunn for 12 years, and Carolyn Digovich, the parent of a Palo Alto High School graduate, who promotes local small businesses.
They met when Messinger won a prize in a drawing sponsored by a small business Digovich was promoting — two amethyst bookends from the Nature Gallery.
"We talked about art," Digovich said.
"I was thrilled to meet an art educator of Deanna's caliber, and I told her about this potential series of exhibits I'd talked with the businesses about. She was ready to get involved."
At a 2010 Palo Alto Youth Council meeting following the suicides, Digovich had volunteered to work with small business owners to make their shops more welcoming for teens.
"There are a lot of community-building opportunities here. I feel these independent businesses are the backbone of our community, make our communities livable," Digovich said.
"This is really a very first effort, and we just wanted it to be a great effort."
Jade Chamness, CEO of the suicide-recovery group Break Through the Static, said she contacted Digovich when she heard about the project, offering to contribute the art of some of the teen members of her organization.
"This project lined up with what Break Through the Static is all about — organizing and executing projects where teens feel supported, cared for, loved and heard," said Chamness, who launched the organization after losing her own father to suicide.
For Messinger, the project fit nicely with another topic she has worked with in her drawing and painting classes — prejudice.
"Instead of being about prejudice or discrimination, this was turning it into a non-traditional self-portrait — defying the boundaries of what a self-portrait is," Messinger said.
"It's not about their face or their body but about who they are, in concentric circles starting with the question of 'What it's like being you' with your religious background, ethnic background ... bringing it to, 'How's that in Palo Alto' and 'How's that at Gunn?'" she said.
"It's really about what it's like being 'you' in Palo Alto, with all that you bring.'"
Students began with their sketchbooks, incorporating lessons of color theory, composition and arranging elements in ways that communicate.
One Gunn student, a close friend of one of the children who died, "began with fairly graphic imagery," Messinger said.
"As she processed it and continued the sketches before painting, she realized she didn't need to do those graphic images anymore. She'd actually worked it through and come up with more positive and hopeful imagery in the end."
The resulting exhibit is cosponsored by the Palo Alto Youth Collaborative, the Gunn High School Visual Arts Department and Break Through the Static.
Mike's Cafe, Philz Coffee, Bon Vivant and Vino Locale all plan receptions for the artists (see sidebar).
A "Grand Exhibit and Reception" will be held at Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., March 23 from 5 to 7 p.m.
The Business-Teen Art Exhibition receptions
Music will be performed by local youth at every reception.
March 15: 2:30-4 p.m. Mike's Café, 2680 Middlefield Road
March 16: 5-7 p.m. Philz, 101 Forest Ave.
March 17: 12-3 p.m. Vino Locale, 431 Kipling St.
March 17: 4-6 p.m. Philz, 3191 Middlefield Road
March 18: 3-5 p.m. Bon Vivant, 535 Bryant St.
March 23: 5-7 p.m. Grand Exhibit and Reception at Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. Mayor Yiaway Yeh will speak on youth empowerment. All of the pieces of teen art will be hung at City Hall from March 19 to April 1.