The sculpture of a car growing out of two plump, childlike legs overlooks the busy traffic on Alma Street. Across Alma, a train speeds along the tracks. A plane flies overhead, and a bird soars in to land on the sculpture.
It's an ideal location for "Rrrun," says artist Marta Thoma, who began imagining the sculpture while thinking about how much time we all spend in cars. But her work isn't a statement on high gas prices, and Thoma's views on life behind the wheel are not all negative.
"There's the sense of freedom and power in a car," she says, gazing at "Rrrun" from a park bench nearby. "I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and we had lots of family vacations. If you wanted to escape, you could get in your car and drive away."
Thoma is also intrigued by the theme of metamorphosis; hence, this location on the edge of Bowden Park. In the sculpture, "people are becoming cars," and the location makes it "a bridge between the park and pedestrians and the street," she says.
The artist, who grew up in Palo Alto, also has public art pieces in San Leandro, Napa and South San Francisco. Around these parts, though, she's known for "Go Mama," her 6-foot-tall sculpture of a Mexican doll that was installed on California Avenue in 1999. "Go Mama," which has a girl's face in the doll's belly, has drawn strong responses, both positive and negative.
Thoma tries to take the reactions in stride, saying controversy often goes hand-in-hand with art.
She also notes that some of the critics have rather different views about what makes good art. One asked Thoma why she didn't replace "Go Mama" with "something beautiful, like a large cross."
Some controversy surrounded "Rrrun" before it was even installed, when retiring city arts and culture director Leon Kaplan criticized the Public Art Commission for being too cozy with Thoma, herself a former commissioner.
"Rrrun" was installed about a month ago, and Thoma says it's so new that she hasn't heard much feedback about it yet. Neither has commissioner Karen Frankel, although she herself is a big fan of the sculpture, especially because of its location above Alma Street.
"When there's traffic it makes it so exciting to have something fun and lively to look at," she said. "Marta always brings a wonderful spirit ... to her arts and to Palo Alto."
On the other hand, Paula Kirkeby, vice chair of the commission, said Thoma's work is not her favorite. But she added that she always brings visitors to see all the public art on California Avenue, and that she herself tries to keep an open mind.
"'Go Mama' is one of their favorites, particularly Europeans," she said. "I keep looking at it another way; I try to learn something."
Thoma started "Rrrun" about four years ago, crafting a small 12-inch-high model in oil-based clay. A public art commissioner saw the model at an open-studio event and started a dialogue about making it into a large public art piece for Palo Alto, she said.
The full sculpture was made with a steel armature inside to support the weight. Foam was placed over that, then steel mesh, fiberglass, cement and resin.
For these logistics, Thoma works with a Napa firm called Kreysler & Associates, which turns artists' models into larger or smaller versions. Its past projects include a Duke Ellington Memorial for the New York City Arts Commission.
The Palo Alto Public Art Commission paid about $18,000 to fund "Rrrun," which Thoma says is a remarkably low price for a sculpture like hers. Typically such piece would sell for about $40,000, she said, noting the expenses of materials and labor.
For her future work, Thoma said she's interested in creating more interactive pieces, like a sculpture she recently showed at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.
Called "Stretch," the 12-foot work is of a little girl without a head; instead, her dress has a high collar that stands up like a satellite dish. When a viewer walks toward the sculpture, the collar turns to face him or her.
"A child is such a sensor," Thoma said. "They pick up on everything."
Meanwhile, more new public art is taking shape on Palo Alto's California Avenue.
As part of a three-part mural on the new Starbucks building, artist Chris Johanson painted a starburst design titled "An untitled homage to the sun's energy," and artist David Huffman is currently working on part two of the mural, Frankel said. And many proposals have come in from artists eager to paint the third sector.
Info: For more about Marta Thoma's work, go to www.mthoma.com. For more on local public art, go to www.paloaltopublicart.org.
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