Real Estate

Celebrating arts and crafts

Palo Alto Festival of the Arts showcases handmade, individual works

No plans for next weekend? No problem. The Palo Alto Festival of the Arts is coming to University Avenue Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25 and 26.

The streets of downtown Palo Alto will play host to a myriad of tents displaying works by more than 300 different artists and crafters. Festival goers can enjoy the live music that will be pulsating from two different stages (on Waverley and Webster streets) between grabbing a bite to eat or a sip of wine from the numerous food vendors and wine- and beer-tasting booths.

Once more the Italian Street Art Expo will take place on Tasso Street where a company of 50 chalk artists will create colorful, intricate street art to benefit Youth Community Service. Kids can visit their own "art studio," at the corner of University Avenue and Kipling Street, where they can make their own crafts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As you shuffle between the rows of booths with a taco and glass of wine in tow, consider singling out these three artists:

Tammy Bickel, metal

Tammy Bickel likes longevity. She wants her edgy work to last. An artist who works exclusively with steel, Bickel creates metal sculptures that seamlessly combine the fragility of a flower with the roughness of a recycled piece of scrap metal.

After studying sculpture at a fine arts school in New York, Bickel chose metal as her medium of choice because of its resiliency.

"I had previously worked at a prop agency doing displays," Bickel said. "Everything I made would be destroyed in the next week or so and I wanted to make work that lasted."

After working as a metal sculptor for more than 15 years and moving to San Francisco, Bickel became inspired by California's natural beauty. Combining her love for the urban grittiness of New York and the natural beauty of her new state, she began to create sculptures of natural subjects in hard, rough metal.

"I was inspired by the rawness of the sculpture. I like to play off of the delicacy of natural things and capture them in a harder medium."

Each piece Bickel creates starts out as either a piece of sheet steel or fragments of old scrap metal. After heating the material and cutting it into sheets with oxyacetylene torches, Bickel focuses on creating the shapes she wants and softening the rigidity of the steel. Since most of her pieces are large, Bickel then creates heavy, strong bases to support her work.

Her favorite sculpture she has ever created is a series of steel roses, each 6 feet tall. She fondly remembers the challenge the project posed.

"I was really excited by the challenge of trying to mimic the natural softness and layers of the flower's petals," Bickel said. "I really wanted to portray the flower's delicacy and fragility."

Charles Cobb, wood

Characterized by interesting, colorful woods and sinuous shapes combined with functionality and artistry, Charles Cobb's work begs not to simply fall under the umbrella of "furniture." A dining table created by Cobb is at once both useful and visually pleasing.

Driven by the principle that furniture does not have to look and feel boxy, he considers himself an amalgam of an artist and a craftsman.

Cobb enjoys his freedom of choice within his chosen medium, especially the wide variety of materials he can use.

"As a woodworker, I have a variety of woods to work with," he said. "It's interesting because I'm starting out with something that's beautiful to begin with and hoping not to mess it up." Lately he has favored African padauk in his work, though he also uses veneers for their superior look and sustainability.

Though he took shop class in grade school, Cobb's artistic talents are a result of his self-teaching. He learned by reading every book he could find and through trial and error. Cobb always knew he wanted to pursue art because it was the only thing that seemed completely natural to him.

However, his woodworking career took off more or less by accident. One day, Cobb made his wife a full-length mirror for display in their new home.

"People came over to see it and told me that it was really good," Cobb said. "I thought it was an interesting prospect."

Inspired, Cobb pursued creating larger furniture more seriously. According to Cobb, it is necessarily to prove to clients that you are not just a whittler by showcasing craftsmanship on large pieces.

"Nowadays, I'm doing smaller functional sculpture because it's easier to get in and out of shows," Cobb said from his Santa Rosa studio. "It's just too hard to bring a dining room table into a show for me."

"One time I crafted a large cabinet that was supposed to look like a redwood tree and a handrail with bookends and bookworms leading up to someone's library," Cobb said. "Those were interesting commissions."

Jeannine Niehaus, ceramics

Jeannine Niehaus had known she wanted to be an artist from the minute she stepped into a local artist's studio to have a portrait painted. Posing alongside her brother, Niehaus was struck by how cool it was to have a studio in one's home.

Bitten by the artistic bug, Niehaus experimented in nearly every media before settling on pottery.

"I really like the tactile-ness of clay because it lends itself to so many things," Niehaus said from her Santa Cruz home. "I was inspired by a fantastic ceramics teacher in college and I was just more into working in 3D than in 2D."

In her work, Niehaus employs a Japonesque style that employs strong lines and curves. She creates vases, table wear and spheres adorned with winding flowers such as wisteria, cherry blossom and dogwood.

Heavily influenced by nature, Niehaus uses flowers as a motif in her work. She depicts plants exclusively because she likes the fluidity they allow her when she decorates.

"I like my work to be asymmetrical, to have decorations wind around." Niehaus said. "A lot of plants wind and help make the piece pleasing from all sides. They also can fit onto both big and small pieces."

Though Niehaus's favorite pieces are her Wisteria vases and she has found success selling her flower-themed pieces, she has also filled an unexpected void in the ceramics world by creating mushroom-like cups.

A member of the Fungus Federation and an avid mushroom farmer from a young age, Niehaus was asked by the organization to participate in an annual festival. For the event, she created cups with lids that look like mushrooms. The sales took off and they are still sold in several stores in the area.

"It's this random thing that I did that I never thought would take off," she said. "I now have this bizarre niche market of fungus things."

Each piece Niehaus creates is a labor of love and involves and extensive process. Niehaus hand-throws her work on a potter's wheel, trimming and finishing along the way. The piece is covered in plastic preceding decoration with colored slips. The piece is then thrown again, decorated and allowed to dry before being fired in the kiln.

What: Palo Alto Festival of the Arts

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25 and 26

Where: University Avenue, Palo Alto, between High and Webster streets

Parking: Free parking is within several blocks of University Avenue, but attendees are encouraged to use public transportation. Free bicycle parking will be available at the Union bank parking lot on Waverley Street.

Info: 650-324-3121, Palo Alto Festival of the Arts. Dogs are discouraged.

Editorial Intern Helen Carefoot can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 14, 2012 at 4:58 pm

great idea for these kinds of events. just look out for the downtown derelicts and homeless people while you are there. what a disgrace for palo alto. make the cost of living astronomically high and then hold an "arts and crafts" festival. where is martha stewart in this?

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