de Young at heart

Paly art teacher brings his whimsical world to SF museum

Steve Ferrera's Palo Alto High School students may know him best as the man in charge of the school's Fiery Arts program, which includes glassblowing, ceramics and sculpture. But this summer, the Berkeley-based artist has an exciting extracurricular project of his own: a July residency at San Francisco's de Young Museum while working on "To Touch the Sun," a multimedia children's book.

"So many books have influenced and inspired me growing up, and still resonate with me today. I would love to create something like that. Something that's timeless; something that both adults and children can relate to," he said.

Ferrera is combining his love of sculpting and storytelling to build puppets and entire miniature sets, similar to those used in stop-motion animated films such as "Coraline" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Photographs of the scenes will then become the book's images.

"The book really is a synthesis of all these different skill sets I've acquired doing everything from traditional sculpting to animation and visual effects for film and television," he said. And a handful of other artists are lending their expertise to the project, too, including Jose Loyola, with whom Ferrera collaborated on the 2012 animated short film "Cicada Princess" (narrated by British actor Stephen Fry and based on a children's book of the same name).

Visitors to the de Young this month get to peek into Ferrera's creative journey as his vision evolves, observing "the techniques and process that go into each stage of planning and building, from the initial concept sketches all the way through the final photography. The idea behind the residency is that it's a glimpse into the working studio," he said, and some museumgoers have even gotten to help build sets.

He described "To Touch the Sun" as a story of a friendship between a girl and boy with a moral to it, "that you don't really know how good something is until it's gone. But it does have a happy ending."

Ferrera said his work is heavily influenced by mythology, folklore and fairytales.

"A lot of my characters and stories are reinventions of common archetypes and themes -- guardians and protectors, creators and destroyers, the hero's journey," he said, and his portfolio is full of fantastical creatures and whimsical figures, a world of his own making (some of his figure collections include "Clans & Tribes," "The Mystics" and "Time Keepers").

At Paly, Ferrera helps to bring student art to the community, including a current show of glass pieces at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, a booth at the Palo Alto Art Center's Clay & Glass Festival, donating glass hearts to a Breast Cancer Connections fundraiser and making glass purple hearts for Veteran's Day gifts in partnership with the VA Hospital. In addition to his own artwork and his work in education, he's also a member of Palo Alto's Public Art Master Plan Advisory Committee, which was formed to help shape the city's vision for the future of its public-art program.

Ferrera said his Paly students have had "nice things to say" about his art.

"I think the work is easy to relate to. It's got a youthful sensibility," he said, adding that some have planned on visiting his de Young show.

"Hopefully it validates the idea that art has a place in the adult world," he added, "and inspires them to continue in the arts."

What: "To Touch the Sun" artist residency

Where: de Young Museum, Kimball Education Gallery/Artist Studio, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (in Golden Gate Park), San Francisco.

When: Wednesdays-Sundays in July, 1-5 p.m.; Fridays until 8:45 p.m. Reception July 29, 6-8:30 p.m.

Cost: Museum admission is $15 for adults/$10 for seniors/free for kids.

Info Go to de Young Museum and Steve Ferrera

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