Palo Alto is, it's safe to a say, a tree-loving community. After all, it's even named after a historic arboreal specimen. For three decades it's been designated as a "Tree City USA" by the National Arbor Day Foundation. And who could forget the public outcry in 2009, when around 50 mature street trees along California Avenue were suddenly felled? But even generally tree-loving Palo Altans may not think about the importance of trees on a day-to-day basis. For its latest public-art installation in King Plaza, the city, along with artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, hopes to attract attention to the issue of global deforestation by turning some of the magnolia trees in front of city hall bright blue.
"The tree is a symbol of our city," Public Art Director Elise DeMarzo said at an opening reception for "The Blue Trees" on May 16. Dimopoulos' project, she said, "perfectly aligns with our mission" of bringing thought-provoking, temporary artwork to the site, as well as of the city's commitment to its urban forest.
Dimopoulos, who's created "Blue Trees" installations at locations around the world, uses an eco-friendly, harmless blue paint to color the trees, which he said can last from a few months to a year, depending on weather conditions, and can be easily removed if necessary.
The Egypt-born, New Zealand-raised artist, now based in Tennessee, relies on crews of local volunteers to color the trees. According to Public Art Program Coordinator Nadya Chuprina, 22 community members contributed to Palo Alto's grove of "Blue Trees," including several who turned up on Monday, May 14, and returned to paint more on Tuesday and Wednesday, causing the process to be finished two days earlier than anticipated. The roots, trunks and lower branches of the rows of trees on the left side of the plaza (facing city hall) sport the blue paint, while the upper branches and leaves retain their natural golden-brown and green hues. The visual look is striking but it also bears a message.
"I'm not an environmentalist; I am an artist," Dimopoulos told the reception audience, wanting to distinguish himself from the biologists and ecological experts who work to combat environmental issues. Despite that caveat, "We have a lot more in common than we have differences," he said, about the sometimes-connected fields of arts and sciences.
What started as a "guerilla" work has turned into an internationally commissioned, ongoing installation. "The Blue Trees" project began around 2005, when Dimopoulos saw footage of Southeast Asian forests destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture and development and wanted to raise awareness of the issue by attracting attention in urban settings. He drew inspiration from the Greenpeace activists who colored seal pups with spray paint to dissuade people from hunting them for their pelts (and, more recently, conservationists using dye to protect rhinoceroses from poachers hunting them for their horns). While Palo Alto's magnolias are (probably) not at risk from poachers, the vivid visual cue does, he hopes, cause passersby to stop and think about the plight of the world's forests.
The gregarious Dimopoulos quoted songwriter Joni Mitchell ("They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum"), physicist Albert Einstein and others over the course of his brief talk, emphasizing that he believes "Blue Trees" can impact "how we relate to nature" and remind people of the interconnectedness of human action and the global environment. "What happens in Vegas," he said, "can no longer stay in Vegas."
The artist was joined at the reception by Palo Alto Urban Forester Walter Passmore and Canopy (Palo Alto's urban-tree-supporting nonprofit) Community Forestry Program Manager Elise Willis, who spoke about her organization's South Palo Alto Tree Initiative and upcoming Great Oak Count, among other outreach efforts.
"Those trees, they're shouting at us. You can't pass them by," Willis said of the blue-hued magnolias. The installation ties in well, she said, to Canopy's attempts to nurture childlike curiosity and excitement about trees as well as to raise awareness of their importance to the ecosystem.
Dimopoulos recounted children at past installations expressing delight over encountering the blue trees, often wanting to hug them. A local child, in fact, reacted in just that way at the Palo Alto reception, while adults took selfies (visitors are encouraged to share via social media using the #bluetrees hashtag).
Passmore, who became Palo Alto's first urban forrester in 2012, after the California Avenue fracas (to which he alluded at the event), called "The Blue Trees" "a starter on a conversation."
"People should look at these trees painted blue and go, 'Whoa! What's happening?' This simple act will hopefully have repercussions across Palo Alto," he said.
So far, so good, according to DeMarzo, who told the Weekly that, after the bright blue trees catch the eyes of onlookers, their first question tends to be "Are the trees OK?"
What: "The Blue Trees"
Where: King Plaza, 250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.
Info: Go to The Blue Trees.