Bay Area glass artist Sylvia Chesson calls it the "double look." Most festival visitors have had this experience at one time or another, when a special piece catches the eye. "It's when the person walks by, looks in (the booth) and turns around and comes back," Chesson said.
The Palo Alto Festival of the Arts, taking place Aug. 24-25 in downtown Palo Alto, features the creations of 300 artists from around the country — including plenty of beautiful, unique home decor items, housewares and furniture ... which add up to many opportunities for that "double look" and a chance to learn more about the inspiration or technique that went into creating that eye-catching piece. That especially makes sense for those shopping for pieces to decorate with or use at home — something to live with and enjoy every day.
This will be the first time Chesson has shown her work at the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts, though she has shown at other Peninsula festivals. She's been working in glass for about 30 years, after previously working in biotech.
When someone stops in Chesson's booth, she said, "I'll let them have their time and just start talking to them a little bit about what made me do whatever it is that they are looking at. I think they appreciate the story, the raison d'etre. What's the reason for it being?"
Chesson's platters and plates, vessels and sculptures are made of kiln-formed glass, a versatile approach that gives her the ability to create layers of depth and pattern in her pieces.
"Working with a kiln allows for a variety of techniques," Chesson said. "You can cast, you can slump (fuse glass over a mold), you can comb hot glass, you can pull hot glass out of a kiln to make strings and swoop-di-swoops."
In addition to such techniques, Chesson "paints" with powdered glass, sifting it over a stencil or silkscreen onto a solid glass background to create images and patterns, including pieces that reference local landmarks.
Southern California potter Eri Sugimoto is returning to the festival to show her functional pottery.
Sugimoto creates delicate, asymmetrical patterns for her vases, pots and other vessels with stencils made from cut paper. It's known as a "paper resist" or "paper stencil" technique.
"I cut the pattern by hand for each piece and use it only one time, so all of my work is one of a kind," she said. "I lay out the pattern on the ceramic body, apply the slip, and peel off the pattern. After that, I carefully clean up the piece several times, and fire it twice."
Sugimoto's background was as an industrial designer, but she got into ceramics after taking a class with a friend. The hands-on, 3D quality of working with ceramics intrigued her. A native of Japan, she credits the influence of medieval Japanese art, which she studied as an art history student, in inspiring asymmetrical composition of her works.
Also returning to the festival are Nevada woodworkers Robert and Tor Erickson. The father-and-son team uses primarily California walnut to create sleek, gracefully curved chairs, tables and other furniture, including many custom pieces. "California walnut has a tremendous diversity in terms of the figure of the wood, so you get these really wild, diverse patterns that appear naturally in the grain — swirls and ripples and stripes," Tor Erickson said. "It also has a really broad range of colors."
The natural beauty of the wood can help determine what it will become in the Erickson woodshop.
"If you have a set design, if you know what (the piece) looks like, then as you're selecting wood to build that piece of furniture, you're looking very closely for pieces of wood that will accentuate the curves and shape of the design you already have," Erickson said, noting that an especially beautiful or unusual piece of wood might inspire a new design — a unique, one-off piece — rather than using it in an existing design.
Erickson grew up learning woodworking from his father, Robert, and in designing pieces, he said the family dynamic helps them work as a creative team.
Furniture obviously must be functional first, Erickson said. With a chair, "you're sitting on it, so the shape of the seat, it matters. You're not looking at it most of the time," he said.
But at the same time, aesthetics also matter.
"When you're looking at it, or you're touching it, you're experiencing it more as a piece of artwork. In this case, I just hope it's beautiful. I don't think it's more complicated than that," Erickson said. "It's a chance to bring a beautiful object into your home and hopefully that will make your life a little bit better."
The Palo Alto Festival of the Arts will take place on University Avenue, between Webster and High streets, in downtown Palo Alto from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25. For more information, mlaproductions.com/PaloAlto.