Like prayer flags, more than 50 colorful face masks alongside messages of gratitude and hope have brought new life to two trees in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood.
The collaborative art display, which was installed on Dec. 14, is a community effort by Old Palo Alto residents Connie Chuang, David Peng and Debra Cen, who wanted to celebrate and honor the many frontline and essential employees, such as health care workers, teachers and grocery store staff members, who have given their time and risked their own lives to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said in emails.
A sign posted at the site encourages people to add their own unused masks and messages strung from the tree branches at Bryant Street and Lowell Avenue. During a visit to the display on Monday, an occasional walker stopped to admire the many masks, some of which featured whimsical pink flamingos, the message "Black Lives Matter," bright California poppies and astronauts floating in space, among others.
The trees, which are located in a traffic median, have been widely celebrated since 2012 when Lowell Avenue resident Catherine Debs began decorating them nearly every month around various holidays starting with Halloween. The festive trees galvanized the neighborhood. Debs wasn't involved in this project, Cen said, but the neighbors took their cue from her.
"She was our inspiration since she has been decorating these two trees for many years. Her decorations stopped in the past year or two. We miss that tradition," Cen said.
About a month ago, Chuang's mother, Lolita Chuang, posted photos of her daughter's mask-decorated trees in their backyard, said Cen who was inspired to extend the project to the public.
"I thought decorating these two famous trees in our neighborhood will be a great way to honor the tradition and show love and care during the pandemic. So three of us teamed up to start the project. Both neighbors living next to the trees (Catherine Debs and Angie Wang) gave us their blessings to the project. Catherine said she loved to see other neighbors step up to decorate these two trees," Cen said.
Chuang, an artist, designed and created many of the masks. She, Cen and Peng decorated the trees with festive lights and hung the masks from wires with clear plastic clothespins. They left an explanation of the project along with pens, tags and a bottle of sanitizer and invited neighbors to donate their own unused masks or add notes to further decorate the trees, Cen said. Wang, the neighbor who lives next to one of the trees, stepped up to take care of turning the lights on and off every day. Peng shared his professional photography skills to capture the evolving face-mask trees, Cen said.
Inspired by Debs, Chuang said she was encouraged by her family and mentors to make masks for the community display.
"Collaborative art projects give me a great sense of joy and meaning, and it’s been encouraging to see so many people, including children in the neighborhood, participate so far by sharing notes and adding a mask," she said.
Ironically, Chuang was an "anti-masker" earlier in March, she said in an email. "At that time, the effectiveness of cloth face masks for community use was still unclear as communicated by the CDC and in the media that I was paying attention to," she said.
Her brother and several family members, friends and mentors suggested that she make face masks since she had been making eye masks for years and owns a sewing machine.
Chaung took their advice, making more than 500 masks this year and giving many away to friends and family in California and across the nation, she said. She also gave masks to local U.S. Postal Service workers at the Cambridge Avenue office, she said.
"I hope they (the masks) have made a difference and protected people I love and those in our shared communities who we interact with — we are all so super interconnected," she said.
The project also reflects aspects of her own sense of loss. Chuang's fabric source initially came from her mother, a big fan of Finnish company Marimekko's designs.
"She has been collecting many of their colorful fabric designs over the more recent years to bring beauty and cheer into our lives, as we have been healing from the grief of losing my dad to lung cancer in 2014," she said.
Chuang has chosen other fabric designs from local artists, designers, and small business owners, and through Etsy and eBay, which she feels is "extra important to support during the pandemic and recession."
One of the floral fabrics was designed by her close friend, Tatiana Martinez, whose designs and story as a breast cancer survivor inspire Chuang. She also uses fabric from socially conscious sources such as Collina Strada, a New York-based company that she admires for its artistic vision and the social causes the brand stands for, including support for Black and transgender artists, she said.
This project "has been about those of us neighbors in our local shared community working together and making something artistic and meaningful, bright and cheerful, with positive intentions toward promoting art, community health, protection and safety and solidarity. Artists and community organizers often are about envisioning and sharing with others what we hope in our hearts will come true — sort of like creating magic that manifests into reality," she said.
The messages people have left reflect hope, gratitude, humility and loss. A blue nitrile examination glove hangs in honor of first responders and medical teams. A yellow tag memorializes the life of a resident who died on Dec. 23.
"His life was marked by joy — go enjoy your coffee, a walk, your family," a contributor wrote.
Some messages single out workers from certain sectors, such as educators, construction workers and Postal Service employees.
Cen said the messages have become so popular that Chuang's had to restock tags multiple times.
The masks are also continually changing, Chuang said.
"We’ve actually had dozens of masks taken and had to keep replacing them, and as a team we believe it is better for those who want or need a mask to take one and use it for protection and safety of the community, even though we didn’t explicitly make signs to please not take them. … We have had many people add their own special mask and write notes too, so it's been super heartwarming to know that people are participating!" she said.
Peng, who is relatively new to the neighborhood, said he was honored to be able to join the project. He moved into Old Palo Alto last year and was impressed by the hospitality of the neighborhood right away, he said.
"COVID kept us away physically, but the great initiatives and collaborations keep everyone closer. I look forward to meeting more local residents in person after COVID," he said.
Chuang said the group hasn't discussed an end date for the project.
"I did submit an application for the Palo Alto Community Art Microgrant and mentioned perhaps leaving it up until the end of January. With community projects, I like to think about flexibility and being open to feedback, so we can work with the neighborhood and see how things are experienced and adjust as we go. It could stay up longer if the neighborhood seems to find it meaningful, or we could take it down to make space for a new idea!" she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.