News

Trees of gratitude: Community art project brings together colorful face masks, heartfelt messages

Neighbors unite to honor essential workers, send warm wishes

Tags with messages written by locals send warm wishes to essential workers and community members at an art display in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood. Photo by Sue Dremann.

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.

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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.

From left to right, Palo Alto residents Debra Cen, Connie Chuang and David Peng are the organizers of a "Face Mask Trees of Palo Alto" project that launched in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood. Courtesy David Peng.

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.

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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.

Whimsical pink flamingos are among the many designs on face masks that hang from a decorated tree in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood. Courtesy David Peng.

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.

Connie Chuang, the artist behind the "Face Mask Trees" project in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, tenatively plans to keep the display up through the end of January. Courtesy David Peng.

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.

Sunbeams touch two trees in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood decorated with face masks as part of a community art project in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood. Courtesy David Peng.

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.

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Trees of gratitude: Community art project brings together colorful face masks, heartfelt messages

Neighbors unite to honor essential workers, send warm wishes

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 31, 2020, 8:32 am

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.

Comments

Linda Heiliger
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2020 at 2:16 pm
Linda Heiliger, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 31, 2020 at 2:16 pm

nice way of letting others know that you are coping w/stay at home orders


PA resident
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 31, 2020 at 3:23 pm
PA resident, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Dec 31, 2020 at 3:23 pm

This is a wonderful project! However, Debra Cen and PACPC invited Palo Alto Weekly into multiple Palo Alto neighborhood and community WeChat groups. Many group members are not comfortable having English media in so many Chinese-speaking groups, and have been protesting for almost a year, but have been ignored. It would be great if Debra Cen and Palo Alto Weekly could address this issue. Thank you!


Jane
Registered user
Ventura
on Jan 2, 2021 at 8:24 pm
Jane, Ventura
Registered user
on Jan 2, 2021 at 8:24 pm

Having to clean masks up off of various properties constantly and seeing them all over the ground all the time, this look like just garbage hanging from the trees. One person's art is another person's graffiti/vandalism/garbage pile.

Is this on private property?


Bill Johnson
Registered user
publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Jan 2, 2021 at 8:25 pm
Bill Johnson, publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly
Registered user
on Jan 2, 2021 at 8:25 pm

@PA resident
Although it's obviously off-topic, I'm happy to respond to your question. About a year ago, I approached several of the leaders in the PACPC (Palo Alto Chinese Parents Club) about how the Weekly might increase our coverage of issues of interest to the local Chinese community or about activities that we weren't otherwise hearing about. I knew that We Chat was being broadly used by many in the community and asked if I could join one or more of the parent groups, since our coverage of the schools is an important priority and we wanted more insight into the views of Chinese parents.

So I was invited to join three PACPC groups, which I have followed from time to time and occasionally pass along interesting discussions to one of our reporters to help with background on issues and the diverse views of the Chinese community. These We Chat forums are so active that I only have time to check in on them once in a while. Since most who post are anonymous and it's not difficult to be invited to join, I don't think there is any cause for concern that I am in these three groups. There are hundreds of people in them and most don't know anyone's identity. My sole purpose is to be aware of community issues, or activities going on, that the Weekly might cover.

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to email me at [email protected] or call me directly at 223-6505. Our hope is to create stronger ties to this important segment of our community. I think we all benefit from that. It's what any good community news organization should be trying to do.

Bill Johnson, publisher


Samuel L.
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2021 at 9:07 pm
Samuel L., Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2021 at 9:07 pm

@Bill Johnson - I find it amusing for you to say, "since our coverage of the schools is an important priority"

I think that used to be true. However, it is now clear that your current policy is to only show PAUSD in a positive light.


PA resident
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 4, 2021 at 4:39 pm
PA resident, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2021 at 4:39 pm

[Post removed; off topic.]


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