A portal to many different eras in local history has appeared in downtown Los Altos — one that looks almost as if anyone can step right through its door and begin exploring. And in a way you can: The longer you look, the more glimpses you'll get of various residents' lives in Los Altos over roughly the past century and a half.
Last month, Arts Los Altos unveiled "200 Main Street (an inventory of time and place)," a mural by Palo Alto-based artist Martha Sakellariou, which explores many decades of Los Altos history and features photos and images of objects contributed by local residents. The piece is the third commission by new local arts nonprofit Arts Los Altos and was funded by a grant from the Los Altos Rotary Club.
The mural brings together historical photographs with images of memorabilia and other objects in a 30-foot-long, black-and-white composite image. The new art is installed on an exterior side wall of Satura Cakes, near the corner of Third and Main streets in downtown Los Altos (200 Main St. is the bakery's street address).
In both subject matter and composition, the mural echoes the idea of a family photo wall — but in this case, for an entire town and spanning a timeline of more than 150 years.
The homey feel of the mural is by design. Sakellariou frequently explores the theme of home in her works.
"I approach collective, historical, or personal stories from that sort of perspective: how you create a home around you, how you build a sense of belonging," Sakellariou said.
The artist, who was born in Greece and later lived in London, moved to the Bay Area in 2013. Life in this more spread out, suburban region proved a big adjustment, but one of the ways Sakellariou has been becoming more at home here has been making connections and getting to know the community through projects that involve community members — and are sometimes even shown on or in their homes.
In fact, community outreach is often a key component of Sakellariou's works.
"I'm very curious about what's happening around me, about people's stories, how they end up in one place or another. Exploring, exchanging ideas, connecting. It's about that chemistry of getting closer to people. And I seek that engagement and collaboration with people in most of my projects," she said.
For the "200 Main Street" mural, Sakellariou spent several months extensively researching Los Altos history, an undertaking which included poring over archives at the Los Altos History Museum and consulting with museum staff, and seeking contributions of personal stories, photos and objects from Los Altos residents.
The artist's emphasis on working with the community captured the attention of the Arts Los Altos board, which chose Sakellariou's proposal from among eight different artists' pitches.
"Martha was selected because of her presentation, and her concept to do outreach so that the community gets involved with creating the mural itself," said Arts Los Altos Director of Development & Outreach Maddy McBirney.
The mural project, McBirney said, stemmed from a concept by Arts Los Altos Media & Creative Specialist Mehruss Jon Ahi that called for reinterpreting the original 1976 logo for Apple Inc., back when it was called Apple Computer: a detailed sketch depicting Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree.
Much like the company that inspired the original brief, Sakellariou's piece has grown well beyond its origins. The mural looks at local history, but not in the expected linear way, instead offering a personal take, exploring how different people over time have experienced living in Los Altos.
"I wanted this composition to be both symbolic and informative, so the symbolism is about how living in a city, living in a house, living on this planet is about sharing space and coexisting, cohabiting spaces — living through various layers of history, and becoming part of that history as it happens," Sakellariou said.
Though she sought out some more "traditional" historic images, such as a photo of Los Altos' first mayor, the mural emphasizes a variety of items that relate to the idea of domestic life and home — everything from books to sporting equipment and a variety of family photos. Many items might still be found in homes today, but also take on the added context of being part of the community's story. Visitors can learn more about what's pictured by scanning a QR code that accompanies the mural.
Even when approaching the Los Altos History Museum's resources, Sakellariou was drawn to the more personal elements, such as the furnishings and fixtures in the museum's Gilbert Smith House.
"The photographs and most items are contributed by Los Altos residents or found in the museum archives. The door and window were photographed at the Gilbert Smith House; the outdoor image of the Juana Briones house is a historical 1903 picture from the Palo Alto Historical Association archives. I didn't make up anything. I only created a space for all of these things to coexist. And it was really important for me to compose this space with original items from the community and the local museum," she said.
Longtime Los Altos resident Claudia Meyer contributed a handful of items that appear in "200 Main Street," among them a photo of children standing in front of a house after a rare snowfall and a pair of riding boots and helmet.
"In 1962, it snowed in Los Altos and I'm in that picture with my little sister and a neighbor boy. We had just built a snowman," she said of the photo's snowy scene.
Meyer's family came to the area in 1953 and the following year moved into a newly constructed house that would end up being the family home for just over 60 years.
She has memories of a childhood in a more rural community of orchards and pastures that offered plenty of space for horseback riding. Meyer cut apricots as a summer job and recalled times when she and her friends would race their horses along the dirt roads carved out for Highway 280 before it was paved. Along with the riding boots and helmet, which she said were her daughter's, she also contributed a photo of the place on Springer Road where she used to board her pony.
"There used to be a barn, a little farm there, and that's where I kept my pony. And (Sakellariou) really enjoyed this picture of me with my pony," she said.
The artist not only photographed residents' contributions for inclusion in the mural, but also developed a relationship with locals, Meyer said.
"I just was fascinated by the process, and how she combined the old with the new. There's many of us that grew up here and just to watch the progress of what evolved was really special. Getting to know her made the mural even more meaningful to me," Meyer said.
The mural itself is an amalgam of old and new. While many of the objects pictured are historical, the photographs were assembled digitally and the mural, rather than being painted onto the wall, was printed on vinyl wrap, which was then affixed to the wall with a heat gun. The material is durable, offering permanence, but can also easily be removed, McBirney said — perhaps fitting for a piece that explores the passage of time.
The black-and-white palette is another departure, as murals often feature bold colors to brighten utilitarian spaces.
"There are some beautiful murals with strong colors and shapes that really grab your attention. I didn't design it to be that — I want it to be more contemplative. So I hope people take the time to look at things, explore the stories and think about their homes and their city, and how they are part of the history and the layers of it. They belong to this," Sakellariou said.
Meyer said she's been encouraging friends and family to go visit the mural. She pointed out that one of the photos featured in the mural, seen through a window, is of an apricot orchard. Given the significant role of agriculture in the town's development — even today Los Altos City Hall is located in an apricot orchard — Meyer said it meant a lot to her to see such images included.
Though she joked that the mural makes her "feel old," she said "it also makes me so thankful that I grew up here."
"200 Main Street (an inventory of time and place)" can be seen at the corner of Third and Main streets in downtown Los Altos. For more information, visit artslosaltos.org