Behind the scenes | August 16, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - August 16, 2013

Behind the scenes

More than 300 artists prepare for Palo Alto's annual Festival of the Arts

by Carol Blitzer

Love, creativity, passion, curiosity: These are the qualities that drive the hundreds of artists who will be participating in the 32nd annual Palo Alto Festival of the Arts next weekend.

About 150,000 people are expected to stroll the artist-booth-lined blocks of University Avenue, between High and Webster streets, seeking treasures in wood, metal, glass, ceramics and mixed media. In addition, Tasso Street's sidewalks will be transformed by 60 chalk artists for the Italian Street Painting Expo. And James Hill's "Reflections in Steel" sculptures will be showcased near University Avenue and Cowper Street.

No festival is complete without music and food. Larger bands will offer rock 'n' roll, R&B, jazz and soul on the Main Stage on Waverley Street, while the Webster Stage will ring out folk, Americana, country and blues. Food courts on Bryant and Waverley streets and food trucks will augment the offerings of downtown restaurants.

For the kids, free art activities can be found at the Kids' Art Studio at University Avenue and Kipling Street, staffed by Palo Alto Parents & Professionals for Art.

The festival is the major fundraiser for the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, and the Italian Street Painting Expo, co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly, raises money (through sponsorships) for Youth Community Service.

This year, the festival organizers are offering gift certificates in $25 denominations that will be accepted by all festival artists. They may be pre-ordered and emailed within 24 hours, if received before Aug. 22. The certificates may be used towards a purchase during festival hours.

The following offers a snapshot of a few of this year's festival participants.

Helen Willoughby-Peck

Although she said she can't draw, Helen Willoughby-Peck has always dabbled in some kind of art, from embroidery to quilting, and ultimately glass.

"I always wanted to do stained glass," she said, but she didn't enjoy the soldering part.

She did love the translucence and the assembly. And the complications.

Introduced to the medium through a stained-glass class, Willoughby-Peck moved on to fused glass — created through an aperture flow (or pot melt) process where pieces of colored glass are placed in a ceramic flower pot, then fired in a kiln until the glass melts and flows "like honey" through the hole in the bottom of the pot.

The glass melts into a solid disk with swirls of color, which she then cuts up and reassembles into rectangles and returns to the kiln for further fusing. The plates, platters or bowls are then remelted over a ceramic form to give them a curved shape.

In 2005, Willoughby-Peck gave up her day job in human resources (she says an employee handbook she wrote paid for her first kiln) and moved to the Sierra foothill town of Mariposa with her husband. Today, at 57, she spends about half of each day in her studio creating Willoughby Art Glass.

Willoughby-Peck is intrigued by the precision required: Glass has to be melted in steps and certain minerals (such as copper for aqua and selenium for red) do not go together without creating havoc, she explained.

Glass and mineral compatibilities took time to learn, she said, adding, "That's the fun part to me. ... I like the challenge and complexity of seeing how to make it work right."

Willoughby-Peck's tiles and platters go for $65 to $185, and her jewelry from $20 to $50. This is her third time at the festival, but visitors may have also seen her work at July's Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival, where she's appeared four times.

Phillip Van Ornum

As a child, Phillip Van Ornum watched his grandfather, one of the few survivors of the U.S.S. Juneau during World War II, create hand-carved replicas of the ill-fated ship.

"I watched him pour so much passion into (his carving)," Van Ornum recalled.

Everyone around him seemed to be working with their hands, he said, and by age 8 he too was working in the wood shop. His brother became an electrician; he went to work as a carpenter.

Today, at 45, he creates intricate furniture with hidden compartments, whimsical mirrors and inlaid and shaped boxes.

He said he poured a "ton of heart" into an inlaid table with a hidden drawer that he made without a customer in mind. The piece took more than six months to complete and he's priced it at $6,800.

"I made it knowing that it may never sell. ... I like to tell people that we work hard and our money should go to something that our children's children will want to use," he said.

His mirrors, which vary in size and shape and can be custom-made to match furniture, sell in the $300 to $800 range.

Describing himself as "old school, old world, a dreamer and a romantic," Van Ornum is inspired to create custom pieces as anniversary or graduation gifts. "A lot comes from customers and my knowledge," he said.

He still works three or four other jobs to support his artistic Van Ornum Wood Working in Sunnyvale.

But making fine furniture simply isn't a quick process, he said. Once you start to shape the wood, it changes the tension on the rest of the board, and it takes time to let it settle into a new shape.

Sissel Auerbock and Mette Julian

Sisters Sissel Auerbock and Mette Julian grew up in Norway, married and moved far away from their homeland and each other, then ended up in Santa Barbara 14 years ago with a shared business, Sisters Creative Design.

Auerbock, 67, is the jeweler; Julian, 70, creates porcelain birds and fish in figurines and vessels. This will be their third year at the Palo Alto festival.

Auerbock says they complement each other. "I take my inspiration from nature; my sister lived in Japan and is influenced by that. Much of her work is pretty organic," she said.

Auerbock worked as a teacher in Norway, then spent 25 years with her husband and children in Africa; her husband now spends half the year with her in Santa Barbara. Julian came to the U.S. many years ago to study, earning degrees in Japanese studies and librarianship.

"We get on very well together and we have a lot of fun; we influence each other," Auerbock said, pointing out that they were apart for a long time and could seldom see each other.

"For us, it's very wonderful to be able to do this together."

In Africa, Auerbock worked in batik and painting, but eventually took up jewelry design.

The sisters share studio space, but each requires separate work areas: "the dirty work of jewelry" in the garage, separate from the kiln required for ceramics.

"We share so much taste," she said. "Our products are so similar and complement each other so well."

Julian noted that they often collaborate where she creates the ceramic bits that are incorporated in her sister's jewelry. Auerbock's jewelry ranges from $35 to $500, and Julian's ceramics from $25 to $185.

Cristy Aloysi and Scott Graham

The married glass-artisan team of Cristy Aloysi and Scott Graham recently relocated from Seattle to Boulder Creek; they hope to have their Viscosity home studio completely set up by October, Aloysi said.

An art major in college, Aloysi was originally drawn to ceramics, but after doing an internship at a glass studio, she moved to New York City where she worked at Urban Glass — and met her husband.

She describes glassblowing as "a team sport, or a team art. ... You have to make it with someone." Aloysi, 36, and Graham, 37, work together on all their pieces, she said.

Aloysi is hard-pressed to describe her favorite projects, but she quickly comes up with the couple's double-walled bowls, which they call bubble bowls.

"It's fun to come up with different color combinations. (It's) a little weird, but really cool in its weirdness," she said.

They start by blowing a big ball; while shaping it, they suck in the front of the bowl.

"It's like a ball that's folded into itself," Aloysi said.

They make four sizes of bubble bowls, ranging from 5 inches (at $85) to 14 inches wide ($425).

Aloysi described their 2-foot-tall bird's nest double as "an atraditional vessel. It can be flipped either way. ... It's not sculpture but it's not a traditional vessel form." At $950, the double forms are among the couple's more expensive pieces, she said.

While finishing up the plumbing and construction of their glass studio — with its three different glory holes and two large annealing ovens — the couple has been blowing glass three days a week at the Bay Area Glass Institute in San Jose.

"We really love what we do," she said.


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What: Palo Alto Festival of the Arts

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 24, and Sunday, Aug. 25

Where: University Avenue, between High and Webster streets

Cost: Free

Info: or call 650-324-3121.

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at