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September 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 24, 2004

Art for Utility's Sake Art for Utility's Sake (September 24, 2004)

The gray box is the new canvas

Walk around downtown Palo Alto, and you might notice little islands of color making the city's intersections pop.

These spurts of decoration aren't accidents. They are murals, painted on city utility boxes as part of the Palo Alto Art Commission and the Palo Alto Utilities' joint art project to beautify the City and spread the message of energy conservation. Gerald Brett, a member of the Palo Alto Commission, brought the idea to the commission after his daughter told him about a similar project in Santa Cruz. "I'm an advocate for democratic public art," Brett said. "It's great to suddenly stumble across on this oasis of color. These little surprises make great additions to the city." In order to get funding, Brett suggested collaborating with other departments in the City. In 2003, he had championed the solar powered Sunflower's project on California Avenue. "Many of the projects by the art commission are collaborative," Brett said. "We work with a penurious budget and we look for ways to do fun projects through partnerships." The project was announced to the public in the form of a competition with a $500 prize. Local artists and students alike submitted about 25 proposals. The utilities department advertised the project, and an eight-person panel chose 10 winners. Seven of the judges were members of the Art Commission and one, Brian Ward, became the voice of Palo Alto Public Utilities. "When judging, my filter was much different from that of the Art Commission," Ward said. "My job was primarily to assess if it related to efficiency. Can the message convey efficiency? In some cases we had to adjust. Where is the sun going? Is there is a message of solar energy?" Nine murals are now completed on the pedestal boxes that control traffic signals. Located around University Avenue, Hamilton Avenue and Lytton Avenue, all of the boxes include some message of renewable energy with images of solar panels, light bulbs and recycling among others. Some of the artists share their inspirations and describe their contributions below:
Name: Christina Strassman Location: Corner of University Avenue and Florence Street Profession: Graphic Designer Description: Sun and solar panel painted in Acrylic paint. Artistic experience: Bachelor degree from San Francisco State in graphic design. Favorite Artist: "Jackson Pollack. I love his style," she said. Inspiration: "It's all over the news that solar panels are just the thing to save energy," she said. "I strongly believe in that. I thought using the solar panel and sun on a bright blue background would be the answer." Judge's comments: "This piece is great," Brian Ward said. "It was an easy message to get across. The sun saves. Easy. Very professional and very straightforward."
Name: Kate Orrange Location: Corner of Emerson Street and Hamilton Avenue Profession: Artist Description: Acrylic sponge painting that combines abstract imagery, text and color to convey the message. Artistic experience: Master's degree in arts and consciousness from John F. Kennedy University. "My artwork is abstract and contemporary with themes of nature," she said. Favorite Artist: "Frieda Kahlo. She was the first artist I saw to depict work in a really personal nature in ways that were really real and poignant," she said. Inspiration: "I sat down and thought about the theme of energy efficiency," she said. "I had colors out and some design tools and was spontaneous. It came from contemplating the subject and seeing what came out of me." Judges' comments: "I think the feeling was that it was a very lush work," Gerald Brett said. "All of us very quickly pictured it in an outdoor setting. It had a quick statement toward the theme of the project."
"Kate's was interesting," Ward said. "We liked the sun, and the simplicity but that was it. I was after a little bit more. Kate wouldn't budge. She's one of the artists that says 'here's my art, go with it or not.' But our goal is to give the message of conservation, and it did get the utilities message across."
Name: Kiel Brennan Marquez Location: Corner of Ramona Street and Hamilton Avenue Profession: Senior at Gunn High School Description: An oil painting of a soft landscape in the style of the Impressionists. Artistic experience: "I haven't done enough work to have a style," he said. "I've only taken art for three years at Gunn." Favorite artist: "Salvador Dali. His paintings are unbelievably cool and express things you can't express in words. They bring out emotions." Inspiration: "I thought of it conceptually. I wanted the image of taking energy from the sun. That's the future of all energy in the world." Judges' comments : "This is such a lively piece," Brett said. "It works well with the architecture and design elements on that corner."
"It included the idea of windmills and solar energy, I liked it," Ward said. "My job is to make sure it conveyed something to do with energy conservation. It worked from a public utilities perspective."

Name: Ceevah Sobel Location: Corner of Ramona Street and University Avenue Profession: Artist Description: An acrylic painting that uses electrical plugs coming out of the sun to convey energy coming from solar power. Artistic experience: "I've been doing artwork all my life. I have worked in various media and just keep following where the work takes me," she said. Favorite artist: "There are too many too pinpoint." Inspiration: "I wanted to try and follow something coming from the sun," she said. "I played around with the idea and I came up with how I could most clearly express that. Energy as we use it is through electric plugs for the most part. That is how the idea evolved." Judges' comments: "Sovel is someone prominent in public art," Brett said. "We were overjoyed to have her submit a proposal. This was coming from a very committed artist and social activist. It spoke well to the theme." "This was one of my favorites," Ward said. "I loved the image of solar power."
Name: John Betts Location: Corner of High Street and University Avenue Profession: Painter and artist Description: A cartoon-themed acrylic that includes small images of people conserving energy. Artistic experience: Whimsical/cartoon. Art classes at Palo Alto High School and Foothill Community College. Favorite artist: "Jules Fiefer. He's a cartoonist I've liked ever since I was a kid. And Dr. Suess. I would also throw in Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh," he said. Inspiration: "They said it had to have something to do with energy conservation and the idea evolved from thinking about that," he said. Judges' comments: "I love this piece," Brett said. "I was thrilled that he had submitted. I think that he has a grassroots and activist kind of perspective. His art is funky and vivid and lively and I hope that he does more things for the city." "His was interesting because there was so much going on," Ward said. "I liked it because I thought it had all the pertinent things I was looking for. Windmill. Solar power and other little things. This was an easy one to say 'yes I agree.'"
Name: Chelsea Hodge Profession: Senior at Gunn High School Description: An oil painting of windmills encased in a with a green base. Artistic experience: "I don't have any, I'm so young," she said. "I took intro courses at Gunn and beginning painting and drawing last year. I'm more interested in design though." Favorite artist: "Frieda Kahlo. It's amazing and soulful all put into art." Inspiration: "The main message is to show that you can generate electricity through wind power," she said. "My original idea was to have a windmill and flying light bulbs. My dad suggested to make it simpler and put the windmill inside the light bulb so I owe him some credit. I decided early on that I wanted to do something with wind power." Judges comments: "This piece is very direct and makes a clear figurative statement about energy conservation," Brett said. "It is also very lively."
Name: Xochitl Kuriger Location: Corner of Grant Avenue and Hamilton Avenue Profession: Office Manager for East Palo Alto High School Description: Acrylic painting of storybook characters that convey a message of conservation Artistic experience: "I took art in high school and have also done other contests growing up," she said. "I won a contest a long time ago in Seventeen Magazine for artists under the age of 18 and won first prize for that. I took some classes at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco." Favorite artist: "Leonardo da Vinci. I like his style of painting," she said. Judges' comments: "I'm crazy about this one," Brett said. "It has a fairytale quality. She incorporates characters from classic fairytales. We felt this would have a strong appeal to children. It really took a novel approach to this theme."
"The commission really liked this because they thought three pigs transcended any message," Brian said. "Anybody could walk up and say there is the three pigs message. It had no efficiency way it currently it was. I asked her to modify it, and she added weather stripping so we could see three pigs pumping up energy efficiency and conservation."
Name: Susan Hemmenway Location: Corner of Lytton Avenue and Emerson Street Profession: Graphic Artist Description: An Acrylic painting of a simple, graphic design of energy conservation set on bold colors. Artistic experience: "As a graphic designer I basically create a style for my clients and it's varied. My personal style is eclectic, it's hard to pinpoint." Favorite Artist: "I don't have any one person. I'm inspired by a lot of different things," she said. Judges weigh in: "I think that everyone was attracted to the graphics of this piece," Brett said. "It certainly spoke directly to the theme of energy conservation. Drawn to the great graphics and simplicity of design. We felt it would have an immediate kind of effect."
"It was more professional in look and feel than the rest of them," Ward said.


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