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January 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 28, 2005

Group of seven Group of seven (January 28, 2005)

City's Public Art Commission oversees growing number of installations

For many, the idea of public art conjures images of whimsical murals and sculptures in water fountains.

For the City of Palo Alto, the notion of public art is more outré. A perfect example is "Go Mama," Marta Thoma's 6-foot tall sculpture on California Avenue. Created in 1999, it is the artist's version of a Mexican doll. Observers ponder why a girl's face is embedded in the doll's belly. The bronze piece is a love it-or-hate-it affair, yet was endorsed by the City of Palo Alto's Public Art Commission.

Comprised of seven members, the commission has selected sculptures, installations, murals and paintings for the city since 1975. They also determine where each piece will be placed. Their current budget is $60,000, with $55,000 allotted for acquisitions and installations and $5,000 for repairs. They have chosen nearly 20 works over the last three years.

Not every decision of theirs has been greeted warmly. Last year, the commission, in a 6-1 vote, approved a new surrealistic sculpture by Thoma. But then-city director of arts and culture Leon Kaplan blocked the 5-foot tall "Rrrrun" -- a car with legs -- from going forward, saying he thought commissioners were too cozy with the creator, who had previously served on the commission. Commissioners argued they were trying to honor a major local artist. Despite the controversy, the project forged ahead after Kaplan's retirement, and will be installed in Bowden Park.

Multiple instances of vandalism led to the dismantling of "Foreign Friends," an 11-foot statue of a couple sitting on a park bench. A gift from Swedish sister city Linkoping in 1989, "Foreign Friends" was removed from its original site at the corner of Embarcadero Road and Waverley Street in 1995 after many residents objected to its appearance and vandals on separate occasions knocked off the couple's heads.

With nine pieces now completed on California Avenue (and one more still to come -- a mural at Country Sun), the commissioners are now turning their attention to downtown Palo Alto.

New acquisitions include "Digital DNA," a 12-foot tall egg by Adriana Varella, which will be installed in Lytton Plaza in the spring. Artist Samuel Yates has become a local fixture, and can be seen working in his kiosk in front of City Hall. He plans to follow a postal worker around the city for a year, photographing every house in Palo Alto. He will then digitally synthesize the photos and produce "the color of Palo Alto."

Another recent project were the murals painted on city utility boxes downtown.

Neighborhoods are also receiving the commission's attention, with Midtown recently acquiring a poetry wall outside Walgreen's. A new Greg Brown mural is also planned for Midtown.

Given the high visibility of the projects approved by the commission, the Weekly sought to shine a light on the individual commissioners themselves and the philosophies that exert such influence on the sight and sounds of Palo Alto.

Profiles by Marge Speidel
Gerald Brett (vice-chair)

Gerald Brett knows the commission's taste in art does not appeal to everyone.

"Some pieces are loved, some are hated, but that's what public art is," said Brett, founder/owner of Language Pacifica, an international language institute in Menlo Park.

For instance, Brett called Marta Thoma's bronze sculpture, "Go Mama," a "fabulous piece of surrealism."

"The goal is to fill the city with as much sculpture, mural art and other art as possible. My own goal is to have art everywhere I look," he said.

A collector of contemporary art, educator and writer, Brett is considered the sparkplug behind the proliferation of public art in the California Avenue business district.

"A while back that area was known as a second downtown to University Avenue," he recalled. "I had a desire to redefine it and make it an avenue of the arts. In 1996 I suggested to Leon Kaplan that they consider collaborating with the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA), a group of merchants, professionals and landlords."

Mohammed Soumah, an artist from Guinea, will paint a California-inspired mural on the wall of the Country Sun store, a pastoral scene of wildlife, trees and mountains. Brett called the wall "a space that every artist has coveted for years."

The $12,000 mural will be financed with $5,000 from Country Sun, $4,000 from the commission and $3000 from CAADA. A variety of stakeholders all participated and representatives of all three organizations helped select the work of art.

Brett has been involved in art for many years. In the early 1970s he lived in Japan for four years. When he returned to the Bay Area in 1978 he curated the first exhibit of northern Japanese art at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara. He still visits Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido and exhibits the work of South Bay artists there.

Brett moved to Palo Alto from Cupertino in 1990 and saw a notice for a opening on the arts commission. He served until 2002 and returned in 2003.

He travels internationally for educational conferences and to recruit for Langua Pacifica. His journeys have taught him that "no matter how similar downtowns seem all over the world, with the same retailers, art is always unique and original and this is what we do on the commission."
Ron Cooper

One function of the Public Art Commission, according to Ron Cooper, is to get people to look at art in a different way. Echoing Brett, he said "Go Mama!," created by one of his former students, Marta Thoma, is a provocative piece.

"'Go Mama' sticks with you, and people might come back to look at it a second or third time," he said. "Given the nature of our community, with the university celebrating culture, we want to keep putting things in the collection that are interesting, not just pleasant to look at. Art should allow people's ideas to develop around it."

Like other members of the commission, Cooper has a vision for the future.

"I'd like to see art in every park in Palo Alto, which is not the case right now. I'd also like to see pieces from the city's permanent collection shown in the large gallery at the Art Center every two or three years. Most of our sculpture is outside, but these drawings and paintings are displayed throughout rooms in City Hall, libraries and the other public buildings. It would be great to gather the collection together to show residents the art they own."

Cooper would like to see Palo Alto's First Friday Art Walk draw more participants.

"Groups, perhaps from the same workplace or the same neighborhood, could organize an evening to go look at some art together, much as people get together to go to a Giants game or a 'Beach Blanket Babylon' performance," he suggested.

Cooper grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and was educated at San Francisco State University, where he got a master's degree in sculpture. He prefers clay and has shown his work at numerous museums, including the De Young in San Francisco, and internationally. He has been an art instructor at Gunn High School since 1966 and has taught in Foothill College's evening program for seven years.

"I'm not now producing art because my job is to be a teacher," said Cooper, who first served on the Art Commission more than 20 years ago. "I demonstrate technique all the time for my students, however."

When Cooper retires at the end of the school year, he expects to be right back in the studio.
Laura Deem

L aura Deem has already left a legacy for the city: the graphic design adorning the Midtown Shopping Center's poetry wall.

Palo Alto residents were asked last year to submit poems for a competition. The six winning entries were selected to permanently grace the south exterior wall of Walgreen's. Deem, then in her second year on the Art Commission, looked at the budget provided for the graphics surrounding the poems and felt it couldn't support the quality of work. So she and two others took the project on themselves, seeking to complement the piece's "six distinctive voices."

"Kathryn Dunlevie, an artist, and Brigid Barton, a former member of the commission, and I collaborated on the layout of the wall, worked on a color scheme and the concepts, laid it all out on a computer to scale, and then submitted it to the commission. Annette Ashton, chairman of the Midtown Residents Association and a strong proponent of the arts, worked with us."

It was a two- to three-month effort, with the work donated. The result is a lively enhancement of the poetry, Deem said. Each poem is displayed in a separate and distinctive type face within a block of solid color, such as green, magenta, purple or tan. An occasional flower or motif relating to the poem, such as a bike wheel or a child in pigtails, appears, but for the most part the words tell the story.

The other legacy Deem and others would like to leave is a "percent for art" provision that would require new commercial development to include funds for public art.

"Mountain View and Menlo Park have implemented these programs. The funds go to acquisition of art, commissioning new works, and maintenance of existing pieces," Deem said. "It has been discussed with the City Council but we have not yet made it a formal proposal. We're still getting information on just how it works in these neighboring cities. It's the biggest 'hot button' we have."

Deem was educated at California State University Chico. She majored in communications with a fine art minor -- a combination she found only there. She is a graphic designer who spends as much time possible on her other passion: monotype printmaking. Her art is inspired by landscape but is abstract. She started printmaking in a class at the Pacific Art League and now has her own press in a home studio.
Karen Frankel

K aren Frankel is an artist and educator who exults over art in public places.

Interviewed at Café Torrefazione (a First Friday Art Walk venue), she pointed to the paintings on the walls and said, "Whether you like it or not, these paintings stimulate the mind. Maybe you like just the colors, and not the theme, but it gets you to think."

Frankel's pet project right now is working with San Francisco artist Joe Sam on a design for the Opportunity Center for homeless and low-income people in Palo Alto.

"Joe Sam is just perfect for this -- he has a vision and cares for people so much. He has worked in many social services," Frankel said. "We want something inviting where people will want to come. Though the design is not final yet, he plans to incorporate words and figures on a column going up the front of the building. He will also design for the play area. It will be great and monumental, I know."

Frankel said she wants to be sure residents understand the stature of some of the artists whose works are placed around the city.

"In recent months, Marta Thoma's work in Oakland was featured in 'Sculpture' magazine. 'San Francisco Magazine' wrote about Sam Yates, who is doing the 'Color of Palo Alto' project and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art featured Chris Johanson (whose mural, an homage to the sun's energy, is on a wall near California Avenue) as a new and upcoming artist," Frankel said.

Frankel grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a degree in English and a minor in art. She has taught English as a Second Language at Palo Alto Adult School for 17 years.

Like her fellow art commission members, Laura Deem and Barbara Mortkowitz, Frankel has a studio on Transport Avenue in Palo Alto. There she creates figurative art in oils and acrylics. She is also interested in monotype printing.

"I have a small crow's nest studio that is my sanctuary," she said.
Paula Kirkeby

A s founder of the Smith Andersen Gallery in 1968, Paula Kirkeby has been prominent on the local art scene for many years. One of her fellow commissioners called her "an icon."

Kirkeby and her husband, Phillip, still own that building, but for the past eight years she has preferred working at her own studio in a quiet location away from downtown. There she oversees production of monotype prints that are sold at the studio.

A Palo Alto resident for 50 years, Kirkeby is both a dealer and a collector. Her collecting interests include contemporary art, Chinese porcelain and ceramics.

"Basically I have the heart of a collector," she said. "But scratch a collector and you find a dealer."

Kirkeby was first on the commission more than 20 years ago, when she served for six years under Alan Longacre, her mentor.

"It was the most wonderful, joy-filled community feeling I've had," she recalled. "It was new, fresh, exciting and an adventure. None of us knew where we were going and that made it very lively."

A year ago, Leon Kaplan asked her to serve again. With budget concerns, things are different now, but she raved about her fellow members.

"It's a wonderful group, a real team feeling. We seriously discuss works of art and go to see them. We want to bring the best in art to the community," she said.

One piece that she originally disliked (she refused to specify on the record) enchanted a visitor from Paris who saw it, and Kirkeby said she could then see it through his eyes in a different light.

Kirkeby would like to get more people involved in the selection process. Her idea would be to have the commission select a couple works, which people could then see first-hand.

Then they could vote by a ballot in the Weekly, she suggested.
Patrice Langevin (chair)

Patrice Langevin is delighted with the new public-art projects downtown, citing "The Color of Palo Alto," "Digital DNA" and the utility boxes.

"With these three projects we've made a big leap in creating a hub of art downtown," Langevin said. "Usually public art starts in the main business district, but in Palo Alto it has started elsewhere -- on California Avenue, which has become a sculptural avenue -- and is working its way back downtown.

"The 'Color of Palo Alto' project has immense ramifications. Eventually the police and fire departments will be able to call up the image of each home. We'll share the images with the Palo Alto Historical Society, too."

Langevin added that the commission's next focus will be on neighborhoods.

"Our next major project will be getting together with Menlo Park to create a joint gateway piece on the boundary of the two cities at El Camino Real and San Francisquito Creek," she said.

Langevin grew up in Orange County and majored in architecture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. One favorite project abroad earlier in her career was when she and another architect were hired to revitalize an old "red light" district in Vienna.

"An elevated train system had been designed in the 1920s, with shopping underneath the tracks. We treated each block as its own node -- one block for night clubs, one for children's schooling and day care, and one for arts and music."

Langevin is an architect with the Hayes Group and has lived in Palo Alto for nine years.
Barbara Mortkowitz

B arbara Mortkowitz would like to see art and beauty everywhere.

"All of Italy is public art. If you go to the butcher everything is displayed on marble. Fruit is a visual display; you don't touch it," she said. "The public art element should be integrated into our community and show up in how we dress, what we eat -- just a beautiful, artistic life."

As an example, Mortkowitz cited the art and gardens on the Stanford campus and hospital.

"Public art is for the public to enjoy and it should stimulate a thought process or solve a problem."

Mortkowitz said she is fond of sculpture with not only a strong design element but some significant content to it, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"The commission has consensus on what we want -- and that is more public art. We want residents to want more of it and to be involved in our projects. We work well together with a common vision," she said. "We want the public to come to our events (such as the dedication of a newly placed piece of art), to help us with funding, come to us with ideas, and help with the siting process."

Mortkowitz studied environmental design at the California College of Arts and Crafts. As an amateur artist, she has done book art and collage, creating such unusual forms as scrolls and accordions. She is currently an arts administrator with ARTshare in San Mateo, a local partnership with San Mateo County that promotes the arts. She is also an interior designer specializing in commercial spaces, including offices and sports clubs.

Mortkowitz applied for a position on the commission because she wanted to learn about the process of selecting and siting public art.

"I'm loving it," said Mortkowitz, now in her first term. "I love the idea of public art and peoples' interpretation of it." 1

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