Remembering Susan O'Malley in Palo Alto (and around the Bay)

If you are driving down Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto for the next week or two, you'll likely see a new batch of 'Community Advice' posters by the late and very lamented Susan O'Malley. They were put up by a group organized by the Palo Alto Art Center, of which I was honored to be a part. It was through her work at the Art Center that I met Susan, and got to help spread her infectiously positive, intelligent, and witty art into my own neighborhood.

Just last October, I ran a week-long class at my daughter's school called 'Susan O'Malley Will Blow Your Mind,' in which Susan came and shared her story, her passions, and her practice with a group of middle school girls. As was only appropriate, the work we all made was more beautiful than the girls could have imagined. 

The posters down Embarcadero are part of project to spread Susan's work throughout the Bay Area this month. Look out for it, too, in Berkeley, San Jose, or San Francisco - or anywhere in between.

Is there room for art in Silicon Valley’s Democratic Forest?

Into the teaming pool of aesthetically malnourished wealth that is modern Palo Alto – our left leaning, self-proclaimed ‘City of Trees’ – this week descends a line bated with the tasty morsel that is Sotheby’s presentation of William Eggleston’s helpfully-titled pop-up show ‘Democratic Forest.’  For what are we, if not that? Well, that and a city of people legendarily too busy to even furnish their cash-purchased million dollar bungalows, let alone put something on the walls.

Sotheby’s is fishing here for just three days, it turns out, taking over the Bryant Street Gallery between shows and unsure if the prize shoppers among us will bite. And that’s canny, too. Because who knows what anyone here thinks about art, least of all those in possession of the money to buy it at the rarified levels at which this exhibition is playing.

“Have you been busy?” I asked today at lunch time, already half way through the show. “We hope to be,” the nice gallery staffer replied. It’s debatable whether that leaves enough time for the Valley’s generally over-committed citizenry to flock by. Understandably, but somewhat incongruously, Sotheby’s is hedging its bets by also offering fine wines (with a heavy emphasis on French reds) at the show as well. I suppose you do what you think it will take.

I was discussing just this very question – what it actually takes to show, share, and sell art in the Valley – the other day with my friends Pamela and Mitchell, a knowledgeable local collector and distinguished local artist, respectively. None of us were sure about what you can really say about the economy of art here. I’ve written about our community’s troubled relationship with architecture and much the same goes for the objects you might put in it. Certainly, we have a long way to go with public art. And we’re as keen on collecting Pez dispensers and Panzer tanks as Pollocks.

It’s also true that things are changing. As Mitchell noted in a blog post last week, the arrival of the magnificent Andersons at Stanford is a truly world class event. And the appearance of pop-ups like the Eggleston show and those at the new Pace Gallery outpost in Menlo Park tell us that the major art world sharks, to shift piscine metaphors, are circling.

But I hope we don’t just create a copy of what you can find elsewhere. I think there’s a way in which our nerdy appreciation for mechanical invention and design can converse with more traditional and patrician high art sensibilities and recalibrate a little, perhaps, what is interesting and worth celebrating – and buying, even.

The Eggleston pictures, meanwhile, are fantastic. And they fit an aesthetic that does, indeed, have a history of science and engineering side to it (read Mitchell’s blog for an artist’s insight into Eggleston and the color process), although I’m not sure how the fact that these are contemporary digital prints (by the artist) from the old-fashioned color negative impacts that story. Still, there’s plenty here to engage the various levels at which the Valley thinks.

I appreciated the seventeen photographs most as documentary pieces, and for an approach to composition that achieves balance without either being boring or falling prey to the overt showy-ness to which many documentarians of the American underbelly are prone. Ironically, the project from which these prints (priced at $30,000 to $300,000) are drawn focuses on the relentlessly ordinary in some of the nation’s least affluent corners. But in the land of the $22,000 bicycle, price will be far less of an issue than persuading people that a deeply engaging but static image is worth their time.

Offering 'Community Advice' in College Terrace

Here's some advice currently on offer outside my house.

It's part of an extension of a public art project created by the excellent Susan O'Malley and commissioned by the Palo Alto Art Center entitled 'Community Advice.' 

This is Susan's description of the project:

I interviewed a few shy of 100 people in Palo Alto for this project. I asked: What advice would you give your 8-year-old self? What advice would you give your 80-year-old self? Using the words of those I met, I designed ten different letterpress posters. Sometimes the poster text is verbatim from the interview; other times I conflated several people’s advice into one. In addition to hanging the works in the opening exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, these posters were installed along Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto for passersby to see.

I saw the installation while driving down Embarcadero Road before I knew about the commission. I was so taken with Susan's posters that I stopped and took some pictures of them.

Then my neighbor and textile artist, Ealish Wilson, had the brilliant idea of inviting Susan to extend her project in collaboration with residents in Palo Alto's College Terrace neighborhood. A selection of Susan's posters are now gracing various local yards for the next two weeks -- a celebration of community, positivity, and art. I'm thrilled to be a part of the effort.

Valley snapshot - a woodpecker granary

I'd seen evidence of acorn woodpeckers high up in trees before, but here's an entire granary that's easily visible from the ground. It's in the Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills. A single tree like this can hold 50,000 acorns by the end of the fall.

These are a community effort - run by an inter-related clan with a structure resembling a 1970s utopian commune.

It's wonderful that we now encourage landowners not to remove every tree that dies in their woodlands. These woodpeckers are just one of the 80 Californian bird species that rely on dead trees for nesting, food storing, hunting, roosting, and resting. Besides - if they can't find a tree to drill, acorn woodpeckers will happily turn to fences, utility poles and even buildings to build their larders.

Searching for the Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad

Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men first got me interested in the story of the Transcontinental Railroad and the extraordinary Chinese workers who built the most treacherous parts of it.

Since then I've read more and walked through some of the tunnels they built.

Although tens of thousands of Chinese workers worked on the railroad between 1865 and 1869, not a single document created by any of these workers is known to have survived.

Now a group of reseachers based at Stanford have announced a search in the US and China for family papers created by the mostly migrant workers. It's called the "Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project."

I'm looking forward to hearing about what they get sent.

Valley snapshot - Judith Selby Lang installation at the Palo Alto Bowls Club

I'm a big fan of Bay Area artist Judith Selby Lang, and of the Palo Alto Art Center, which has been commissioning some excellent work of late.

This week I got to see Lang's new installation at the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club with a group of excited 2nd graders. They were treated to a well-designed appreciation activity, learning how Lang and her helpers made the work, what inspired her and some of the environmental and aesthetic ideas that inform her creations. 

Anglo settlers in California, ignorance and AC

The 4th grade California Mission experience is a state right of passage and it would be hard to beat the introduction to that world offered by the rangers at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park

The tour of the park that my daughter's class was lucky enough to experience this week introduced them to the Native Americans who lived in the area for many thousands of years, the Spanish priests who arrived a couple of centuries ago and transformed the native culture, the Mexicans who came next, threw out the Spaniards and got the locals to work on their huge ranches, and then the late-arriving eastern Americans who ended up running the show, mostly as a result of shear force of numbers (and a fair bit of squatting).

We learned that the anglos, however, weren't that smart about climate-appropriate building. Take the adorable 19th century log cabin house that now resides right next to the Historic Park museums (it was originally built about a mile away).

It's highly attractive to anyone educated to admire the mythic west or fancy ski cabins. The hand-hewn authenticity of it is straightforwardly impressive. Look at the joinery:
And the chimney:

But the reality is that it was built within spitting distance of houses that were far better adapted to the local climate, but which the anglos were unable to build -- the adobe homesteads of the Spanish and Mexicans. It's hard to believe that the building below is actually older than the one above, but it is. Plus it was cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, unlike the picturesque but non-insulated and hole-ridden cabin.

It's interesting to wonder why the anglo settlers settled on a such an inferior building style. Could they not afford adobe (which is just made from clay and cow manure, after all)? Maybe they didn't realize what was better. Or perhaps no-one would tell them. Or were were they afraid, or too proud, to ask?