Public artwork in P.A. taps into states mythology

In front of a health food store at 440 California Ave. in Palo Alto, you can now walk into a grove of ficus-sized poppies. High overhead, their bronzed petals twirl slowly in the breeze atop slender stems.
This powerful new public art installation in Palo Alto that revives a long-lost motif of California culture; an everyday object rendered fancifully large.
This image grows out of a deep-rooted vision of California as a place of myth. It has inspired movies and architecture, music and sculpture. It may be a fiction, but it has had tangible manifestations in the real world.
It’s a theme that has lain dormant in recent years, however, as modernism worshiped structure over culture, function over fantasy. This new sculpture awakens that theme magnificently.
A hundred years ago Californians sent postcards of SUV-sized oranges perched on railroad flatcars to their relatives back east. They were the product of trick photography, of course, but in the days before digital touch-ups, people were likely to be amazed by the apparent proof of the myth become real.

Giant objects ring true
And in the 1920’s and 1930’s California’s roadsides sprouted giant lemons, oranges and pumpkins, enormous derby hats, bulldogs and root beer barrels. These novelties were witty and eye-catching, but they were more than architectural one-liners. They tapped into a sense of what Californians believed —or wanted to believe — about their homeland. Despite obvious exaggeration, these giant objects had a ring of truth about them.
California was a region of astonishing fertility. Sights of Yosemite, the sequoia groves and the clear depths of Tahoe stretched credulity. Vast orange groves stood in the shadow of snow-capped mountains. Those postcards stretched the truth, but not much — just enough to make a point, and to articulate the emerging sense of what California was all about.
This gentle new sculpture on California Avenue, the lat-

The sculpture is not simply ornamental, raised on a pedestal to be viewed; it is also an environment to be inhabited.


est sculpture sponsored by the ongoing Palo Alto Public Art Program, continues that tradition. Beautifully designed and executed by Reed Madden Designs of Oakland, it reawakens a glimpse of the bucolic innocence of California, but coupled with a 21st century twist: It uses solar panels, hidden within each flower, to illuminate the sculpture at night, giving the installation the name “Sun Flowers.”
One the whole, the quality of Palo Alto’s public art rises above San Jose’s. “Sun Flowers” adds an additional urban dimension. This is useful art. The flowers serve as canopies over built-in sidewalk tables, and the entire piece is set in an earthen-concrete structure that rises organically out of the ground to form a long bench. Etched with the lines of dried earth and surrounded by native grasses, it creates a boldly unusual landscape for a commercial sidewalk.

The familiar made new
This installation takes the familiar and transforms it. A common table and chair has the usual lines: a straight pole for the canopy, a perfect circle for the tabletop. But instead of leaving the usual alone, this design borrows from the lines of nature to reshape these urban fixtures. The pole that holds aloft the petals is not a straight metal pipe, but takes the gentle, lazy line of a poppy stem, curving and twisting slightly.
With the transforming insight of art, the orange petals of the state flower are not on

ly enlarged to mythic size, but rendered in a golden bronze. And they begin to play with our own perceptions. Walking beneath these flowers, you wonder for a moment if the poppy grew or you shrank. The value of representational art — art that is recognizable as something, in contrast to abstract art — is its balance of the real and the unreal. This is not really a field of poppies; it is an imitation of the poppy’s shape, but in materials and scale that no one could mistake for a real poppy. Yet by simulating a poppy’s shape it evokes the associations with the flower, seen throughout the state in carpets of orange gold. The art conjures up a wealth of images and recollections that add to the enjoyment of the piece.

Not just ornamental
Other art in Palo Alto’s program offers interesting forms and subjects, but by tapping into both a public consciousness of California as a state of mind and an awareness of the very practical role of street furniture, “Sun Flowers” rises above the others as public art, perfectly designed for its purpose and place. It is not simply ornamental, raised on a pedestal to be viewed; it is also an environment to be inhabited.
A myth is a figment of imagination, but it still can express real hopes and dreams. It is the role of architecture not only to shelter our bodies but also to manifest those hopes and dreams. It can have the humor (and echoes of history) in the giant orange of Mark’s Hot Dog stand (soon to reopen at its new Capitol Expressway site). Or it can exhibit the sophisticated artifice of Claes Oldenburg’s “Cupid’s Stand” on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, or the placid, subtle movements of these bronze flowers. All serve the public by widening the variety of sources and images of the landscape we inhabit.

Alan Hess writes about architecture twice a month in Arts & Entertainment. Contact him at HYPERLINK "" or at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190.

A sculpture of giant poppies has been installed on California Avenue in Palo Alto. The flowers serve as canopies over built-in tables, and solar panels in the blossoms illuminate the sculpture at night.