The Greg Brown Murals: Public Art for All of Us
Government rarely puts forward a funny face. There's obviously not much humor in your typical letter from the IRS or in the driver license renewal process, but public art and civic architecture also tend to be serious business. Monumental courthouses and statehouses with Corinthian columns, raking cornices, and heroic statues tend to superimpose a rather lofty expression on the face of government. And when it comes to public art, the powers that be often tilt toward modern sculptures that stand in front of city buildings with a kind of overblown gravity.
These days six of the original nine city commissions are still around to intrigue pedestrians and raise a smile. Along with several privately funded additions, the murals add to the pleasure of a city stroll and remind the busy, overstressed errand-runner to slow down and not take life too seriously. The murals catch you at odd moments. On the way into Restoration Hardware, you glimpse an older gentleman, possibly Spiro Agnew, pushing a baby alien in a stroller. On your way to withdraw cash at Comerica Bank, you notice that an alien ship has crash-landed into the side wall. And heading into the elevator at 261 Hamilton, you are startled by a man with an evil grin preparing to cut the elevator cables. The incongruity makes you grin back: is it any wonder that Greg Brown's murals seem to be loved by all?
And it's not as if Palo Alto's citizen critics are all that easy to please. A few years ago, the Architectural Review Board gave mixed reviews to a developer's proposal to improve a new sound wall with yellow caution signs featuring portraits of local Baylands birds flying above tongue-in-cheek directions, such as "wetlands ahead," "maintain altitude" and "flight path, no landing." Recently feelings ran so high over a design to replace the fountain on California Avenue that the art commission withdrew its original choice and invited input through an online poll. And many other works of public art have provoked outspoken opinion. Some are thought pretentious, others just bizarre. California Avenue has an assortment of controversial and esoteric pieces. Statues include "Go Mama," a six-foot bronze sculpture of a Mexican doll with a face in its belly, "Jungle Jane," a nine-foot aluminum wire face and "Body of the Urban Myth," a privately commissioned twelve-foot ancient Greek woman hoisting a washing machine. A trip around Palo Alto can sometimes seem like an extended gallery walk. You can ponder an oversized green egg in Lytton Plaza known as "Digital DNA," a car with legs in Bowden Park called "Rrrun" or a steel "Tilted Donut" at the corner of El Camino and Page Mill.
A number of other public pieces have suffered the ultimate in critical wrath --- outright vandalism. The artist who designed "Digital DNA" once suggested planting a video camera inside the egg to stem the tide of vandalism. And the wooden sculpture "Foreign Friends" that sat at Waverley and Embarcadero ultimately perished. A gift from Palo Alto's Swedish sister city, the oversized painted couple sitting on a park bench with their dog met a rather unfriendly fate. In less than a decade, the piece was ridiculed, smashed, sawed, splashed with paint, set on fire, and twice decapitated. It was once even bedecked with a large, fully addressed postcard inscribed with the words "Return to Sender." Tough audience indeed.
Stroll along Homer today and you can see that the murals were left intact when the clinic moved, in 1999, to larger quarters on El Camino Real. (If you visit the Medical Foundation's present location, notice vignettes of the historic murals that link the new building to the past.) The original structure, now called the Roth Building and owned by the city, is poised for a new role. Once it is rehabilitated and reborn as the Palo Alto History Museum, the Arnautoff murals will be readily visible.
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Muralist Greg Brown in recent years.
Brown working on the original burglar mural (now at 300 Hamilton) in the 1970s. (PAHA)
A pelican nips at a purse in a mural which no longer exists. (PAHA)
A boy goes for a catch on the side of the Palo Alto downtown post office.
Aliens make their way to a milkman on the side of the Barker Hotel.
A woman makes a discovery on her garden hose on Waverley Street. (PAHA)
An evil-doer inside at 261 Hamilton.