Global art project Breathe with Me comes to Gunn, celebrating Earth Day and unity

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Palo Alto resident Irina Selva stood in front of a 6-foot-tall canvas on Saturday, in the outdoor space behind Gunn High School’s athletics fields. She took her time observing the two thick, vertical brush strokes she had just created with blue paint down the canvas — though in comparison to the second stroke, her first was considerably shorter in length.

Selva was one of an estimated 600 participants in Palo Alto’s Breathe with Me, a local rendition of the global art initiative created by Danish artist Jeppe Hein and nonprofit ART 2030

“It didn’t even make it to the [bottom],” Selva said. “On the second one, I just tried to relax a little more, and take a deeper breath, and just be aware of my breath. … Now I feel like I want to do another one; it was really nice.”

Breathe with Me arrived in Palo Alto this week thanks to a committee of Gunn parents, teachers and students. Among student organizers were Gunn sophomores Wyatt Pedersen and Katie Rueff, leaders of the school’s YCS-Interact and Green Team clubs, respectively.

“As you inhale, you dip your brush in the blue paint, and then as you exhale, you bring the brush down the canvas in one large vertical line and stop as soon as you finish,” Rueff said. “So sometimes the lines are short, and sometimes they’re super long.”

“After a large amount of community has [painted], it just shows the large amount of community within,” said Pedersen.

Pedersen poses for a photo in front of a completed Breathe with Me panel.

After Gunn parent Svetlana Gous came across Breathe with Me months ago and decided it would be perfect for the community, she took the first steps of applying for public art grants with encouragement from artist friends. As a result, Palo Alto followed New York City, Beijing and more cities across the globe in becoming the art project’s latest destination.

While the painting was — in the most literal sense — white panels featuring ultramarine blue, vertical brush strokes hung up along a school fence, Gous had her own take on its deeper symbolism.

“I really see it as a social contract,” Gous said. “The first line, for me, is signing a contract for your own wellness and self care … and the second line is really about understanding and supporting the environment that you are in locally, and then globally.”

The committee’s planning of the activity’s timeline wasn’t a coincidence: The first day of painting fell on Earth Day, allowing Breathe with Me to also serve as a community celebration of the holiday.

“I feel like it’s great not just to celebrate [Earth Day], but to make a statement about it,” Selva said.

Beyond the blue painting, the Breathe with Me site offered participants and passersby both a “poetry tree” as well as another art installation going along with the Earth Day theme: robot statues crafted out of trash by Gunn art students.

A robot statue, made by Gunn art students out of trash, on display.

Though Hein started Breathe with Me prior to 2020, its focus on the importance of human breaths takes on an even deeper meaning now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Palo Alto resident Darren Shon’s words, witnessing the gathering felt like “being able to be a community again, not just separate houses on the street.”

With the three days of painting now over, Gous is hoping that the community’s finished painting — which combines to 400 feet long — will remain hung up along Gunn’s soccer field fence for the public to enjoy, at least through the end of the school year.

“I think that these three days of painting will [lead] to creating something that will hopefully create another life in the park,” Gous said. “Maybe there will be some spontaneous music performances, or people will just come out more into the park and do what a park is supposed to be doing.”

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