STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS BY MIA BASSETT
For an average person, seeing herds of 8-foot-tall bears stalking downtown corners might be frightening, pee-your-pants scary even, but not for the accustomed residents of Los Altos. The Los Altos Rotary Club’s most recent public art project has scattered dozens of painted fiberglass bears around the city, some life-size, and each with a theme unique to the bear.
This project, brainchild of Los Altos Rotarian Carol Dabb, was inspired by the Chicago CowParade, a public art exhibit that displays painted cows around some of the world’s biggest cities, and was adapted to express California pride.
Dabb said she chose bears because they are the state animal, but also because bears have “human qualities and you can give them human-like personalities.” She decided that bears are easier for people to relate to than dogs or cats, for example.
There are currently 54 painted bears in four sizes: the towering 8-foot grizzly bear, the 5-foot black bear and the 36- and 20-inch baby bears. Each bear is painted by a local artist selected by the rotary club, in a lineup that includes high school students, hobbyists and professional artists.
Each bear is sponsored or purchased by local rotarians, residents and businesses, and put up for auction online — they’ll be auctioned live as well during the Hibernation is Over Party in October 2021.
Proceeds from the bears go to benefit various charities supported by the rotary club. But the project is also supporting artists who have been hit hard during the pandemic, unable to sell art and in turn fund their craft. Each artist receives a 25% commission from the bids on their bears.
According to Dabb, there were “a lot of naysayers at the beginning” — people thought the project was too big, that the bears wouldn’t be attractive and that they wouldn’t get people to sponsor or bid on the bears or make any money. A hush has fallen over the skeptics since the success of bear bidding, with every bear being bid on.
“I just knew it would work,” Dabb said. “But people don’t understand art. They don’t understand how important art is in our lives, how much joy art brings into our lives, how much conversation with each other art brings into our lives.”
Perched on columns and benches and lurking behind buildings, the bears liven the streets of a city that’s just starting to wake up after months in the den.
“It brings such a positive vibe for the town,” said Jane Lombard, a cardiologist and the first sponsor and artist to volunteer. “In the evenings, I see families walking around and doing bear treasure hunts with their kids.”
Families may spot a bear strumming his ukelele, or a holding a fishing line. But the meanings behind these charming bears are more than what meets the eye.
Artists were given prompts to follow in their painting, and depending on the theme, could take creative liberties with the style of the bear. Rachel Bidinger, a Los Altos High School senior who got involved in the project after hearing about it from the National Arts Honor Society, received a private commission for her painted bear titled, “Grandpa Sam.”
The personal commission was a birthday present for a Rotarian’s husband, and Bidinger said the bear was meant to represent him. Bidigner worked closely with the buyer to design a bear with a yellow hat, his favorite shirt and a pair of Hawaiian print pants. Pawprints adorned the bear’s back to represent each of the recipient’s grandchildren.
“I really liked working with the individual and trying to understand what vision they may have in mind for design,” Bidinger said. “Something that’s really important for artists is to be able to help someone visualize what they can replicate in the art.”
Lombard painted “Grinn N Bear It,” “Hang 10” and “Tahoe Blue.” She first heard about the project during a Rotary meeting and later approached Dabb offering to sponsor a bear. Although at first, Lombard said she was skeptical of the project because of Los Altos’s size compared to Chicago, she decided it was a great “picker-upper” during lock-downs.
Her first bear, “Grinn N Bear It” is dedicated to first responders, splattered in symbols of the local fire departments and EMTs surrounded by poppies and quails. According to the bear’s description, it is a grinning bear to symbolize “hope and solidarity.”
“I think art needs to evoke feelings in you, whether it’s rage or thought and I think those bears do that, because a lot of them [show] what our community is going through,” Lombard said.
According to the Los Altos Bears map, the “Field Guide Bear” honors the Los Altos Public Library, with the background painted with local grasses and butterflies native to Santa Clara County covering the bear like a “living encyclopedia of butterflies.”
The “Historic Los Altos Bear” by Ayla Studio is covered in iconic Los Altos buildings. Featuring the Community House, Neutra House and the railroad station, the bear pays homage to the rich history of the city.
Relaxed and tan, Lombard’s “Hang 10” bear is posing in front of a Hawaiian flower surfboard. The installation is a 5-foot-2 brown bear meant to represent the quintessential California look.
“The bears are very local,” Lombard said. “They’ve got a lot of local lore and history.”
Although Lombard is a relatively experienced painter, she advanced her skills both technically, dipping her toe into graffiti methods, and conceptually, with what she described as a growth in her “artist’s spirit.”
“I grew in thinking of images that would evoke emotions,” Lombard said. “Of course, the bears are positive, but I had to find a [balance].”
For many bear painters, it’s their first time participating in a public project like this one.
“It’s definitely a new experience being able to see the value that others see in my work,” said Bidinger.
“It really brings the community together: sponsors, creators and also the audience,” Lombard said. “The bears are a work of love.”