Code:ART festival brings interactive installations by local artists to Downtown Palo Alto

STORY BY NAINA SRIVASTAVA, PHOTOS BY EMILY YAO

Interactive displays scattered the streets of Downtown Palo Alto with ambient music and colorful lighting in Code:ART, an “interactive new media festival.”

The festival, which ran from Oct. 7–9 and consisted of seven displays, was hosted by the City of Palo Alto Public Art Program in an ongoing effort to reimagine public spaces through art and technology. 

PALEOALTO (MARPI STUDIO AND COLOUR FEEDERS)

“Paleoalto” was the the anchor of the festival. The piece, displayed in Lytton Plaza, is a collaboration between Marpi Studio (led by creative technologist and artist Marpi) and system designers and installers at Colour Feeders. The interactive installation transports visitors to the Paleolithic Era, filled with unconventional creatures which they can interact with and mesmerizing music.

“From a design perspective, it was kind of like a portal through a digital ruin back to Paleolithic times, which is why this is [named] ‘Paleoalto,’” said Kevin Colorado, architect and co-founder of Colour Feeders.“It’s an imagining of creatures that may have been here at the time.”

Colorado said the final product makes countless hours of planning and setup worthwhile. 

“The best part about it is that when I’m doing it for myself, it’s fun, not work … [and] seeing people’s reactions to it and knowing that the concept is actually understood by other people makes it all worth it,” Colorado said.

Especially with digital art being less mainstream than traditional mediums, Colorado praised the festival for allowing increased visibility for the emerging art medium. 

“I think that digital art is still a pretty nascent industry, and because of that public exposure is very limited,” Colorado said. “So I’m really thankful and impressed that Palo Alto invited us here. And it gives [an] opportunity for people to finally begin to take the medium seriously.”

COLOR CURRENTS (CORY BARR)

A projection of colorful ripples in Cory Barr’s  “COLOR CURRENTS” plays with the ideas of motion and color space. 

“Every dot that you see moves that way because someone has moved that way,” Barr said. “It remembers how people have come up and viewed it and moved around in front of it.”

The installation has two modes which alternate every seven minutes: one fluid and one static, although both share the same general idea.

Barr’s piece ties movement to the color wheel: when participants move to the right, it creates red, and when they move left, the complementary color of cyan is created. Up and down movements create yellow and green, respectively.

“It’s interesting seeing people use it in ways that they didn’t really think of. Some people will really like [the static] mode because they’ll try and be very conscientious about sculpting,” Barr said. “After a while they’ll be like ‘Oh, it’s remembering.’ … And [it’s interesting] when people understand they’re leaving behind their motion.”

This piece in particular only took Barr around a week to create, though it’s based on other similar projects which use the same camera-based interaction that he has been working on for several years. 

“Code offers a lot of possibilities,” Barr said. “Versus some traditional medium, it’s really good if you’re an artist who likes to use repetition and rhythm and things like that; it’ll set you up to explore some patterns and visual languages that you couldn’t with your hand.”

COSMIC CANNON (JEFFREY YIP)

Inspired by the natural world of geometry and spirituality, the pyramidal “COSMIC CANNON” by Jeffrey Yip allows visitors to collaborate through art and sound.

“I wanted to do a public intervention and essentially create a sense of play,” Yip said. “In public places, we often just get from point A to point B and there isn’t [much] play emphasized in our everyday lives.”

Creating a piece for visitors — ranging from friends to family to strangers — to interact with each other through sound was also a priority to Yip. 

“Each of the buttons do a different kind of fixed thing, so one does a bass, one does a sound effect and one does a melody,” Yip said. “If people are putting it together, it can create music.” 

“It was definitely a lot of trial and error; [I] learned a lot, made some mistakes [and] corrected them,” Yip said. “I still don’t have it at 100%. There are still things I want to tweak with it now that I have it up and see that it’s going.”

Still, displaying his installation at Code:ART has been a rewarding experience for Yip.

“[I love] just seeing people’s smiles and seeing the reactions on people’s faces and the kids — it’s been really nice to see them interact with it now,” Yip said.

CODED ARCHITECTURES (AMOR MUNOZ)

Tiles of black and white run down the side of an alleyway forming “CODED ARCHITECTURES,” an interactive mural by Amor Munoz, who aimed to create a connection between technology, architecture and society through her piece.

The combination of black and white is inspired by binary code from computers.

Visitors of the interactive mural were provided with a binary alphabet postcard, which they must use to decipher the encoded message. The displayed message changes daily. 

Editor’s note: We unfortunately weren’t able to get an interview with Munoz.

HYDRALA (DANIEL TRAN AND NICK SOWERS)

“HYDRALA,” a sculpture which emits audio based on visitors’ movements, is suspended between four magnolia trees in front of City Hall. The installation deviates from the typically solely visual experience of a sculpture in favor of an “immersive, ambient experience.”

The collaborative project between Daniel Tran, a sculptor, and Nick Sowers, an architect and sound artist, who have known each other since architecture school was the result of months of planning.

“[Tran] came to my sound studio and we tried plugging in a transducer, which is part of a speaker that creates the vibrations,” Sowers said. “And when we put that transducer on the sculpture, it turns the whole sculpture into a speaker. ”

The final installation contains four transducers, which play sounds reacting to people underneath the sculpture. 

“I chose some instruments which are specifically designed for his sculpture that are using the frequencies which are naturally resonant in the material,” Sowers said. “That was quite a process — quite a wonderful process really [of] just trying to hone it down [and determine] what sounds good inside of the sculpture.”

“I’ve seen like two-year olds playing this thing — they’re playing with these little dishes and then [see] the joy when they hear that something that they just did has created a sound,” Sowers said. “Kids and old people, a lot of people have gotten delight out of this, but I get the most joy by seeing their joy.”

I/O (BEN FLATAU AND OTHERS)

The installation titled “I/O” (input/output) by architect Ben Flatau (and various architects, designers and technologists) provided visitors with a challenge: to find the correct pattern of symbols and reveal a hidden message. The puzzle consisted of spinning boxes, which visitors moved to create the correct pattern, and input and output sides.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s meant to highlight the good and the bad of technology — that technology can be a powerful force, but it can also be a force that divides us,” said Scott Bezeck, a software engineer who worked on the project.

The planning process for the installation began in late 2019, but picked up in the recent months leading up to Code:ART. 

“Ben reached out to me kind of randomly since I tinker with display technology like this in my free time, with the idea for this piece and then we were working together remotely during COVID to plan it,” Bezeck said. “And then finally in the last few months we were able to put our different pieces together and come together to build the final thing.”

The entirety of the display was made up of 4,320 individual flaps, the result of a myriad of contributors.

“It’s just been cool seeing people’s excitement and interest and in playing and working together on finding the solutions to the puzzles,” Bezeck said.

LUMINOUS GROWTH (LIZ HICKOK, PHIL SPITLER AND JAMIE BANES)

A large scale projection and sculptural installation, “LUMINOUS GROWTH” by artists Liz Hickok, Phil Spitler and Jamie Banes, allows visitors to explore the uncharted territory of a model city slowly being covered with crystals.

Hickok served as the crystal and photography expert, Spitler produced the 360 degree video and coding and Banes built the cityscape.

“We built a model and then we loaded it with crystals and the crystals grew all over it,” creative technologist Spitler said. “We put a camera in the middle [and] filmed it over two weeks… [which is] what is being projected.”

Using an iPad, visitors can navigate the installation and control where they are looking.

“The inspiration was partly with climate change and just this city being taken over — the crystals grow over this city and take over and we don’t have any control over that,” Spitler said.

A unique aspect of the project that Spitler found joy in was the unknown. 

“With this [project], it was a chemical reaction, so we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Spitler said. “We filmed it over a two week period but we didn’t really know what we were going to get until we looked at the footage. It’s that kind of surprise moment that’s really gratifying.”

After nearly two years of conceptualizing the installation and three attempts to perfect the crystal growth, it was finally displayed.

“The kids are just like ‘wow’ because they’re so used to seeing things that are made digitally … but then to actually see the sculpture here … the surprise and delight in that has been really rewarding,” Spitler said.

How a local muralist’s work brings color to her community

STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO COURTESY LOS ALTOS HISTORY MUSEUM

From chic, modern line art to blossoming flowers and vibrant colors, Morgan Bricca’s murals add flair, character and a sense of togetherness to the walls of her community. You may have glimpsed her work at schools like Egan Junior High School, Blach Middle School and Almond Elementary. 

A home renovation project was where the commision-based muralist got her start. She had never considered art as a career choice until painting a window in order to liven up a stairwell in her home awakened her to an unexpected love for painting walls. Soon enough, Bricca went from repainting windows in her home to creating larger-than-life murals throughout her community.

“I was blindsided, honestly, by it,” Bricca said. “It tickled a part of my brain that was just so interesting for me.”

From there, Bricca says her enthusiasm is what led her to successfully turn her newfound love into a business. Her knack for art helped word spread like wildfire, and after initially working on projects for family and friends, her customer base expanded to the larger community.

Eventually, thanks to her unwavering enthusiasm, Bricca began receiving commissions, growing her passion into the flourishing business it is today. Now, she paints in schools, companies and homes, creating paintings in a multitude of styles to fit the client and the space.

“Every client has such a different idea about what would be beautiful for themself,” Bricca said.

Bricca said her art provides her with many of the qualities she looks for in a job, including the ability to express herself, the opportunity to meet interesting people and sometimes even exercise. There are certain physical demands that come with working at such a large scale (ladder climbing, covering large surfaces, etc). But the most rewarding aspect for Bricca is the accompanying sense of purpose.

“[When I’m not painting], I don’t really feel like I get this deep grounding in myself, and painting gives that to me,” she said.

Using her art to benefit the community and make people happy keeps her motivated. Children celebrate the imaginative magic of her butterfly wings mural, which features a butterfly positioned intentionally for viewers to take pictures and pretend they have wings.

“I know that I’m using my artwork as a service, to bring joy to people … So it’s not really about me, per se, it’s about being of service,” Bricca said. “And that is so gratifying.”

According to Bricca, “the essence of mural art” is leaving a part of yourself on the painted wall, something for others to connect to. With her upcoming talk at the Los Altos History Museum, Bricca is taking a similar leap of openness, and she hopes that — just like her murals — her words will stir connection.

In Bricca’s presentation, she will entertain listeners with stories about her journey in painting, examples of her earlier works of art and anecdotes about her murals. Her message is how simply trying something new can open up a whole world of opportunities and happiness.

“‘Passion just scares people,” Bricca said. “It’s more like this quiet tug.”

That “quiet tug” that Bricca felt as she painted a window in her stairwell eventually brought her to where she is today: running a business of spreading paint and creativity.

“It’s only painting,” Bricca said. “It’s not like I’m changing the world, but … it just feels like the thing I’m supposed to be doing.”

Bricca will deliver her talk, “Adventures in Mural Painting” at the Los Altos History Museumon Sept. 23 from 7–8:30 p.m. Register here. Visit Bricca’s website here.

The Zone 3 Caltrain stations, ranked

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY TOMOKI CHIEN AND EMILY YAO

There comes a certain point in a driver’s-licenseless teenager’s life when they desperately don’t want to be chauffeured around by their parents to hang out with friends anymore, and in which they’ve had enough of everything within walking and biking distance. 

This summer, I chose the natural solution, as opposed to, say, taking my permit test or something. I started riding the Caltrain — a lot.

After a couple months of frequenting the nearby stations and what their surrounding downtowns had to offer us, my friends and I started discussing our favorite stations. There were so many factors to think about, and thus a fair share of disagreements.

Realizing that each Caltrain station is unique with different atmospheres and amenities, I formed the next logical thought of ranking them all on a scientifically standardized scale: my opinions. 

Not all of the stations from San Jose to San Francisco, of course — that would be a huge project — just six local ones, classified by Caltrain as Zone 3.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the actual utility of this is; it’s not as if you’re going to start avoiding getting off at your local station because it’s ranked low here. But maybe it can be thought provoking about our perspective on our communities’ public spaces.

Here are six local Caltrain stations, ranked.  

6. San Antonio

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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The San Antonio station really doesn’t have much immediately around it; it’s an eight minute walk to The Village (a local shopping center with not many stores that pique my interest) and a 10 minute walk to the nearest Target (a good place to roam around in and exit with a multitude of things you didn’t need). 

The station’s parking situation is the next most unideal thing for me to scrutinize. To be clear, I still can’t drive; I forced our editor-in-chief to shuttle us around on this four-hour expedition. Thus it was his attempt at parking that was an entire ordeal.

When we finally crossed the tracks to the only side offering parking, said parking was a block away from the station, which I can imagine being inconvenient for those traveling on a tight schedule.

As for San Antonio’s low intuitiveness score, those wishing to cross to the other platform need to walk all the way down and through a tackily designed, blue- and red-striped underpass on the very end of the station — not very intuitive.

5. Mountain View

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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Doubling as a transit station with VTA buses definitely knocked down this station’s intuitiveness points, as I can imagine someone attempting to use both transport systems getting off the train and feeling confused about where and how to board their bus. 

The cleanliness of the station was mediocre. As I sat down to feel out different benches, I noticed that some of them were sticky. As I walked up and down the platforms, I noticed stains and discoloration on the concrete pavement. 

On the flip side, my favorite thing about the Mountain View station was its main building. The almost old-timey style of architecture was easy on the eyes and cohesive with the station’s atmosphere. It also provided some nice, shaded seating with a type of bench that I really liked.

Unfortunately, Mountain View also had my absolute least favorite type of benches out of all the stations: there were a multitude of circular black benches with defeated-looking trees in the center. This seating simply didn’t make sense to me, as their circular shape, vertical gaps and inevitable absorption of burning heat during the daytime are probably not appealing to anyone.

To put it simply, I thought I liked the Mountain View station more than I actually do, which is not that much.

4. Palo Alto

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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Downtown Palo Alto is a thoroughly amazing and fun place, giving the Palo Alto station an automatic 10/10 on the fun factor scale. My most frequently visited stores there include Bell’s Books and Kung Fu Tea, but there’s guaranteed to be something for everyone from restaurants to retail stores to cafes.

However, the Palo Alto station definitely lacked cleanliness. Its main underpass is dark, damp and dingy with offensive smells every few steps you take. There were spills and stains on the platform grounds, as well as bottles and cans littered on the train tracks. We even noticed a pile of shattered glass beneath one bench that seemed to have come from the map poster above it being punched.

The style of the two main buildings had an almost retro theme that is somewhat fitting for a train station atmosphere. They weren’t the most visually appealing; somewhere in my messily scribbled notes, I stated that “at least the buildings have a design.”

3. California Ave.

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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The California Ave. station has absolutely nothing to its design element. The lengthy underpass is all gray, with concrete and metal handrails — I’d almost take the blue- and red-tiled San Antonio one over that. It almost seems like a hallway in some sort of cheap-budget dystopian film.

There’s absolutely no color at the station, and the only structure is short, almost colonial, offering the only bit of shade on the platform to visitors. 

The only 10 that California Ave. got out of me was its fun factor, being one of my favorite places in Palo Alto to frequent (my go-tos are Backyard Brew, Vitality Bowl, Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels, among others). The Sunday farmers’ market is even held there every week, meaning you could potentially take the Caltrain there from out of town in the morning.

Despite California Ave. being my home station, I realized as I was pacing around with a notebook and the intention of scrutinizing everything that overall, it’s not that great of a train station. The only reason why it’s standing in the top three of my ranking is the significantly bad parking, intuitiveness and cleanliness of other stations, not its own greatness.

It’s also worthy to note that it was at this station where Caltrain employees noticed us taking pictures of the arriving train and told us what “foamers” were — but that didn’t affect my ratings.

2. Sunnyvale

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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As the opposite of what happened with Mountain View, I thought I liked the Sunnyvale station less going into this than I actually ended up liking it, which was enough for the station to be our overall runner-up.

Parking was the station’s biggest strength, with an actual shaded, multi-level parking structure dedicated to Caltrain patrons right next to it, as well as a very spacious open lot right in front. There was even ample bike parking in the shade.

I appreciated the large arch that provided shade and public seating; there were rows of strong wooden benches, though they were weirdly tall and perpendicular — I made it clear on the car ride away from Sunnyvale that the ideal bench angle lies somewhere in the middle of 90 and 180 degrees (I didn’t have a protractor on hand).

Everything in this area was cohesive in design, coming down to the special payphone stands.

The station itself was very intuitive as well, placing the ticket booths in plain sight upon entrance and a simple crosswalk as opposed to an underpass to access each side.

1. Menlo Park

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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Menlo Park is the best Zone 3 Caltrain station for its excellent intuitiveness, design and fun factor.

It features not only one, but two crosswalks on either side; the significance of this is ensuring that riders can easily and quickly access each side without having to sprint down the platform and through an underpass in their professional work outfits each morning.

The station is also lined up and down with tall, green trees. Its main building, which is accented with yellow and white, even has a beautiful clock tower — an amazing traditional style touch for a train station. Whoever sat down to design the station even went as far as to pick rusty red block pavement instead of gray slabs of concrete like most other stations.

Needless to say, from the smallest details to the station’s overall atmosphere, Menlo Park is the superior Zone 3 Caltrain station. 

Life-size bears in Downtown Los Altos have residents roaring with excitement

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.”

In-person school welcomes a new era of style for Los Altos seniors

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

After a year and a half minimized to pixel boxes, Los Altos High School students are finally returning to campus and showing off their evolved senses of style. These are a few stand-out looks from seniors the first week of the 2021–2022 school year.

Grace Kloeckl preserved at-home comfort for in-person school with her “Casual PJ Day” look. Caught striding briskly through the quad in baggy red plaid trousers, Kloeckl made a statement with her outfit about her appreciation of both aesthetics and utility.

“I really like baggy clothes because I’m the most comfy in baggy clothes and they’re also just fun,” Kloeckl said. “I feel like you can move with them.”

Paired with her bold pants (Urban Outfitters), Kloeckl wore a white tank top (Urban Outfitters), a butterfly necklace and Reebok sneakers which she called “the comfiest shoes I’ve ever worn.” She added an extra touch of pizazz with her blue mascara inspired by a friend.

“Adding little things like that to your style can really spice it up,” she said.

In the first week of the school year, Kloeckl has witnessed evidence of a widespread fashion evolution.

“I’m noticing that more people have defined styles,” she said. “A lot of people are taking risks.”

Reed Keenan’s passion for New York thrift shopping came through in his Tuesday look, which he titled, “Brown.” He wore a New York Yankees hat, plain black Gilden t-shirt, thrifted brown pants and Converse sneakers. The jacket not pictured was also brown; Keenan said this is “a super underrated color.”

Also underrated is the power of thrift shopping, according to Keenan. He used to shop at only the mainstream stores, but recently the accessible prices and sustainability of secondhand clothing won him over and he is staying loyal to his new style plug.

Keenan’s words of wisdom for novice thrift shoppers are, “Be selective, try different stores and different areas and a lot of it is just luck.”

His newfound appreciation for thrift shopping has allowed Keenan to tap into his unique sense of style rather than following the trends preplanned and by name brands.

“I think that through clothes, you can discover truly who you are,” he said. “I encourage everyone to do that however you want to. You should not care about what other people think about how you dress and it’s completely up to you. Just own it and be yourself.”

Lauren Grady thrift shopped before it was cool, and her outfit featuring preloved treasures shows it.

“My mom has always been shopping secondhand since I was a little kid and she used to be really embarrassed about it so I would always go with her,” Grady said. “I’m glad that it’s popular [now].”

On Monday, she wore a thrifted Giants shirt, off-white baggy “little boys’ pants in a larger size,” Reebok sneakers her mom picked out and a bracelet from a Peru hiking adventure.

Between having moved recently and waking up late, Grady’s outfit she titled, “I set my alarm for 7 p.m. by accident” was a rushed and low-stock invention. Still, her style shines through.

Others appear to be embracing their unique styles, too, and Grady has noticed a new collective confidence across the board with back-to-school looks.

“From what I remember two years ago, people weren’t as bold,” Grady said. “I see a lot of people standing out more.”

You can follow Lauren on instagram @laurengradyyyy.

Mayah Rengulbai’s Tuesday “AP Stats at seven in the morning kind of ‘fit” showed off her creative eye for hidden gems that can be found anywhere — the thrift store and Mom’s closet, namely.

She threw together the borrowed green button shirt, thrifted brown pants and Doc Martens before rushing out the door. Mornings without time for hesitation often supply her most original style ideas.

“I feel like [with] spontaneous [outfits], you kind of experiment with that spur-of-the-moment, ‘Let me see what looks good together’ [mindset],” Rengulbai said.

Instincts are the strongest force when it comes to guiding her choices, but Rengulbai also finds inspiration in the creative TikTok fashion community.

“There’s so much ease to just uploading a video and having other people see your style and gaining inspiration from other people online,” she said.

Like many others in her class, Rengulbai has come out of her shell more after the distance learning (and style studying) period.

“I literally wore just leggings and a hoodie every single day of freshman and sophomore year,” she said. “But I think even with [the pandemic], people being at home, really getting to curate their own style and gain inspiration from other influences is something we’ve all been able to do.”

Emelie Enser said that recently, her clothing choices have started to reflect the mood or season of life she is in at the moment. Since gaining stronger footing in who she is, expressing her internal state outwardly has come naturally.

Enser’s “Go Green” outfit featured layered necklaces from family members, a t-shirt with text reading, “Out of this World” (Pacsun), thrifted green slacks and Nike Air Force Ones.

She enjoys experimenting with vibrant colors and layering, often inspired by outfits she sees on Pinterest and TikTok, but Enser said her style “switches up a lot.” The past year has given her a chance to find a balance between comfort and style.

“I was still figuring myself out freshman and sophomore year so I was wearing more regular clothing,” Enser said. “Then over quarantine I was kind of locked by myself for a while so I was trying to figure out who I was and I found clothing that represented that. Now I feel like I’m getting more energy seeing people again and my clothing became a lot more vibrant, so it kind of does express how I’m feeling at the time.”

In a “Mob Psycho 100” hoodie, Vans and double-knee Dickies pants (so they don’t rip when skateboarding), Matthew Hoke was caught for the interview with his pizza. He called his typical uniform “The Big Baller Look.”

“It’s just how it is,” he said.

If Hoke can’t skate in it, it’s a no-go. Concocting outfits isn’t something Hoke spends much time thinking about. Although his clothing shows personal flare, practicality and knee-versus-concrete durability comes first.

“I wear the same thing every day,” Hoke said. “I don’t think about it too deeply.”

Chloe Burcell’s mixed-era look, which she called, “How I’m Feeling Today” featured 90s-inspired baggy overalls (Urban Outfitters), a 70s-style halter top (Urban Outfitters), and a handmade necklace from her grandmother which carries family heritage.

“My necklace is really important to me,” Burcell said. “Culturally, I am white and native American. In California — especially coastal California — native people make necklaces out of abalone seashells. My grandma and my aunties make these necklaces. … I think it’s really cool that it’s made up of all the natural elements from California such as pink abalone, amethyst, volcanic stones and bits of amber.”

Burcell has been a pioneer of bold fashion, making big moves since freshman year, but she feels that more people have been stepping into their own recently.

“Even two years ago, it felt so much more nerve-wracking to make choices and strong statements with our outfits,” Burcell said. “I think it’s cool that people are finding the confidence to just not care and do what they want to do.”

Lately, Aida Yezalaleul has been “in a hat moment,” appreciating how this simple accessory can elevate an outfit. A pop of color among more muted tones has also been a useful tool for putting together a look, she said.

Yezalaleul’s uniquely titled, “Cat Going Out for a Walk Sheep” outfit featured a Brandy Melville shirt, bell bottom jeans from Urban Outfitters and a borrowed baseball cap.

The “serial clothes borrower” brings fresh flavor to the wardrobe she has become accustomed to by using items from family members to reinvigorate her fashion creativity. Sometimes, all it takes is a younger brother’s green-accented hat to lend a new lens and spark inspiration.

“Everybody’s like, ‘I have nothing to wear today,’ even though their closet is full of clothes,” Yezalaleul said. “So, it’s always good to take a peek where you haven’t seen.”

An outfit compliment from Yezalaleul — occasionally called from afar — is a sprinkle of glitter on any person’s day. Yezalaleul said giving and receiving these unexpected moments of appreciation is “a break in routine.”

“You never see it coming,” she said.

Julie Broch’s muted tone wardrobe alchemized into a last-minute, yet effortlessly cool ensemble. She wore a thrifted Michael Kors jacket (Goodwill), a thrifted t-shirt (ThredUp), thrifted trousers (Goodwill), One Star Converse sneakers and layered jewelry (Etsy).

“As long as you have [good basics], whatever you throw together will look fine.”

Through her thrift store chronicles, the seasoned secondhand shopper has learned the elusive skill of pinpointing potential in a heap of randomness.

“It’s kind of a hit or miss,” Broch said. “Sometimes I’ll come back with nothing but the other day I went to Goodwill and came back with like eleven things. So it kind of depends on the day. Just luck, I guess.”

Neighbors and endangered leafcutter bees swarm local grower’s untamed garden

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Local grower Phil Muller’s home is bursting at the seams with stems and seeds. Every time he latches onto a new plant curiosity, the garden gets a bit more crowded — flats of displaced plants block backyard paths, and his flower cuttings find their way onto bookshelves and neighbors’ kitchen tables.

In his defense, Muller said that spreading tiny seeds always seems harmless in the moment.

“Next thing you know, they all come up and I’m like, ‘I can’t kill them; I’m just going to pot them and see what happens,’” Muller said. “Well, what happens is I end up with twelve flats spread out … and now you have to kind of tiptoe to get to the office.”

Muller was fascinated from a young age by the natural world and its floral gems, especially the ones with “little faces” like violas and pansies, which he would always select on nursery outings with his father.

He now brings his own daughter to nurseries, where she decides apple varieties and loads the cart with parsley plants.

The garden Muller’s father maintained was a strictly controlled environment. Nightmares of mowing the grass in two directions as a kid banished lawnage of any sort from Muller’s current home garden, where he opts instead for a “let the garden go” approach.

An untamed garden is a peephole into the natural order for observational learning; Muller keeps a close eye on the creature demographic of his garden and the ways it balances itself. The endangered native leafcutter bees (the most effective pollinators in California), warrant special observation, photography and research.

“The reason why they’re better at pollinating is because of the way they carry their pollen,” Muller said. “Her underside is all hair. She’ll go up to the sunflowers and literally do a belly rub, trying to get all of her body covered. Whereas, honeybees pack it on their knees. ‘The bee’s knees,’ right?”

A leafcutter bee. (courtesy Phil Muller)

Most of Muller’s learnings have come from dedicated observation, but he occasionally consults a bee Ph.D. for expert — albeit dryly analytical — responses identifying species, decoding behavioral patterns and once explaining bee house construction.

In Muller’s experience, the gardening community is responsive and enthusiastic to lend not only experiential knowledge, but also connections to other local green thumbs. Muller said locality is such a determining factor that some niche answers can only come from other gardeners in his area.

The community is also a dangerously exciting source of new projects when, for example, the American Fern Society offers up spores.

“I’m like, ‘Oh! How do you grow a fern from spores?’” Muller laughed. “I just all of a sudden get geeked out, but then I have to [remind myself], ‘No no no, wait.’ … I was just going to be down the road and inundated so I pulled back the reins.”

Muller returns the favor to the fellow home gardeners in his neighborhood by offering them his heaps of productive seedlings and fresh flower cuttings.

“When you have 20 flats or more of plants in the backyard, there’s not room for anything else,” he said. “So, I need them to go. It really comes down to: I planted too many.”

During the pandemic’s shutdown of nurseries, Muller fashioned a driveway nursery as a way to unload his bounty of plants, which ended up becoming a beacon of hope for home growers and flower-loving families. Neighbors could pick up any plants for free, while Muller and his daughter watched excitedly from the window.

“Every time we put something out, it all goes,” Muller said.

The driveway nursery debuted a folding table full of young sunflowers ready to be planted. Within four hours, the table with a “Free Sunflowers” sign had cleared, restocked and cleared again.

One frenzied customer was apparently a bit too enthused and snagged the folding table itself, prompting a “Please return my table” sign in the vacant driveway.

“Everyone knew that my table was missing,” Muller said. “So I would be out here watering and even the mailman asked, ‘Did you ever get your table?’ … It’s kind of an inside community joke.”

In response to his nursery, Muller received thank you notes, three pots of bearded iris and lots of questions from neighbors he had never met before about how to grow the plants they had picked up. Connecting with his community through a shared passion “breaks a barrier,” he said.

The driveway nursery’s popularity begged the question from Muller’s family: “Why don’t you sell the flowers?”

But to Muller, turning his flower cutting hobby into a business would take the lightheartedness out of it, introducing stress and expectations. For now, his early mornings in the garden followed by stealthy flower deliveries to a sleeping, bee-averse daughter’s room are all he wants.

But Muller said he is far from ruling out the idea of selling flowers altogether. He and his wife, Leda, have already visited properties in Washington to consider for a Dahlia farm. The flower farm would be two to five to 20 acres, depending on who the answer is coming from (Muller or his wife).

For the sake of maintaining the peaceful personal value of a home garden, Muller keeps a humble vision for the flower business as a stand selling cuttings in town.

“[The garden] centers me,” Muller said. “It’s a place [in any season] I can come out and cycle through. I can come out and watch that leafcutter for five minutes and all of my troubles aren’t really as bad as they could be, right? Because she’s trying to get the next generation to survive and then she’s going to die. I feel kind of connected to it.”

To home gardeners just starting out, Muller offers these words of advice:

“Be fearless but also grow the right plant in the right place,” he said. “…Basically find the conditions you have and get plants to grow well in it. Don’t worry if you see anything considered a ‘pest’ to the gardening community as these pests are considered food to other insects such as ladybugs. We can’t have one without the other.”

And like the tree Muller first planted as a tiny seed, a new gardener’s skill can grow little by little — barely noticeable at first — until it’s 15 feet tall.

Gunn grad finds piano in dumpster, turns it into public art project

STORY AND PHOTOS BY TOMOKI CHIEN

For months, Arunim Agarwal and a small band of friends went through the painstaking process of transporting, refurbishing and repainting a piano they found in a dumpster, installed last week as a public art project at Mitchell Park.

But get this: None of them — especially Agarwal — have any idea how to play the piano. (Just watch the attached video clip. Agarwal himself admits he’s got no business being around pianos, but also says the video should come with the disclaimer that a mix of “poor” microphone quality and an out-of-tune piano aren’t doing his musicianship any favors.)

Agarwal flaunts his musicianship.

Clearly, though, the Gunn ‘21 grad and his friends aren’t short of any talent: They were able to turn the dilapidated piano into a Palo Alto Public Art Commission–funded installation that can now be seen — and heard (the piano has a sign inviting passersby to play it) — at Mitchell Park.

Agarwal first stumbled upon the piano on a dumpster diving expedition in January with two fellow mentors at MakeX Palo Alto, a teen-founded and -run makerspace. Dumpster diving is apparently a fairly common practice for the teen makers.

The piano then had to be carted from the MakeX space down the road at 2 a.m. (to avoid traffic) to Agarwal’s house (because the city didn’t want it sitting outside of MakeX), on a dolly that broke down halfway through (which they had to fix in the middle of the night). 

“It was fun,” Agarwal said.

But once hauled to his house, the real work of the refurbishment began.

“A lot of it was just stripping down the old parts that we could, and kind of taking it apart at a basic level,” Agarwal said. “We didn’t mess around with any of the strings or anything, because we’re not professionals.”

He and a handful of friends sanded down the big pieces, cleaned up the gunk inside, then after applying base coats, handed the panels to different teenage artists they knew for painting; the piano now features a range of colorful artwork, a 180 degree flip from the faded black they found it in.

The $1,000 grant from the art commission covered all the materials needed for refurbishment, including the bench Agarwal got for $20 off Craigslist, presumably the hand sanitizer he thoughtfully left on top of the piano and it even allowed him to pay the artists.

The grant’s built-in deadline gave Agarwal a kick in the pants to finish the project after a “pretty chunky hiatus” he took from late January to March, to deal with academics and college applications.

“Originally, the date I proposed was spring break — I did not make the spring break date,” Agarwal said. “[But] they were pretty relaxed about it.”

Agarwal was in part inspired to take on the project because of similar ones like the Berkeley Public Piano and the Play Me, I’m Yours street pianos.

“A couple summers ago I was in Berkeley, and in their [main plaza] they have a public piano that’s just kind out for anyone to play,” Agarwal said. “I think they’ve gotten through a couple iterations of it because it’s gotten stolen or something. But it’s there, and I quite liked hearing it when I was walking by.”

He reached out to the person who started the Berkeley project, who encouraged him to forge on with his own project. 

Beyond being inspired by similar projects, Agarwal saw the restoration as a way to keep the piano from going to waste and to spend time with his friends.

“Part of it was just that it’s a reasonably good piano; it’s a Steinway, which is pretty fancy,” Agarwal said. “Granted, it had been outside for years just sitting at Cubberley, so it wasn’t in the best shape. But still, not to let it go to waste … Also just because it was something that was feasible and in front of me that I could do.”

In all, he estimated that some 15 to 20 people were involved in the project in some way, many of them friends that he invited over to help paint in any of the gaps on the panels.

And despite the size and time commitment of the project — not to mention the pressure of having the grant — Agarwal said it never became stressful for him.

“This was just a project I took up for fun, so I didn’t let it get anything beyond that,” he said.

As for next steps, the public art commission put an early September expiration on the project, which leaves Agarwal with the task of figuring out what the heck to do with the piano after that (his website says that anybody interested in purchasing the piano after its installation can reach out via email).

“I’ll be emailing the SFMOMA and seeing if they want it — I’m not entirely sure what the chances are of that,” Agarwal said.

But for now, Agarwal can sit back and admire his hard work.

“On the surface level, I hope people continue to play it,” Agarwal said. “I hope people will enjoy it, and possibly even maintain it to some extent. Maybe on a [deeper] level … I think it would be very nice if people were … I guess inspired to give back to the community in a similar way, or do something else just random for fun that the public can enjoy.”

At that point in the interview, two elementary schoolers were jamming on the piano: the perfect validation of Agarwal’s work.

“I like it, I like it quite a bit,” he said. “Because they’re probably playing better than I can — so it’s gotten into the right hands already.”

Visit Agarwal’s website here, or visit the piano at 600 E Meadow Dr., Palo Alto, CA 94303. You can also find the piano’s Instagram page here, where Agarwal said he’ll repost clips of you playing the public piano if you tag the account.

Parent group seeks to uplift Latino MVLA students

STORY BY RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

This story was originally reported in Spanish. All quotes are translations.

In a school district with a prominent Latino composition of 25.8%, the Latino Parent Outreach group aims to provide support to a disproportionate number of struggling students and their parents. 

Through sharing experience and working with the district to improve resources, LPO’s parent volunteers hope to make opportunities for higher education more attainable for Latino students.

LPO was founded four years ago with the mission of finding and addressing the causes of widespread low GPAs, low math grades and trends of chronic absence among Latino students. 

Although they mostly work in the Mountain View area, they are also willing to help any parents and students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District. 

Parents involved meet monthly in what they call “Cafecitos” or “Coffees” to discuss topics of focus and exchange knowledge, ensuring that parents with questions are able to talk with more experienced parents. The group is also able to help parents who have difficulties understanding English.

The organization has hosted events “celebrating the different cultures and countries that make up the Hispanic community,” said Marilu Cuesta, an involved LPO volunteer. These events include major celebrations in Mexican culture like Dia de Los Muertos and La Posada. 

“The goal of our group as parents is to open up new opportunities for Latino students and make sure they are going to school feeling happy and comfortable, knowing they can succeed by taking advantage of all the resources that the school and their teachers provide them,” Cuesta said.

In March, the group sent a letter to the district proposing 16 key action items in an effort to counter the continued academic underperformance among Latino students.

“The district has always known about these problems, but in reality, enough has never been done to close this unjust gap,” said Semi Gurbiel, the soon-to-be president of LPO. “We hope that they can help us with the ideas that we have given them, and that they accept and can work with us to increase graduation rates and help set up Latino students who work hard for success.”

These points include ensuring reliable internet service for students at home, clarifying resources to increase Latino student participation in academic programs, and expanding mental health support. The petition also suggests actionable, cost-free plans like instituting tutoring programs between model upper-classmen and newer students to help them achieve their goals.

This 16-point letter is the product of LPO parents’ collaboration and comprehensive analysis of the problems Latino students face. It also suggests resources like scholarships and internships with tech companies that could help combat the disparities. 

The district’s most recent renewal of its Local Control Accountability Plan calls to implement better internet access, academic counseling, mental health services and “culturally relevant education,” which all the sentiments of LPO’s 16-point petition.

“We face many challenges, mainly socioeconomic problems and a language barrier,” Gubriel said. “We have parents that have to work two or three jobs and are unable to keep their children on the right academic track like other parents can. And looking at the academic statistics of Latino students in our district is provocative and makes us want to give better opportunities to our children and our community.”

Local non-profit Mentor Tutor Connection continues to serve Mountain View and Los Altos students through pandemic

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN AND RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO COURTESY MENTOR TUTOR CONNECTION

A wedding or baby shower guest list typically includes parents, neighbors and long-time friends. For some former Mentor Tutor Connection students, their mentors — thanks to their patience, kindness and advice — also make the guest list.

Mentor Tutor Connection is a nonprofit that seeks to “enhance academic and life skills for students” by offering tutoring for kindergarten through eighth grade students in Los Altos and Mountain View school districts and one-on-one mentoring for students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District. 

Tutors either work one-on-one with students in math and language arts in their classrooms, or, through the Reading Fellows program, a more individualized program where they meet with students many times throughout six weeks to help them with their reading ability.

The organization’s mentors work for years to build personal relationships with high school students, many of whom are first generation college bound students.

“The mentoring program pairs a caring adult from the community, an adult who is non-judgemental, who will be there for the student,” said Carol Olson, executive director at Mentor Tutor Connection. “Our mentor program is focused on whatever the student needs or wants.”

Mentors are usually brought in by other people in the organization, but can be just about any experienced adult with a little extra time, a desire to help others and a lot of patience. Mentors go through a careful training and preparation process before being matched with the right student 

Once paired, mentors help their students with school work, time management, college applications and generally are able to guide and share their experience with students.

“Over time, the students trust [the mentors] more and more, open up more and more, and eventually you’re having this huge impact on them because you show up,” said Sally Chaves, president of Mentor Tutor Connection. “You didn’t raise [the student], but they’re just a special person that becomes like family.”

While at first glance it might seem that the organization only serves students, the mentors also benefit mostly by virtue of them being around students, and being able to give back to the community. 

“It’s nice to know I’m helping [my student],” mentor Leslie Micetich said. “She just wants to talk to someone else beside her family. Me too.” 

Micetich has been a mentor since April 2020. Despite having endured the pandemic with her mentee, she still found ways to support her student. She mailed a birthday card, made fudge on a video call and even set up a meeting with a special education teacher, which is her student’s dream job. 

Not all transitions to the pandemic were smooth, as some mentors struggled to figure out how to meet with their mentees online, and everyone was facing some hard times. 

“[The teen’s] lives were turned upside down, they’re feeling isolated, they’re often hit by economic hardships, or they have to take care of their younger siblings who are in class,” Olson said. “They are struggling [to] engage with school, whether it’s tech or having a private place, there are pretty significant stressors.”

It is only now that vaccinations are occurring and restrictions have been lifted in California that mentors will once again be able to meet with and support their students properly. 

“I find it very rewarding,” Jeff Purnell, a mentor said. “[I get to] use my privilege to help others who haven’t had nearly as much privilege as I have had.”

To contact Mentor Tutor Connections, click here.

Palo Alto Bell’s Books continues decades-long mission to match the “right books with the right people”

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Browsing through the ceiling-length shelves of Bell’s Books feels like opening a box of historical treasures; the variety of books a customer encounters might include first edition Steinbeck or Twain novels, an early grimoire (book of spells) once considered effective in summoning angels or a collection of Pablo Picasso artwork signed by the renowned 20th-century artist. 

Throughout 86 years of operation, Bell’s Books has evolved from its beginnings as a college textbook shop to the new, used and rare bookstore it is today. Today, Faith Bell is Bell’s Books’ second generation owner. 

Faith Bell is pictured in front of a Bell’s Books display.

While the store orders new books from publishers in response to consumer demand, Bell said that she has always specialized in stocking used and rare collectibles.

“Our love is really with the antiquarian books,” she said. “We always like to find unusual or unique or rare material in unusual topics. The joy is in finding things that people haven’t seen before.”

Bell defines truly rare books as “ones that you simply find, almost never,” using the word “rare” sparingly and opting for “scarce” a majority of the time. Books can be truly rare, she said, for factors like their beauty or limited number.

Bell’s Books is also sometimes interested in provenance — the identity of a book’s previous owner — whether this is a notable individual or an interesting, anecdotal one; one example is the subject of English folk song “Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea.” 

“I have a book that belonged to the real Bobby Shafto with his bookplate in it,” Bell said. “I came across his bookplate and went ‘Oh my gosh! It is, it’s the real one!’ Because it has his manor house, and where it was and the time period’s right. So it’s funny, the little things like that.”

Two bookcases — where certain titles are kept for fragility or value — are pictured. 

The process of collecting and selling used books starts with a phone call, in which a Bell’s Books staff member questions the potential seller about their collection’s genres, size and condition. With this relative understanding, Bell’s Books staff arrive wherever the books are stored, curate a selection and make an offer.

“I have to figure out which [books] are likely to go quickly, in which case I can pay well for them, or which of them are still going to be sitting in my warehouse years from now,” Bell said. 

Many staff members are knowledgeable in their unique intellectual fields — whether something like philosophy or true crime — which assists Bell in book-buying. At any given time, thousands of boxed-up books in the employees-only back of the store are in the process of being cleaned, researched and priced after purchase. 

“One of the things that makes this area interesting is that there are more people per capita with multiple advanced degrees in this county than there are anywhere else in the world,” Bell said. “So, it means that people with very specialized interests have fascinating libraries and we’re able to access those.”

Despite the growing digitalization of books, Bell is firm in the opinion that print books hold great value to their readers. However, she noted that libraries of Stanford professors she used to visit were much more vast before the popularization of digital books.

“Call me a Luddite, but I think having access to information that doesn’t require electronic devices is important,” Bell said.

For Bell, her family and staff, the feeling of looking up at walls of books and knowing they are all “waiting for you whenever you want,” simply can’t be replaced by e-books.

“I very much enjoy the physical book,” Bell said. “The aspect of paper and binding, typography, ink. And that’s something I really love to share with people. Putting together … the right books with the right people, is a lifelong goal and joy, and I’d say that all my staff share that as the dominant force in their lives.”

Bell’s Books is open in downtown Palo Alto every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 536 Emerson Street.