Public art can awe-inspiring, moving, perplexing or shocking, sometimes all at the same time. It can be the pride of a community or a target of scorn from critics. When it’s doing its job right, art provokes a reaction.
Art is best savored at a slower pace, by walking through a gallery or through a sculpture garden. When public art is sprinkled all over town, the whole city becomes an art museum and your bicycle lets you wander from gallery to gallery at a leisurely pace. On a bike, it’s easy pull over, hop off and reflect.
One of my favorite art tours by bicycle rolls all over Palo Alto sampling public art and then heads into Stanford University, home of an extensive Rodin sculpture collection. Below are the highlights, but there’s much more to see. In the resources section at the end you’ll find a link to a Google Map that you can download to your smartphone to navigate on your tour. Click on the pushpins to see photos of the art.
“The Avenue of the Arts” (California Avenue)
The California Avenue business district is only a few blocks long and a few blocks wide, but it packs in 14 pieces of public art in a broad range of styles. Be sure to stop at the award-winning “Sun Flowers”, a sculptural seating on the sidewalk in front of Country Sun Natural Foods. Seven tall bronze California poppies spin slowly in the wind while hidden solar panels harvest the sun’s energy to light up after dark.
Another popular sculpture is “Body of Urban Myth”, a classic nude holding a washing machine that cascades water as the centerpiece fountain of Sheridan Square. The square serves as the patio dining area for Caffe Riace, so unless you’re dining with them, I recommend visiting the sculpture in the off hours.
Rodin Sculpture Garden (Stanford University Campus)
Did you know that the world’s second largest collection of Rodin sculptures is right next door at Stanford University? The Cantor Center for Visual Arts holds over 400 pieces, with 20 large bronzes outside in their sculpture garden, including the massive “The Gates of Hell” that Auguste Rodin spent two decades perfecting. The garden is open all hours, with lighting for viewing after dark and picnic tables overlooking the garden.
If you’re visiting during museum hours, it’s worth locking up your bike and going inside to see his most famous sculpture “The Thinker.” Bike racks are available under the palms trees on Lomita Drive. Admission is free.
Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden (Stanford University Campus)
For a completely different sculptural experience, ride to the other side of Stanford’s quad to the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. Under the shade trees you’ll find wood and stone carvings of people, animals, and magical beings that a team of master carvers created on-site in the summer of 1994.
Palo Alto Art Center (Embarcadero & Newell Roads)
Home to the Clay & Glass Festival every July, the Palo Alto Art Center has several large sculptures on its grounds, including the impressive “Albuquerque” that’s a highly visible landmark for those traveling down Embarcadero Road. Also at the Palo Alto Art Center is the equally grand in scale, but less permanent, sculpture by Patrick Dougherty. Constructed in January 2011 with the help of local volunteer artists, the work bends and twists saplings into a curious structure that evokes a magical row of houses. The sculpture still stands strong today, albeit with vines sprouting from its north end.
On your way back to Mountain View, a shortcut through Mitchell Park will bring you past two bold art pieces that are surprisingly located in a park more oriented toward more active recreation. Now that I discovered the mighty woman of “Push” I make a special loop through for a quick art fix that makes me smile every time.