By Jay Thorwaldson
Two creative lights depart Palo Alto, leaving diverse legaciesUploaded: Sep 25, 2014
Palo Alto lost two creative lights this month with the passing of longtime developer/poet Ryland Kelley and widely known muralist Greg Brown.
While vastly different as individuals and of different generations, both shared a spark of innovative approaches to life and their community -- occasionally reaching far beyond the confines of Palo Alto itself. (See obits in the Sept. 5 Palo Alto Weekly.)
Kelley stretched his creative visions as far south as Monterey Bay with the rustic beachfront development of Pajaro Dunes.
He was visionary about the future of Palo Alto, but (as I once commented to him) his large-scale developmental visions were some other people's nightmares. And his active-developer life was something of a drama, beset by regular financial crises.
Yet after his retirement he moved vigorously into poetry, once asking his wife, Shirley, to "stop me before I rhyme again." His love of his community shines through his verse, and his cable talk show reflected a love of words and imagery that marked centuries of Irish cultural forebears.
Greg Brown in the 1970s took a simpler approach to express his creativeness: a series of murals on walls around downtown Palo Alto that often featured oddball characters -- including little green space aliens, one in a wrecked flying saucer and another about to be dumped into a garbage bin. He achieved regional and some national recognition for a poster showing a collection of anthropomorphized vegetables sitting around a pot in hot-tub fashion, entitled "Vegetables Marin."
Locally, he stirred up a dab of controversy with a painting of a small, disreputable-looking man on a wall along Waverley Street just north of University Avenue. The man, in a raincoat, featured a bird nesting in his crumpled hat.
One evening at semi-dark dusk, the late Fred Eyerly, then on the City Council, walked from his hardware store a block south to buy a paper from a news rack facing the man. When Eyerly turned around with the paper he received a bad startle from the life-size mural.
At the next council meeting he proposed that the mural be removed as a public hazard. Other council members teased him out of the idea, however. Little known is that the mural strongly resembles a one-time downtown "character," known to police as "Flashlight Louie" due to his nighttime habit of jumping out from behind a building and shining a flashlight at patrolling officers. "Don't shoot Louie!" became part of officer training.
Brown's portraits of real people is another lesser-known feature. A pair of lean burglars descending from the roof of the former Wideman's clothing store were portraits of Brown and his wife, Julie, both wearing tiny burglar eye masks. An older woman watering plants, with a bird sitting blithely on the end of her hose, was Brown's mother. Spiro Agnew pushing a baby carriage is better known.
He did some private, commissioned works, not on public display. One was a wall mural for the board room of the former Bank of America headquarters in San Francisco. It was a beautifully detailed forest of trees and foliage. But a close look showed elves sitting on large red-and-white amanita muscaria mushrooms on the forest floor -- along with aluminum pop-tops, gum wrappers and other subtle detritus of mankind.
A private commission (for an airline pilot) showed a man dressed in a Hogan's Heroes-type leather bomber jacket and jaunty flight cap, looking at his watch. A close look shows the man floating inches above the ground, with a shadow and caption: "A truly great pilot never truly lands." It was painted on a folding wooden screen for portability.
The murals and his friendly good humor are among his lasting memorials.
Kelley's memorials (in addition to his poetry) are more solid, and include the Palo Alto Office Center at 525 University Avenue, Pajaro Dunes, and even the preserved Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto.
He will be remembered also for his concepts about things that never materialized, such as he was explaining when I first met him circa 1966 as a reporter for the Palo Alto Times. He had called a meeting of Chamber of Commerce and city officials atop the then-new 525 University building, on the patio of the rooftop restaurant. With downtown Palo Alto spread out behind him and a large easel with a map, he outlined his vision of high-rise office buildings along University and parts of Hamilton Avenue, with ground-floor retail, and high-rise residential buildings along parallel Lytton Avenue and parts of Hamilton.
This concept was lost in the local political turmoil that preoccupied the following decade, with "human scale" and slow growth advocates asserting strong braking influence.
Ironically, the recent high-rise mixed-use proposal for 27 University by John Arrillaga, a longtime friend of Kelley's, was a distant echo of Kelley's vision of nearly a half century ago. It received a strikingly similar community response.
Over the years, Kelley and I had a strong yet sometimes volatile relationship. When I got word that he was selling 525 University to El Dorado Insurance Co. he loudly informed me over the phone (to the point I held it about a foot away from my ear) that it was a private transaction and nobody's business. I replied with some vigor that when someone builds a tall building visible for 50 miles around the bay there's some public interest (and right to know) who owns it.
Yet when I retired from the Times in 1979 I got a call from Kelley asking me to staff a nonprofit foundation to preserve the 1920s-era Stanford Theater -- to keep it from being demolished or converted to shops and offices. For 18 months we studied how to restore it and make it a multi-faceted performing arts center, until Dave Packard Jr. took it on to make it a great classic-film venue, while Kelley delved more deeply into poetry.
In their own ways, and on different scales, Brown and Kelley each left legacies that have enriched their community and lives of its residents.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] and/or [email protected]