Palo Alto to unveil huge 'light sculpture' Saturday | November 15, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 15, 2013

Palo Alto to unveil huge 'light sculpture' Saturday

Funding outlook is murky for 35-foot-tall, LED-laden tree sculpture

by Elena Kadvany

A two-year grassroots effort led by a Palo Alto father and his two young children to bring a 35-foot-tall interactive light sculpture to the city will come to fruition this weekend when it is unveiled in City Hall's King Plaza on Saturday, Nov. 16.

The sculpture, called Aurora, is an enormous metal tree adorned with 4,200 handmade copper leaves that hang from 200 branches, all lit by 40,000 LED lights. Anyone with a web-enabled device, tablet or smartphone can log into a website that allows them to interact with the tree, controlling it via sliders that regulate elements such as color, brightness, sparkle and pulse.

The tree was originally designed for Burning Man, the annual art and music festival held in Nevada, by San Francisco artist Charles Gadeken. It will reside in King Plaza for a year.

Though in a sense the project, which started as two elementary children gathering petition signatures from their classmates, is approaching the finish line with this weekend's unveiling, it's still tens of thousands of dollars short of the total funds needed.

"This is entirely grassroots funded," said Harry Hirschman, whose children Sam, 11, and Julia, 9, decided they wanted to bring Aurora to Palo Alto two years ago after seeing pictures of the sculpture their father took at Burning Man in 2011. "Nickels and dimes in a jar; (the kids have) collected money on the street; they've gone into board meetings for art foundations."

The project has raised only approximately $35,000 of a total $100,000 needed to cover installation costs and extensive redesign of the sculpture.

"A lot of people keep saying, 'Why do you need money if it's already made?'" Gadeken said. "One, there's a big difference between putting something on sidewalk for a year and staging it for a two-day festival. So trying to make things that are weatherproof and publicly safe has just been very expensive."

Other costs have arisen, including buying all new light bulbs, replacing all the electronic connectors with waterproof ones, redesigning the software that allows onlookers to interact with the tree, and renting a crane and other items necessary for installation of the piece, which is taking place this week.

"It adds up really fast," Gadeken said. He has personally shouldered much of Aurora's financial burden, putting in $15,000 to install the piece, he said.

"Essentially, the artist is going into debt to finish the installation on schedule and to deliver everything that was envisioned," Hirschman said.

Though the City of Palo Alto expects that public art placed temporarily on city property be independently funded, the Public Art Commission occasionally decides to back a project, which it did with Aurora.

Commissioner Trish Collins, whose two children also eventually became involved with Aurora, said the commission got on board despite initial reservations because it was a community-driven project.

The commission approved the project last December, allocating $1,200 to pay for permit and insurance costs. It was expected that any remaining funds would be raised by Hirschman and Gadeken.

"The Commission approved the installation so that they could move forward with fundraising, and offered to offset the permit and insurance costs," Elise DeMarzo, public art manager for the city, wrote in an email. "Mr. Hirshman and Mr. Gadeken have decided to move forward with the installation before the completion of their fundraising — which is highly unusual."

The project recently launched a last-stretch Kickstarter campaign, aiming to raise another $35,000 by Tuesday, Nov. 26.

As of Thursday, with 11 days to go, the campaign has raised $13,178 from 145 backers. But because of the way the crowdsourced fundraising website works, if the project doesn't raise the full amount, it does not get any of the funds.

Beyond the Kickstarter campaign, the project will have to rely on private contributions.

If Aurora doesn't manage to raise the remaining funds, Gadeken is on the hook. He acknowledged that moving forward with the installation is a gamble, but said that "I do feel we'll be able to get that money back."

Collins said the city has enough funds in reserve for dismantling Aurora.

Sam, Julia and the other Palo Alto children who got on board with Aurora have become old hands at pitching their project to local companies and art foundations to bring in private funding. They also hosted a Maker Faire in May to raise money, during which participants created more than 200 copper leaves that will hang from the tree.

The Aurora children will also be at King Plaza this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after school, hosting leaf-making workshops.

"People can give $20 and make a leaf themselves, stamp their initials on it and we'll get it on the tree," Hirschman said. These people's names will also be listed on the Aurora website,

"It was presented to the art commission that it's going to be community driven," Collins said. "It's just going to take a lot of community members to donate what they feel comfortable donating and once they see it's a community-driven project, they'll want to be a part of the community and project."

Aurora — as a sustainable, interactive public art project brought to Palo Alto by a group of children — "fits really well with the city's overall goals and objectives," Hirschman said.

Though at first glance, a life-size metal tree lit by 40,000 light bulbs, running for 365 days straight might seem wasteful, the efficient LED bulbs will use less than half the energy of a typical house, Hirschman said.

At Saturday's event, the Palo Alto Utilities Department will be launching its LED rebate program. City residents should receive a coupon in the mail this week, which they can redeem on Saturday to get LED bulbs at a net cost 50 percent less than retail. After the Aurora event, residents can go to one of three participating retail stores to get their bulbs (while supplies last).

Aurora's installation also prompted the city to conserve water in King Plaza, replacing non-native plants in the planter where Aurora will stand with native grasses and a more water-efficient drip irrigation system.

The city also stepped in to enable interaction with the tree, outfitting King Plaza with wireless Internet access. The software driving this interactivity is open source, and Hirschman said he hopes to plan future hackathons during which local techies — or children — can redesign or add to the software.

"It's accessibility as well as interactivity," Hirschman said. "Make it so anybody with a finger and web access can be an artist, can draw (in) light and use Aurora as the canvas. Anybody that can program, you can be an artist too."

This aspect not only aligns with Palo Alto as the "cradle" of technology, but also the city's commitment to youth well-being, Hirschman said.

"They're walking the walk when they say they're interested in the youth in the community having a voice. And then when that voice walks up to them and says we'd like to do something ... they find a way to do it."

Hirschman said the project helped the kids involved become more confident and comfortable speaking to adults.

"I learned how to speak in front of people and how to be confident in myself," said Julia, who was 7 years old when the project first started.

Gadeken, who originally designed the sculpture with his 3-year-old daughter in mind ("the ultimate fairy tree," as he described it), said he's enjoyed working with the kids, teaching them how to work with metal to create the copper leaves that hang from the tree.

Sam Hirschman and friend Henry Gish, 12, said the part they most enjoyed was working in Gadeken's workshop.

"It's super empowering for these kids to take this from, 'I want to do something,' to 'look it's actually happening.'" Gadeken said.

The Nov. 16 event will begin at 3 p.m. at 250 Hamilton Ave., and the tree will be lit for the general public at approximately 5:30 p.m.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at


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