Bears have made Downtown Los Altos their home — meet the artists who made it happen
September 20, 2021
For the first time in over a century, grizzly bears have once again been sighted in California — this time, prowling the streets of Downtown Los Altos as part of a new public art show. Whether sporting sunglasses or hard hats, saxophones or fruit bowls, the 54 fiberglass bears, courtesy of the Los Altos Rotary Club, have become an object of local pride.
The hand-painted bears each feature their own individual theme complete with custom accessories. After months of work on behalf of Rotarians, sponsors and local artists, they’ve been set free to roam the city.
Every year, Rotarians organize projects to raise donations for local charities, scholarship funds, wildfire victims and more. However, due to weather in 2019 and pandemic concerns in 2020, funds were greatly depleted.
“We didn’t know if we would be able to have an art show where people could gather,” Los Altos Rotary Club Member Carol Dabb said. “I came up with the idea of the Los Altos bears because in the event that we couldn’t congregate, a bear could be placed here and there without crowding.”
Dabb planned out the project in homage to CowParade, a public art event featuring painted resin and ceramic cows exhibited across Chicago. The significance of the bears is two-fold: Not only are they the California state animal, but they can also be decorated to have “fanciful, funny and beautiful” human-like qualities.
“I chose to celebrate coming out of our own pandemic hibernation,” Dabb said. “Our goal was to bring joy and happiness back into our community, and people have just been thrilled with the bears. It’s a very happy thing.”
The bears can be found in a variety of shapes and sizes, from 20-inch sitting bears all the way up to 8-foot community bears. Unique themes were decided by sponsors, who then worked with local artists to achieve a distinct style and feel.
In addition to contacting professionals, Dabb opened the door for student involvement, and Los Altos students ended up painting many of the bears.
“The high school has such talent,” Dabb said. “The students that participated were truly talented youngsters, and so willing to give. We also invited various groups of high school-age kids, but Los Altos has had the most — and the best — participants.”
The project had no shortage of naysayers in its infancy. People believed that the project would fail to turn a profit, or that the bears would be vandalized. But after the roaring success of the fundraiser, with all bears successfully securing bids, most naysayers have changed their tune.
“It’s very gratifying to have so many people say that they’re enjoying the bears — and it’s been very gratifying for people who told me at the beginning that it was a stupid idea, now telling me they were wrong,” Dabb said.
On Saturday, October 9, the bears will be sold at a live virtual auction aptly named “The Hibernation is Over Party.” Once winning bidders take ownership of the bears, it’ll be up to them to decide where the bears go. But whether they’re stalking downtown storefronts or sunbathing in backyards, they’ll always be remembered as a delight.
“Many people don’t understand the joy that art can bring,” Dabb said. “It was a different story once the bears came out on the streets. They ask me, ‘Will you do it again next year, Carol?’”
When Los Altos senior Alessia Cis joined the National Art Honor Society last year, she certainly didn’t envision herself meticulously painting a toga on a fiberglass bear six months later. But when Rotarians reached out to the club with the opportunity, she knew her experience as an AP Latin student would lend itself perfectly to the Roman Bear.
Alessia enjoys giving back to the community through art, an interest stemming from childhood arts festivals where she frequented do-it-yourself ceramic booths. But this was her first time taking the hobby in a professional direction.
The 20-inch bear was commissioned as a birthday gift for the sponsor’s daughter. Sporting a toga, a laurel wreath and sandals, the Roman Bear took about three weeks to complete. The toga is embellished with various depictions of Roman architecture like the Colosseum and the Pantheon, along with a statue of Juno painted right on the back.
“The Juno statue is a family heirloom,” Alessia said. “Someone in her family found it at an archaeology dig, and it’s been in the family ever since. The sponsor was planning on putting it on the bear to give it to her daughter, to pass it onto the next generation — I’m sure she’ll really like it.”
The whimsical task of combining animals and architecture forced Alessia out of her comfort zone. Faced with two unfamiliar fields, she relied on research and experimentation to guide her efforts, and is proud of her bear.
“The fur was certainly a part that was tedious, but it also certainly paid off,” Alessia said. “The bear took a lot of hours; it felt like it would never end. So once you finally see it all coming together, it’s really satisfying.”
The Roman Bear can be found perched outside of Lisa’s Tea Treasures, proudly surveying its empire.
Yash Nasikkar is another Los Altos senior who has lit up the town with his project, a take on the beloved Smokey the Bear. His work is currently sitting at a bid of $10,000, attracting the highest bid of any bear in its size.
When contacted by sponsors through NAHS to work on a Smokey-inspired bear, the aspiring graphic designer took a stroll through Downtown Los Altos for inspiration.
“I noticed that a lot of the bears were realistic,” Yash said. “I wanted to do something different, something more graphical.”
Yash’s Smokey the Bear is a 5-foot-2 representation of the figure with his own artistic touch — instead of the typical dark brown coat, Yash’s rendition has striking red-and-orange fur fashioned into flames. His literal take on the fire-fighting bear is a stand-out addition with no shortage of attention.
“There have been hundreds of Smokey the Bears that look the same over the past 70 years and I wanted to add my own flair to it,” Yash said. “I broke away from tradition and designed something with a twist.”
Despite a fresh coat of paint, Smokey’s signature accessories — his trademark hat, jeans and shovel — make his likeness undeniable. Yash cut up old jeans to give Smokey real denim cuffs and pockets, adding a textural component to the design.
The bear took over 60 hours to complete. Afterward, he also worked with the Rotarians to design an interactive map displaying the locations and descriptions of all the bears.
“Graphic design is in my opinion, a lot more fun to look at than traditional art,” Yash said. “Realism can always be done with a photo — design is a very powerful and complex way to convey a purpose.”
Just as Smokey would have wanted, Yash will be donating 10 percent of his proceeds to California wildfire relief. He is also creating a poster based on his design to spread fire awareness, with QR codes to websites accepting donations.
Find Smokey the Bear outside the UPS store, keeping a watchful eye on Los Altos residents.