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The stories behind the trees

Photographer Angela Buenning Filo, the mind behind The Palo Alto Forest project, stands in front of a tree near the quad at Palo Alto High School. Accord to Filo, the community-engaging project will be exhibited at the Palo Alto Art Center around October 2012. “It’s a simple way to stop and pay tribute to a piece of our landscape or a part of our community,” Filo said.
– Hae-Lin Cho
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this story featured a misspelling of the photographer, Angela Buenning Filo, as Angela Buennings Filo. The current story is now updated to reflect the change.

Is there a tree that is meaningful to you in Palo Alto?

From the Christmas evergreen masterpieces to the bare, naked branches of the deciduous trees, to the oak trees infested with caterpillars or the fragrant eucalyptus right on Palo Alto High School campus, everyone’s interacted with a tree in some way. Trees offer shade, shelter, a refreshing return to nature or maybe something more.

That is the basis local photographer Angela Buenning Filo used to start The Palo Alto Forest project when the Palo Alto Art Center approached her with an exhibit offer for Community Creates, its post-renovation special opening next. By asking people to think about a special tree, Filo hopes to bring the community together.

“The concept behind the work is that, you know, we all have relationships with trees, but they might not be relationships we really think about,” Filo said. “We might pass by trees on our walks or have them in our yard or at a park we go to or even at our school campus, but do we stop and really reflect on that? And so the idea behind the project is to ask people, ‘Is there a tree that is meaningful to you in Palo Alto?’”

A Community Project

The Palo Alto Forest essentially asks community members to take snapshots of their favorite tree and submit them with six-word captions detailing the “story” behind the trees. Filo emphasizes that although some people think it is a contest, it is actually an exhibit. According to Filo, all the photographs and words will be integrated into the final exhibit that she will build over the summer. What she decides to make with the final exhibit depends on how many submissions she receives. People have until June 15 to submit a picture.

According to Karen Kienzle, director of the Palo Alto Art Center and Community Creates, Filo’s project is one of eight different exhibits, all integrating community, going into the new Art Center after it opens.

“Our building was constructed as the City Hall building for Palo Alto, and when City Hall moved downtown, it was the community who lobbied to make our facility an art center,” Kienzle said. “We started thinking about how we might link back to that founding history in an exhibition that celebrates the importance of art in our community, and the community’s role in the Art Center.”

Although The Palo Alto Forest is going to be exhibited in the Art Center, the idea sprang from Filo’s past photography project, 1737 Trees. This project featured pictures of the 1737 trees in one of the last orchards in Silicon Valley.

By trying to integrate the same idea behind 1737 trees into her new exhibit, Filo came up with The Palo Alto Forest.

“The Palo Alto Art Center is obviously very concerned with Palo Alto but I had trees on my mind and you know, trees are very relevant to this community,” Filo said.

Everyone Has a Special Tree

From photographers to tree-lovers, adults to youth, Filo hopes to involve the entire community in the making of her project. She looks forward to more entries, although she’s had about 45 so far that appear on the project’s website.

Filo stresses that The Palo Alto Forest isn’t just for community photographers but for anyone who wants to get involved.

“It’s really not about being an awesome photographer,” she said, pointing out that people could just use cell phones or simple cameras. “It’s really about more the act of taking the time to choose a tree and reflect on it.”

According to Filo, part of the reason she chose trees for her project was to reach out to a wide span of people who could relate.

“I wanted to choose a topic that I would have the best chance of engaging people of a variety of ages and backgrounds,” Filo said. “It seemed like trees were going to be an interesting entry point for doing that.”

Filo hopes that the youth in the community will also take part in her project. Part of her desire to involve youth stems from having worked with high school students at Eastside College Preparatory School teaching journalism and photography.

Already, several Paly students from the photography classes have participated in the project, including freshman Haley Fang.


Fang submitted a picture with the caption “sunlight trapped under a roof of leaves” after hearing about the project in photography class.

“I thought this project was really cool because you can see how everyone interprets it differently,” Fang said. “After looking through the submissions on the website, you can see that some people send in pictures of beautiful trees while others send in pictures of leafless trees that look like they’re dying.”

“I guess the main point is that everyone who submitted to this was able to convey a different feeling by taking pictures from different angles, so even if two people decide to pick the same tree, the result would be two completely different pictures that convey two completely different emotions,” Fang added.

What Can Trees Do For You?

Filo acknowledges the power of trees and this project’s link to the ecological and environmental problems like global warming.

However, Filo hopes that this project will also impact the individuals of the Palo Alto community: both those who participate and those who don’t. She said that she hopes people will enjoy the photographs that may help them view the community differently or be a part of “something bigger than themselves.” She also hopes that those who didn’t participate in the project will be impacted by the six-word captions submitted by participants.

“I think that’s going to hopefully have a lot of tiny impacts that might add up to something bigger,” Filo said.

Kienzle, on behalf of the Palo Alto Art Center, is excited for The Palo Alto Forest project and the other exhibits in Community Creates.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to play a role in the creation of exhibitions in our new space,” she said.

The Last Branch

Whether it’s the tree in your backyard, the flowery gem or the orange and red fall trees, most people can think of a tree, or at least point one out. This connection between a person and a tree, Filo hopes, is enough to encourage people to participate in her project.

However, she has words for those wondering why they should participate in the Palo Alto Forest project:

“It’s a simple way to stop and pay tribute to a piece of our landscape or a part of our community … and to share a bit of yourself and what’s meaningful to you about a tree with the broader community and also to become part of a larger artwork that will be viewed by hopefully many,” Filo said. “I think to the extent that the idea that an individual action gathered together with others adds up to bigger action is kind of the basis behind it.”

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Hae-Lin Cho, Author

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