The Color of Palo Alto 2001

April 16, 2013



 by Samuel Yates

Mixed media
26 sq. mi. × 365 days 


Public art project to ascertain the city’s representative hue


Excerpt from Paolo Alto Weekly by Bill D’Agostino

And now for a question you probably never thought you’d be asked: What color is Palo Alto?

It may seem like an unanswerable Zen-like puzzle — akin to pondering the sound of one hand clapping — but conceptual artist Samuel Yates is going to discover the answer. And to do so, he plans to utilize every plot of land in the city — including your home.

Starting sometime in the next few weeks, Yates will be photographing each of Palo Alto’s homes and businesses and parkland parcels with a digital camera — a task he estimates will take him six months of 10-hour workdays.

Using the 20,000-plus digital photographs, Yates will then mix the average color of each parcel in a computer, and place that color on a map on the project’s Web site. That computer will be housed inside a solar-paneled garage parked in the city’s Civic Center plaza, where visitors can watch Yates at work.

All of the colors for all of the plots of land will then be averaged to create — drum roll, please — the color that represents all of Palo Alto.

The process will be democratic, according to Yates.

“Every parcel, big or small, gets a single vote,” he said.

The ambitious public art project — which has more prospective dimensions than a Rubik’s Cube has squares — doesn’t end there.

If all goes as planned, the color will be turned into an exterior paint, which will be sold at local hardware stores. Residents could also theoretically purchase the paint with the average color of their home, or of their neighborhood.

Eventually, Yates would like to cover City Hall — using a translucent plastic material known as “bus wrap” — with all the photographs he will shoot.

“City Hall represents the entire city, and the entire city will be represented on City Hall,” Yates said.

Although Yates’ project might seem more abstract than functional on the surface, some of the research could be used to aid city organizations and departments.

The historical association could keep all of the photographs as a record of Palo Alto in 2004. A DVD showing all the homes could be sent to Palo Alto’s sister cities around the world. The shots could be used to help catalogue the city’s signs and trees. And the images of the buildings could also be entered into the electronic maps police officers and firefighters use to traverse the city.

When an officer or firefighter is called to a home, they could theoretically pull up what the home looks like before going to apprehend the criminal or battle the fire, Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva said.

“That could help us find a building that would be difficult to find,” he said.

It’s a fairly ambitious venture for the 29-year-old artist, who is dedicating more than two years of his life to the project. Total cost to the city? $10,000, in the form of a public art grant.

A fundraiser will be organized to complete the grand project. The first 600 cans of the “Color of Palo Alto” paint will be numbered and signed by the artist — and available for $100 each.

Grijalva recommended that the artist auction off the first few numbered cans, rather than simply selling them for a flat fee.

“I would like paint can number one,” he said. “Palo Alto already has a worldwide reputation; I think this will help it even more.”

A major component of the project is its Web site — — still under construction. Yates hopes people who use the color to paint something will send him a photo of the painted object. The Web site would then display the image. Somewhat jokingly, Yates is billing it as the “world’s largest painting.”

After the project is finished in Palo Alto, parts of it — including the garage — will move to a gallery in New York.

The project will also reflect another one of Palo Alto’s true “colors” — its green, eco-friendly nature.

The solar-powered garage that houses the display will get additional power from the Palo Alto Green program, which secures all of its energy from renewable sources. The artist will ride on a battery-powered scooter while shooting the photographs. And the garage door for the kiosk will be recycled from a demolished home on Melville Avenue.

And Yates himself will only be eating organic food. The Web site will list all of the resources saved by his conservation.

“That (environmental) angle would not have not emerged or been appropriate in another town,” Yates said.

But Yates hasn’t hopped on his eco-friendly scooter yet. He is in the process of getting final approval for the garage, and hopes to start shooting the photographs in a few weeks. He will also eventually need a permit to cover City Hall with the photographs.

The garage, an attempt to reflect Palo Alto’s role in birthing Silicon Valley, is inspired by the famous Addison Avenue garage where Bill Hewlett and David Packard started Hewlett Packard, and all of the computer gear Yates is using comes from Hewlett Packard.

Much of that equipment — as well as the garage’s 24 solar panels — has been donated from companies and acquaintances.

Yates, a New York-based artist, relocated to Palo Alto a year and a half ago, responding to a city-solicited request for public-art proposals. For the first six months, he lived in his car, eating nothing but canned food. He currently lives in a room donated to him by a local family. To pay for his food, Yates works in a photo lab on the weekends.

“My investment is really profound,” said Yates, a Berkeley graduate with a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University.

The Sacramento native has some experience with world records, having created the Guinness-endorsed world’s largest filing cabinet in 2000. For that project, known as “Minuet in MG,” Yates shredded an MG sports car, flattened and measured all the pieces, and then placed them, from heaviest to smallest, inside the drawers of a 65 foot-tall filing cabinet.

“Because the budget is so tiny, I’ve had to nickel-and-dime every single tiny facet of this project to make it work,” he said.

Due to the public attention the photographs will be given, Yates wants to avoid any potential controversy. To preemptively appease any anxiety homeowners may have about their house being photographed for public art, he is considering not placing all of the photographs on the Web, as once planned.

“It is my intent, and it is in my interest, to make it as trouble-free and as carefree as possible,” Yates said.


Bill D’Agostino can be e-mailed at

To purchase a signed and numbered paint can from the “Color of Palo Alto,” send an e-mail to


The Great Palo Alto Art Experiment”

–San Jose Mercury News

Best Art Project in the Bay Area
–San Francisco Magazine

Nice Modernist

(Humanitarian Award)
–Dwell Magazine


New York Times