Bird-Loving Artist David Tomb on his Recent Palo Alto Residency and Exhibition

During a recent visit to Palo Alto, I was able to visit artist David Tomb, who was nearing the end of a residency at the Palo Alto Art Center. His installation-in-progress, which uses art and multi-media elements to involve visitors with local marsh birds and their habit, was engaging and full of delightful elements and details. David has a lifelong interest in birds, and also a significant commitment to the conservation of species and habitats that is reflected in his work.

I interviewed David after he completed the installation to ask him more about how the project had evolved, and what it has accomplished.

John Seed Interviews David Tomb

David Tomb

David, how are you feeling now that your residency is winding down? 

Well, I have never done a residency before but I have to say, this one seems to be different than most. In the past I have always worked in the studio and I like my studio in San Francisco very much. Early on in this residency I decided I had the option to make a full commitment to the residency, as I wanted to show visitors an "actual studio," not just a gallery. So I moved much of my studio to Palo Alto to feel comfortable. I brought a lot of art books, my infamous rocking chair, one big work table, way too much in terms of art supplies, rolls of paper, and some stacks of cardboard. I also brought some previous work to add a bit of background. It took about 3 1/2 days of trips in my fully-loaded Honda Element...

A Studio Corner

Once you got fully set up, how did you feel? 

Well, it helped that the staff here helped to make me comfortable. Honestly, I was fine right away with people stopping by. When asked "Is it weird for you, working in a glass fishbowl?" I have replied: "I'm a birdwatcher, but I like to look at people too."

Installation View

What kinds of visitors did you have? 

During a two-week period I had something like 200 kindergartners on class tours. I've had grade school kids too, including an 11 year old who asked me "Do you live here?" Lots of adults and return customers too who wanted to see how things were developing. People enjoyed viewing and also commenting on my progress. They loved seeing the artwork start from a few pinned up drawings to seeing the studio fill up and be transformed.

David Tomb leads a local marsh tour

Do you feel like your work and installation has been making an impact? 

Through the work and through various events and talks, I have tried to advocate for birds and bird conservation. I have led ten public events including five boardwalks at the nearby Marsh in January. I should mention that the theme of this residency Creative Ecology and I am the second of 4 artists in a series sponsored by the Junior Museum and Zoo. My personal topic has been the birds and marshes of Northern California.

The completed installation on opening night

What do people experience when they walk in? 

Well, when anyone walks in, they experience what is essentially a walk-in natural diorama of a marsh habitat. I think of it as "2 1/2D" as it isn't quite 3D. To make the habitat, I went full out and made corrugated cardboard mudflats. One reason I think kids can relate to this show is that I keep my art strategies on a third grade level: there is a lot of cutting out of shapes and use of hot glue guns. This is a total and complete environment: there is even sound in the form of a sound-loop of shorebirds. I have one tiny kinetic bird that is attached to a battery-operated locomotive that moves through the marsh reeds. It is barely visible, but it is there...

The kinetic shorebird on its railroad

Has the residency changed your work? 

I would say that my work itself has expanded. The interactions are so important and I have had so many great conversations with so many people. A lot have people have loved being in a full blown studio and several have said "It is magical being in this room." One interesting thing is that the installation has gotten people connected with the real marsh and birds. Through this project, many people have had both their first experience of being in an artist's studio and their first visit to a nature preserve.

Installation Detail

Is there anything else that people really responded to?

Yes: people love my rocking chair...

David with his rocking chair

Continuing Exhibition:

King Tides and Elusive Rails, featuring the artwork created by Tomb during his in-the-gallery residency, will be on display at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94303, from April 26 through July 3, 2016.

Tomb will also be presenting a free public lecture June 9, 7 p.m., at the Art Center.