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Pop Goes the Painter as Palo Alto Is Invaded by Some Weird 'Pedestrians'

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On Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif., a sport-coated astronaut in space helmet interviews a tiny green Martian. Passersby seem unruffled. Over on University Avenue, two cat burglars climb down from the roof of a men’s clothing store with their loot, but no one calls the police.

For the residents of affluent Palo Alto, the bizarre figures are part of the scenery—and only acrylic. Each is the whimsical work of artist Greg Brown, 25. Originally hired for one year by the city under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, Brown was assigned to scout locations for public sculpture and other art. “But I wanted to keep my hand in paint,” he explains. Brown convinced one downtown drugstore owner to let him create his first “pedestrian” (as they are called). It was a Bogart look-alike in a trench coat—perhaps a little menacing except for the bird building a nest on his hat.

“Immediately there was flak,” Brown recalls. “A city councilman went to buy a paper and was frightened by the figure, so I quickly did another less sinister one—a man pushing his cat in a stroller.” Soon other merchants were asking Brown to paint his pedestrians on their storefronts. He came up with the Martian, a nun flying a toy airplane, a boy fishing out a window—”just fun critters out of my brain,” says the artist. He even cast himself and his blond wife Julie as the cat burglars. Brown’s brother-in-law wound up as a garbage collector. “But I had to cut out painting relatives. They all started hollering, ‘When are you going to make me immortal?’ ”

Although Brown took up painting at 10, his only formal training was a year with Palo Alto artist Roberto Lupetti—”He does nudes and rabbis, and he taught me a lot about color.” That was followed by a year “painting my brains out” in London.

This month Brown completes his assignment. He says what pleases him most is the possessive attitude Palo Alto citizens take toward his work. There has been no vandalism, with the exception of the man pushing his cat. “Some people think he looks like Spiro Agnew,” Brown says, “and they throw tomatoes at him.”