Large, exotic-looking masks made from painted and pieced-together palm fronds have been popping up on street poles in North Park, Hillcrest and East Village. The "BOBHA Masks" are the creation of artist Pennie Vollet, a transplant from San Francisco.
"I never, ever put my work up on private property—always public," Vollet says, sitting at a North Park café with his wife and artistic collaborator, Budska Vollet. "Coming from San Francisco, there's a lot of public art, so that's what I'm doing. I want to try to get people interested in public artwork and taking over public space."
Vollet and his wife used to live close to San Francisco's famed Clarion Alley, a narrow street in the Mission District filled with graffiti-style murals that've become so popular, tourists and locals alike frequent the spot. He cites the alleyway as one of his main inspirations for his BOBHA Masks Project, which seeks to motivate others to use recycled materials in their art and increase the amount of artwork in public spaces.
He also has a personal connection to the masks; making them has served as an ongoing art-therapy session that's helped cure his grief. He recently lost a close friend, and he found that connecting with organic materials like palm fronds simply made him feel better.
Vollet scouts his desired locations for the masks using Google street views, looking for alleyways with ample foot traffic. Once he finds a spot, he drives out and, in broad daylight, mounts the masks on street and electric poles. He always attaches a stack of fliers with information about the project and his email address, offering strangers a free workshop on how to make the masks (his email is firstname.lastname@example.org).
After leaving the North Park café, Vollet makes his way to his car, opens the trunk and pulls out a finished BOBHA Mask and a dried palm frond.
"Each mask takes about three of these," he says, holding up the dried leaf. "I paint each one up, and sometimes I'll add clay noses."
He hops in his car and heads to a Hillcrest alley just off the intersection of University and Fifth avenues—he's had his eye on the spot for a while. Once there, he jumps out, grabs the mask and quickly hangs it on an electric pole. Passersby barely notice.
"I'd really like to take away the [stigma] about street art being defacement, because it doesn't have to be vandalism," Vollet says. "See that?" he asks, pointing to a scribbly tag written across a street sign. "That's vandalism. I'm not doing that. I put these up so hopefully someone will take them down and put them in their room."
Vollet and his wife are musicians—they play under the name Magnathea—and they both believe in the importance of public art so much that they'd rather busk in Balboa Park than book shows in clubs.
"Public space means public space," Vollet says. "Anyone can grab easels, go to a park and show their artwork. Not everyone's trying to sell art; we're just artistic, and want to share our work with the world."