Art for the public eye | August 7, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - August 7, 2019

Art for the public eye

Portola Valley sculptor visualizes the big picture

by Rick Radin

Portola Valley sculptor Roger White Stoller decided in the 1990s that he wanted to leave his career in industrial design and become a sculptor full-time, working with bronze, steel, stone and other materials to create "a most intimate connection with nature and myself."

Stoller takes the shapes he finds in nature to create works that connect with viewers' imaginations, often because of the attention they attract due to their size and the familiarity of shape.

"When you go to a museum, you expect to be challenged by the art," Stoller says.

"I make things more accessible."

About 80% of his sculptures are sponsored by "percent for art" programs, in which cities require developers to set aside 0.5% to 2% of the total cost of a construction project for an art component, said Stoller, who works out of his home and builds the sculptures with his team at his studio in San Jose.

Stoller competes for projects by creating a proposal that includes something about the uses of the building and the history of the area where it is located, he said in an interview with The Almanac.

"I work with cities mostly to discover what the story of the art should be, and then I create a visual story to say something important about the situation," he said. "I come to a conclusion using what the art committee feels should be incorporated and get clear in an agreement about what I am going to do."

The competition is fierce, with as many as 200 to 300 artists responding to calls for contracts from clients locally, nationally and internationally.

Stoller's practice of "studio art" where he creates whatever suits his fancy feeds into the development of public and private work for clients.

"Private commissions usually come by work of mouth," he said.

Stoller's early inspiration came from Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, who revolutionized a lot of thinking about architecture, energy and the Earth in the 20th century.

He grew up in Pacific Palisades and was a friend of Fuller's grandchildren. That connection led him to become Fuller's personal assistant when Stoller was in his early 20s.

Stoller made a connection with Fuller's friend, Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who also influenced his work.

"I grew up with Bucky's grandchildren and knew him as a second grandfather," Stoller said. "Fuller shared an office with Noguchi across the river from Manhattan, where I was able to encounter Noguchi's brilliance."

Stoller said Noguchi's work has "a very Zen aesthetic." He was once described by the New York Times as "a versatile and prolific sculptor whose earthy stones and meditative gardens bridging East and West have become landmarks of 20th-century art."

Stoller moved to the Bay Area in 1981 to pursue his industrial design career.

"I read 'The Third Wave' (by Alvin Toffler) when I was in design school, which led me to Silicon Valley as the place where things were going to be happening," Stoller said.

He founded two industrial design companies, Stoller Design and Praxis Design Associates, and created designs for computers and other products before deciding to pursue his interest in art.

Stoller said he did some soul-searching and career testing that supported his decision before making the switch.

"I just got to the point in my career where I didn't feel I could continue in the same direction, a kind of mid-life crisis," he said. "The end result of mass producing objects was growing landfills, which rubbed me the wrong way."

But his experience in designing everyday products did provide a good background for sculptures, Stoller said.

On his website,, Stoller describes "the discipline requiring the blending of the sculptural, functional and human qualities of the everyday things people use proved to be a rich background from which to approach sculpture as fine art."

Among his local pieces is "Tetrahelix" that is outside Google's main offices in Mountain View. The sculpture resembles a giant DNA sequence and is mounted on a 10-ton block of granite quarried in India.

It was originally commissioned by ALZA, a biotech firm that was absorbed by Johnson & Johnson in 2001 and moved out in 2007, allowing Google to take over the building.

Another piece, a half-indoor, half-outdoor sculpture called "Cloud Forest," is part of the Mitchell Park Library in Palo Alto, which opened in 2013.

"Kindred Spirits" is one of Stoller's most expressive works. Installed at the entrance to the Pima County Animal Control Center in Tucson, Arizona, it depicts a large dog and cat that can easily be seen from a distance, surrounded by other animals that can be viewed close-up.

His inspiration for the design came from a dog named Sunny who had been mistreated and found a new life after being rescued by the shelter.

"There are lots of different animals in the details," he said. "Each time people go by they might see something new."

Another project, also animal-centered, was of the head of a giraffe and other animal figures for the African section at the zoo in El Paso, Texas.

"One of the things I'm proud of is developing a visual story," Stoller said. "You take giraffes and dogs and cats and find a way to include the community."

"Milan's Helix," installed at Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose, is a privately commissioned work that celebrates the lives of two Bellarmine students and a faculty member who all passed away from brain cancer in 2015.

The free-standing, stainless steel sculpture contains the central image of a person reaching down to support another.

Stoller's latest creation, now in the works, is an 18-foot-high piece in stainless steel for a sports performance center at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.

Stoller uses 3D modeling software to create data used to run water-jet cutting and metal-bending machines at a steel fabrication company in Oakland.

A piece now in the early planning stages is for Texas A&M University and will be based on campus icons, including the "Century Tree," a 125-year-old live oak that is associated with university traditions.

"I really make the effort to know a lot about (the clients) and what is important to them," Stoller said. "Once we're in agreement, I do the final design and create the pattern."

Given the scale of the sculpture and the cost, pleasing the client is the highest priority and preparation is key, he said.

"We don't want to find out that people are unhappy with it," Stoller said. "There are horror stories about public art igniting community furor and being torn down."


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