Donald Neff wandered past graffiti-laden walls, down a footbridge lined with empty vodka bottles to a dark, wooded creek behind a San Jose strip mall and set-up his painter’s easel.
He set up his tubes of paint and gripped his brushes, transferring the eery scene onto his canvas.
For an entire year, Neff visited unremarkable, overlooked scenes like this all around Silicon Valley, painting them in a rustic impressionism that seemed to suggest the majesty of the great wide open. Except, these were the kind of mundane suburban scenes people passed every day without a second thought.
"People don’t appreciate what might be under a bridge, behind a strip mall or behind a fence," Neff said, peering out past his canvas. "So that was my main goal to make people appreciate what’s under their feet."
A lifelong painter, Neff set out to challenge himself with a project he called "the quest."
The parameters of his challenge would require him to set out once a week for a year and paint on location at one of Silicon Valley’s creeks. At the time, he didn’t realize there were more than 60 named creeks in the area.
His first stop in the project was Cunningham Park in San Jose, which sits in between a busy parkway and the Raging Waters Waterpark, where he painted a gentle scene of the fall colors changing along the creek.
"It looks kind of mundane if you just take a peek at it," Neff said, dabbing oil paints onto his canvas. "But the artist’s job is to make the mundane beautiful."
Neff captured wild beavers swimming in a creek right in the middle of downtown San Jose, in the shadow of a busy freeway.
He painted a culvert named Norwood Creek jutting between a shopping mall and rows of houses. His painting of the sun setting over the creek added a generous helping of beauty to an otherwise humble scene — what some might be more likely to call ugly.
His brushes also captured the vast homeless network in one creek known as "the jungle."
"As an artist I try to bring out the little beauty that you see that, otherwise, you wouldn’t," Neff said. "You’d walk right past, wouldn’t even notice."
Having spent the last 40 years living in the area, Neff bemoans the lost orchards and open spaces increasingly chewed up by Silicon Valley’s tech-fueled sprawl. At the same time Neff isn’t anti-tech. He actually owned his own tech company until 17 years ago when the dot-com bust made him reconsider his path.
"I was actually going to start another dot-com company," Neff said. Instead, he took up painting and "never looked back."
During his year-long quest, which recently came to an end, Neff painted 60 paintings of some 43 different creeks. The Santa Clara County Government Center hosted an exhibit of his paintings, which covered an entire wall. But perhaps most satisfying to Neff is that some of the environmental groups overseeing creek restorations in the area began to showcase his art as part of their campaigns.
Neff was also encouraged to hear salmon have once again been spotted running on the Guadalupe River.
"They’re really restoring a lot of the old places," Neff said.
Neff folded up his easel and strolled down the dirt road along another creek bed — a sliver of forest caught between a busy street and a neighborhood of densely packed homes. He took in the sight of the orange and red leaves clinging to branches as he crossed a wooden bridge and headed for his car.
"You can find quiet and solace in kind of the strangest places, I guess," Neff said.