February 10, 2018

Adelaida, 1997 (oil on canvas)

We lived in Paso Robles for 7 years and my son went from age 1 to almost 8 during that time. I wasn’t able to sit in the weeds and paint the beautiful mountains, safflower fields and wine grapes around me, so I took photos of what I saw for a later time. I had an old camera in the car and every chance I got I pulled over to the side of the road and took pictures. This view was such a surprise and I will never forget the afternoon I came upon it. I was on my way to a writer friend’s house and she lived in Adelaida (Adelaida Winery to be exact) and didn’t have my son with me. I had never been to the winery before, but knew I was getting close based on the directions I had been given. I came around a corner and there it was—like a soft focus dream of mountain beauty that included a far off sliver-blue lake. I pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and lingered there for quite a while. And I took lots of pictures. Later, when I had time, I stretched a canvas and captured this scene, but it isn’t the painting you see here. That original piece hung on the wall a couple years I think. But there was something I didn’t like about the way I had rendered the foreground. So, I eventually put it back on my easel, covered it with gesso and started again. I like this version better. (Of course it doesn’t really matter if I do or not, the other one has been completely obliterated.)

You might think this story is going to be about repainting, touching up or just putting a painting away for good. But you would be wrong. This story actually has to do with the view and similar mountain scenes from all over San Luis Obispo County that I cobbled together to make a complete 360-degree mural for my son’s Paso Robles bedroom.

And this all started with two completely separate events that seemed to happen simultaneously. The first event was my visit to an upscale furniture store in the Stanford Shopping Center. They sold one of a kind pieces of furniture that was very colorful and quirky—a perfect combination for me. In one of the back rooms was a lovely long narrow mural that ran along the top of the wall and the ceiling for about 15 feet. The art was a bucolic scene of mountains, trees, with an occasional building. I was enchanted with this idea and thought such a scene would be a lovely bit of sophisticated art that would wrap around my son’s bedroom, giving him something peaceful and calm to look at as he went to sleep at night. This got me thinking then and for weeks after that. But what specific mountain scenes would I paint?

The second event that lead to the mural came while I was parking my car on the rooftop parking structure on Marsh Street across from the movie theater (which is one the tallest buildings in downtown San Luis Obispo). As I got out of the car and headed for the stairs I noticed a pretty spectacular 360-degree view of the nearby SLO mountains. I thought, OMG, I could put some of these mountains, and trees, in my mural. So, I thought back on the mountains I had photographed and realized I could invent a 360-degree panorama of my favorites. When I got home that very afternoon I laid out all my photos into one long landscape that looped back around to the beginning.

I was very excited with this idea. And a couple of days later I got a pencil, ruler and my photos (that I had taped together), moved a few items out of the way in my son’s room and set up a ladder. Before I made even one mark on the wall, I decided that it was going to take forever to finish—up and down the ladder, and up and down the ladder dragging a drop cloth behind me. I didn’t have time to commit to this lengthy process. But did I give up? No! Now I imagined some kind of wallpaper border, 18 inches or so deep, that wrapped around his room. I went to a paint store in San Luis Obispo and found blank wallpaper paper. It seemed sturdy enough to accept acrylics and I could pre-cut 4 pieces—each one 18 inches deep and the length of each wall. I also liked the idea because I knew I wouldn’t be in this house forever so that when we moved, I could take them down, roll them up and that would be that. (Of course I hadn’t really worked out how I was going to attach the long narrow panels to the wall yet. Maybe you are getting the sense that there would be some complications when that part came around…) Actually I finished each panel pretty quickly (one of the panels had this view) and I was soon ready to hang all of them up. My original idea was to have some kind of narrow framing trim that I would nail to the top part of the mural, with a similar piece of trim at the bottom. Then it would look like the mural had been framed all the way around his room. This was getting more and more complicated. I decided just to tack it up around the room. And once it was done I thought it looked really cool. My son had so many of my favorite “mountain views” including this one (Adelaida), Madonna Mountain, Heart Mountain and all the mountains on both the north and south sides of Highway 46 on the way to Cambria.

Fast forward to moving day and me taking these pieces down. That actually was fine, except the pushpins I had used to put them on the walls had left noticeable holes in the paper. But I wasn’t worried, I thought I could put them up again on the walls in his new bedroom and I would just match the holes. But in my usual style, I didn’t even try to do that and got the great idea to attach each panel to some kind of backing and then hang these more stable pieces to the wall. I got 4 particleboard panels, painted them and then nailed each panel to the boards through the old paper holes. There was to be a further complication to the mural reapplication as my son’s new bedroom was in the attic room, which meant the walls were at a crazy angle and it wasn’t going to be as easy to hang them as before. The idea worked, but OMG each piece was heavy. It took two people to hold up each panel while I secured them with special hooks I had found at the hardware store. We only hung up 3 of the 4 because 4 didn’t fit in his new room. So, I had a left over panel that I put in my studio. And when we moved again, I left the three for the new owner and took the left over one with us. That was just fine with me!

Oh my, did I learn something about murals. If you think you want to make one, just paint it right on the wall. Trying to figure out how to move it is just not worth the time and effort, in my opinion. And actually it’s a good idea to leave it where you first dreamed it up because it will never look as good (or fit in a different wall space) somewhere else anyway.

The other day my son asked me what had happened to the Madonna Mountain that had been in his room when he was a little boy. (I think he forgot that we had to leave it behind.) Thank goodness I had taken photos of the finished panels. And guess what? I got inspired to do another mural of Madonna Mountain. But this time I’m painting it on a couple windows in a back room of my house (no ladder thank you very much). I’ve never painted on glass before and it’s kind of a cool surface. I discovered that the acrylic paint dried more evenly when the weather was a bit cooler and the glass was not in the afternoon sun. And when I leave this house I can either leave Madonna Mountain right there or scrape it off with a razor blade. Oh, how I have become so “devil may care” with my artwork. It’s such a relief to not take myself so seriously don’t you think?

More about Madonna Mountain

If you are wondering about Madonna Mountain I can tell you a little about it. No, it has nothing to do with Jesus, nor does it have to do with Madonna the singer. A local San Luis Obispo businessman, Alex Madonna, owned the mountain and surrounding property and named it Madonna Mountain. You can still see the large letter M near the mountain peak when you drive south on 101. He built the Madonna Inn in 1958. The original structure burned down and it was rebuilt in 1966. At that time some theme bedrooms (now considered kitschy) were added. And his wife, Phyllis, who had helped with decorating, had a number of things in and around the inn painted a very specific shade of pink (a color that is now called unique). I think the coolest item that he had at his motel was the downstairs waterfall urinal in the men’s room. When my brothers and I went to visit family in LA we sometimes stopped at the Madonna Inn. I was always a bit envious that I was not allowed to see inside this particular men’s room. And of course my brothers made it sound unbelievable and were always going to be my lookouts so I could peek in. That wasn’t going to happen, as I didn’t trust them. I have since seen pictures and it looks like a stone enclosure that when someone activates a light sensor in the wall, a waterfall pours down the back of the rock urinal. Seems a bit unsanitary to me now, but it certainly was the stuff of legends when we were kids.


Sorry I missed posting this on Saturday. I was at a Porter-Kriesge “family day” event for my son at UCSC.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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