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Stanford Report, October 23, 2002

New murals make a grand entrance in School of Education

There's Depression-era -- and then there's just depressing.

Before a recent makeover, the lobby of the School of Education building was leaning toward the latter. Although a flurry of renovation projects had spruced up individual classrooms and created an elegant courtyard outside the 1938 building, the lobby -- the first place students and visitors see -- remained dim and dull. The space's only decoration was a pair of donated 19th-century Italian mosaics tucked into two corners. "People complained," said Ona Andre, who manages the building. "It was very cold."

Not anymore. In September, five 9-foot-high murals illustrating School of Education program themes were installed into recessed arches in the lobby's walls. The art fills the space with color and energy.


Artist Charley Brown, seated, works on one of five murals he and Mark Evans, left, created in their San Francisco studio for the School of Education lobby. The murals illustrate school program themes -- this one depicts the school's support of the study of education in developing countries. Photo: L.A. Cicero

In one mural, a barefoot modern dancer in a melon-colored skirt twirls on a wooden stage. Another shows a bearded professor and students ankle-deep in the turquoise waters of Monterey Bay collecting specimens. The school's support of the study of education in developing countries -- through the International Comparative Education Program -- is illustrated with a mural depicting young children filing into a tropical school topped with a red, wavy tin roof.

The murals bring the building's purpose to life, said Dean Deborah Stipek. "You now know when you walk through the doors that you are in the School of Education."

For creators Charley Brown and Mark Evans, owners of the San Francisco firm Evans & Brown, figuring out how to convey graphically School of Education themes such as collaborative learning and the role of art and science in education was the easy part.

Far tougher was creating murals that are in keeping with the building's architectural style yet are true to the school's contemporary values, including diversity. If the murals actually had been commissioned in 1938, the year the building was constructed, "everyone would be white," Brown said.

Their solution was to create figures based on contemporary models (Vicki Oldberg, associate dean, posed for one panel), but to paint the murals in a style reminiscent of the early 20th-century illustrator N. C. Wyeth. Like Wyeth's illustrations for classics including Treasure Island and Robin Hood, the richly colored murals have a romantic quality. A high bank of clouds fills the sky in one mural and in another, tree branches are bathed in golden light.

Lead artist Brown also painted into the murals period details, like the opaque brown jars spilling wads of white cotton and a bulky gray microscope sitting on a lab bench. The faces in the murals reflect the same mix of gender and ethnicity one might spot on White Plaza today, but the figures wear clothing and hairstyles right out of an Andy Hardy movie -- rolled-up khakis, oxfords, blue jeans and ponytails.

The artists, whose mural projects have ranged from Las Vegas hotels to the American Embassy in Cyprus and the San Francisco Main Library, also turned a creative eye to enlivening the lobby as a whole.

Two sets of doors opening into Cubberley Auditorium were painted using trompe l'oeil techniques to mimic existing oak doors. The painted turquoise and terra cotta arches installed over the doors, which carry the arch theme throughout the lobby, are dotted with rosettes like those found across Lasuen Mall on the Main Quad.

"This was built for the thousands of students who go through it on their way to class," Evans said. "It should be ceremonial."

The murals and painted arches give the building a new presence that's appropriate to the school, said education Professor Francisco Ramirez.

The contrast between the old plain vanilla lobby and the redone entrance takes a little getting used to, said education Professor Denis Philips, admiring the new look. "It's quite a shock after walking in here for 28 years."