Painting the Past into the Future

For most of its course from its headwaters in the Oakland hills to Lake Merritt, Glen Echo Creek flows underground through culverts and tunnels. At one point it runs, unseen, under Piedmont Avenue Elementary School. Until last year, few students—though they loved to search the schoolyard for butterflies, hummingbirds, and squirrels——realized they were playing atop a once-thriving riparian ecosystem. And most teachers had no time for field trips to where the creek runs freely in nearby Glen Echo Park.

This hidden ecology has recently become visible, thanks to visionary parents and artist Rocky Baird. Now a mural faces Echo Avenue, depicting Glen Echo Creek as it appeared 200 years ago. The mountain lion on the stream’s bank gets a good view of the black-tailed deer upstream; the belted kingfisher rests in a tree, digesting a fish; and a nervous coyote glares at its elementary school viewers, who like to cluster around, pointing out their favorite animals.

It’s general community knowledge that the creek flows under the school; the oldest residents can recall it running above ground. When administrators noticed a perpetually soggy schoolyard a few years ago, they conducted a study that confirmed the subterranean waterway.

Parents realized the educational opportunity afforded by the creek at the same time other changes were in the works. Lesley Mandros Bell is the former president of the Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood School Association, a group that had wanted to spark an awareness of the local natural history among the students, as well as create a campus-based art project to sponsor. She says they were lucky: the school district replaced portables with an extension on the old building. “We saw the construction as a great time to propose our plan for a mural about our stream as it appeared long ago, and when the community enthusiastically supported the project, we decided to find an artist.”

Mandros Bell spotted Baird on Piedmont Avenue, where he was painting a mural about the old Key Route transportation system. She floated the idea of the elementary school mural, and Baird jumped at the chance. After a meeting in which Baird was schooled on the region’s historical ecology and Mandros Bell represented PANSA (which chose the wall and funded the project), Baird was given the go-ahead to design the scene. He began to prime a wall on the new building late in the winter of 2005 and completed the mural by the end of the school year.

“The kids were confused at first,” Baird says. They couldn’t understand why he was painting a picture on the side of a building, or what the painting had to do with their school. The understanding became intuitive. “They watched at recess or with their parents after school. Teachers brought them out as the mural grew. I explained what I was doing three times. After my third explanation, they became docents. The older kids explained the mural to the younger ones, and they all taught parents and teachers about the stream’s plants and animals.”

Mandros Bell believes that watching the mural being painted was an important part of the process for the kids. “They used visual language when they talked. The amazing thing is that they understood how the schoolyard covers the stream. They talked about how progress and the city’s development pushed many natural things literally underground.”

The children touched the wall before Baird painted it, and stroked the brushes, too. “Kids don’t often have lessons that put them in touch with the physical world,” Baird says. “I can tell how much they need this contact.”

The older boys like the mountain lion. “Older girls seem more drawn to the smaller, cuter animals like the tiger salamander and the raccoon,” says Mandros Bell. “All the younger kids are curious about the cloud that’s shaped like an owl,” Baird says. “It thrills them when they realize what it is.”

“The whole neighborhood loves the mural,” Mandros Bell says. “I don’t know a child who doesn’t have a tale to tell about it. Some know why the animals and plants were here. Others make up their own folktales. All get a better sense of this neighborhood’s past.”

The school association planted western sycamore trees on the yard nearby because they are a native species that grow near streams. Mandros Bell says, “We painted an extension of the stream onto the schoolyard, and Rocky helped us stencil some fish in the water.” Since completing the basic mural, Rocky has added a family of newts, a striped skunk, and an opossum with babies.

Baird’s web site contains a page where people can make a donation so he can paint another animal. A red-tailed hawk has been proposed, and Mandros Bell says several neighbors are combining funds to pay for a California grizzly.

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