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January 20, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 20, 2006

Not just a pipe dream Not just a pipe dream (January 20, 2006)

Lively pastel mural camouflages unsightly pipe at preschool

by Cyrus Hedayati

Helen Szteinbaum had a problem.

Faced with an unsightly pipe jutting out of the front of her Wonder Years Preschool and several costly, cumbersome solutions, Szteinbaum did what she thought would appeal most to the children: she turned the pipe into something fun.

So what was once an eyesore on a drab wall has, through skill and imagination, become another of Palo Alto's vibrant murals.

Before opening the preschool at 991 Commercial St. last June, Szteinbaum needed a permanent occupancy permit, but city planners said the pipe was too ugly and needed to be camouflaged or moved, associate planner Gina La Torra said. But Szteinbaum said moving the pipe -- which supplies water to the fire sprinklers -- to the back of the school could cost $12,000.

So last August she commissioned her cousin Sylvia Levy to disguise it with a mural for $6,000. Levy runs an art academy in her native Venezuela, and has been contracted by various multinational companies to paint murals throughout Latin America, Szteinbaum said.

Levy handled the design and painting of the Wonder Years mural, completing the 15-foot by 34-foot mural in three weeks, while general building contractor Marek Kozlowski added three-dimensional aspects. Built seamlessly around the water pipe, additional fake pipes, gears, and a gigantic wrench and bolt jump off the wall in sharp pastels.

La Torra said the mural was an excellent idea, especially since Palo Alto's planning department encourages public art.

"I think it was a good solution because of the use of the building (for kids). They were able to incorporate children's activities into it and make it a fun place," she said.

Several family members of students are also pleased.

"I like how there are things that are not only in the mural, but coming out of the mural," said Christopher Loman. His nephew, Jonathon, is one of the 50 students attending the school, which also has a site in San Carlos. As evidence of Wonder Years' tight-knit community, Christopher is a former middle school student of Wonder Years director Erin Knight.

Levy had also painted another mural at the Palo Alto Wonder Years. Facing the playground, it features the school's name in cloudy letters.

Since the latest mural faces the street, city planning regulations prevented Levy from including any written advertisement of the school. But Szteinbaum and Knight feel that the mural still represents the school's identity. While the ruler at the top and the ABC's indicate a place of learning, the lively colors and creative design reflect the school's carefree environment, they said.

"It's fun. It shows the energy of the school," Knight said. "It has the multi-cultural aspect with the globe."

Besides the globe, Szteinbaum also told Levy to include workers of several ethnicities fixing pipes and painting together.

"We have children from all cultures at our school," she said. "The philosophy of our school is to accept everyone."

Parent Marla Fisher, whose daughter Keelin is new at Wonder Years, said the mural also represents the school's warm atmosphere.

"We just moved here from Virginia," she said. "I knew I was in the right place when I saw it. I would say it was like a welcoming landmark."

Now Szteinbaum is encouraged to continue having murals created. Her cousin is already working on a new mural for the San Carlos campus.

"They're all jealous now," Szteinbaum said of the other child-care workers.

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