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January 20, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 20, 2006

Inside the box Inside the box (January 20, 2006)

New mural uses 207 painted boxes and the creative visions of developmentally disabled young artists

by Rebecca Wallace

Tristan bounces up for a cheerful handshake, peering intently through dark '50s-style glasses. His smile nearly reaches his ears.

Because he's autistic, the 16-year-old doesn't say much. But he's clearly pleased to see artist Judy Gittelsohn, who's visiting the Community Association for Rehabilitation (C.A.R.) in Palo Alto. After all, some of his best modes of communication are color and design.

Tristan is one of the 207 young artists who worked on the new mural at C.A.R.'s Betty Wright Swim Center, a creation called "A Clear View" that will be shown off at a reception this Saturday afternoon. Like many people with developmental disabilities, he's very visual and finds art an excellent way to express himself, whether it's painting or assembling a castle from toilet paper rolls.

"He sees pictures in his mind. He's always had a knack for putting colors and things together," said his mother, Laura Bence of Palo Alto. "When he goes somewhere he can tell how to get there by visual cues. When we go to a museum he wants to see the place from top to bottom, and he loves to try to get himself lost, because he can't."

Gittelsohn, also a Palo Alto resident, hoped to harness that creative energy when she came up with the mural project. She had worked with developmentally disabled children for some time, helping them create projects such as a calendar of their artwork.

Fashioning this mural had a singular challenge: it had to withstand the sultry heat of the 92-degree indoor swimming pool it would overlook. So Gittelsohn decided to work in Plexiglass, giving clear boxes to 207 developmentally disabled artists ranging in age from toddlers to young adults. They come from 11 organizations, including C.A.R., a nonprofit with such services as infant development, employment services and aquatic therapy.

Each artist painted a box with acrylic paint, and Gittelsohn assembled them into a grid and painted borders and broad waves across the mural to unify its pieces. The boxes were ultimately hung with fishing line and separated by plastic beads.

About 18 feet wide and 8 feet high, the mural sprawls across a swim center wall. An imp with green-circled black eyes peers from one box, while another box holds a rainbow. The hues are jovial: lemon yellow, regal purple, sky blue.

"I hoped to achieve that fish-scaly quality of independence of movement," Gittelsohn says, gazing up at the mural. Behind her, children and adults splash in the pool, some in classes, some taking deliberate strokes on their own. The air hangs heavy with mist.

"The light comes through it at certain times of the day," Gittelsohn adds. "And the plastic reflects the water."

Gittelsohn had help from parents and others in hanging and assembling the mural. She also partnered with the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto; together they won a $12,500 grant from the Community Foundation Silicon Valley for the project.

Once the project was completed, Gittelsohn also took pictures of each of the young artists with their painted boxes.

The undertaking drew praise from Karen Flores, an infant development specialist at C.A.R., who said she found it delightful to watch her charges learn to paint. One, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, used a small paintbrush for the first time. While it may not be typical for such children to have a long attention span, the boy was fascinated, Flores says.

"He painted different colors. He wanted to do it over and over," she says. "He changed very much."

What: Reception with the artists to honor their new mural

Where: Betty Wright Swim Center at the Community Association for Rehabilitation, 3864 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: 2 to 5 p.m., Jan. 21

Cost: Free

Info: Call (650) 494-0550 or go to

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