Wall-to-wall beauty

The Gustafsons can reach Lake Tahoe in a matter of minutes. All they have to do is walk downstairs and they’re on the beach with a view of snow-dusted mountains across the lake.

A very special mural makes this possible. Not only is it realistic, but it’s also quite personal, because it includes Mary and Kent Gustafson’s three children, their two dogs and the family’s boat.

The mural graces the retaining wall built when the Gustafsons added an expansive subterranean living space to their Los Altos home. The wall was plain stucco, typical of a basement light well.

The Gustafsons didn’t want gray and boring. They wanted something beautiful and different.

Enter mural artist Morgan Bricca of Los Altos, who collaborated with the couple on covering the large wall, which wraps two sides of the new space.

Murals, of course, were the answer. Bricca painted Lake Tahoe on the wall that hits you in the eye as you descend the stairs and a creek scene from Sveadal, a Swedish-American community near Morgan Hill, on the wall to the left.

Lake Tahoe was an obvious choice because the family loves to ski and water ski. They chose Sveadal because it is where Kent spent his summers as a boy and where the family has spent time together fishing and enjoying the outdoors. Bricca points out touches that personalize the mural – the family’s cabin with its Swedish and American flags flying, a tennis racket (Mary is an avid tennis player) propped against a wooden bench, the couple’s initials carved in a heart on the bench.

The Gustafsons enjoy the reaction of first-time visitors, especially their children’s friends, when they see the lake.

“Their eyes just bug out,” Kent said. “They go, ‘Wow! What’s that?’ The colors pop.”

In the home gym, Mary can just “pedal away” looking out on the deer and the creek.

“It’s a fun workout,” she said.

Bricca points out the pluses of murals. In addition to providing pleasure, they transform awkward spaces and eyesores and, in the case of retaining walls, they’re green.

“You’re not shipping stone or other materials from other parts of the world to finish off the wall,” she said “It’s also green to hire a local artisan to work their craft and create something unique.”

She uses Benjamin Moore Aura (low VOC) exterior paint for the background, rolling it on much like a house painter. Then she applies acrylics to create the finished scene.

But first, she studies the space and sketches the design.

“It’s exciting when you can make it fit the space,” she said. “But a sketch is just a map. So much of art is about color. Color is what makes it expressive and sets the tone.”

Even in her dreams, Bricca mixes colors and plans compositions.

And, speaking of dreams, becoming an artist was not one of them.

“My earliest memory of art is coming home from kindergarten ashamed of the colorful page in my hands,” she said.

In high school, she took an art class that let her express herself, but she would have preferred taking auto shop. She went on to major in economics at UC San Diego, where she met her husband, David. They have two children, Lucas, 9, and Allison, 6, both of whom attend Santa Rita School. Santa Rita is one of eight area schools with a mural by Bricca.

She was climbing the ranks as a computer network administrator for a biotech company when she began to feel “dissatisfied and uninspired.” On a whim, she enrolled in an art therapy class and, six months later, she quit her job and reinvented herself as a mural artist.

She took some drawing and painting classes (she was often at odds with the teachers), but concluded that experience is the best teacher.

“My style has developed organically, very much from my personal expression and interpretation of the world around me,” she said.

Bricca has been painting murals for 12 years. She recalls the first one – a beach scene on the dining room wall of her condo in San Diego.

“I was so busy painting I forgot to eat lunch,” she said.

That’s still the case.

“When I’m painting, I get to ‘be.’ It is like my vacation. I can say ‘I had a good day at work’ at the end of the day,” Bricca said.

When she’s painting, she focuses on what she’s doing and not on the time it takes.

So, how long did it take to paint Lake Tahoe on the Gustafsons’ retaining wall?

Considering its size, the answer is surprising – only 10 hours. About the time it takes to drive to Tahoe and back.