Off the wall: Muralist transforms Palo Alto bathroom into rolling hills, redwood forest

(Originally published in Palo Alto Weekly)

Painting with broad, bright strokes, muralist Erin Tajime Castelan is transforming a plain wall into a scene straight out of the rolling, tree-dotted Palo Alto hills. Where there was just a moment ago a blank space, there is now a majestic oak tree, its wavy branches reaching several feet in every direction and growing as Castelan dips her brush in her paints again and again.

When it’s finished, Castelan’s mural will be enjoyed by a select audience: retired teachers Mary and Jerry Martinson, and any guests who venture up to the second-floor bathroom of the Martinsons’ Palo Alto home. It’s here that the Martinsons commissioned Castelan to paint a continuous mural of the native Peninsula landscape, covering all walls, ceilings and doors.

Castelan, a Palo Alto massage therapist, former tech support and marketing specialist and lifelong artist with a background in chalk street paintings, has painted her realistic yet dreamy murals in public buildings and private homes. Locations include the Avalon Art & Yoga Center in Palo Alto, St. Joseph’s School of the Sacred Heart in Atherton, and the Aaron Brothers art and framing store in San Mateo.

The Martinsons were massage clients of Castelan’s and were inspired when she showed them pictures of a landscape mural she had recently painted in her father’s bathroom.

“They were very familiar with my artwork and were looking around their house for a place to have me do something,” Castelan said. “When I completed my dad’s bathroom and showed them pictures they said, ‘We want you to do this bathroom.’ I was like, ‘You’re kidding.'”

While Castelan’s father’s bathroom was small and relatively uncomplicated, the Martinsons’ bathroom poses many challenges. The ceiling is 14 feet high at its peak and is angled at different points. A stone shower, hot tub and double sink occupy separate walls. In total, roughly a dozen walls of different sizes would need to be painted in order to create the 360-degree, panoramic landscape that the Martinsons envisioned.

The Martinsons saw a mural as the perfect way to incorporate art into a space not ideal for hanging paintings or family photos.

“We don’t have any other place (to paint a mural) in our house and it seemed appropriate,” Mary Martinson said. “What do you do to decorate a bathroom?”

Inspired by the hills around Page Mill Road, the Martinsons narrowed down Castelan’s library of more than 500 paintings and photographs to 50 of their favorite images. From their choices of oak trees, a redwood forest, a stream and gently rolling hills, Castelan crafted nine “scenes” that flow from wall to wall around the bathroom.

“We were able to collaborate with Erin and feel part of what she’s doing,” Mary said. “It was wonderful sitting down, the three of us, deciding what we wanted and what worked.”

After the images were selected, Castelan taped off the doorways and windows and scrubbed and primed the walls. Though she often drafts mock-ups of designs before painting, this time Castelan jumped right in, only marking horizons and other limits lightly with chalk before taking her brush to the walls.

Castelan’s free-form style allowed the Martinsons to be heavily involved in the design of the mural even after painting began in June. Rather than exactly copy the photographs the Martinsons chose, Castelan customized the scenes according to the couple’s wishes.

“When we came up with the waterfall wall, Mary said, ‘I want the waterfall, but I want the water to flow towards me.’ In the picture it flows away,” Castelan said. “I had also done a painting that she really liked called ‘My Favorite Tree,’ of an oak tree at the Stanford Dish, and she wanted to incorporate it into the painting. But we’re changing it — it’s not going to have another oak tree behind it, so it’ll stand out more.”

Castelan hasn’t always been so comfortable with her painting skills. After majoring in art at UC Santa Cruz, she began a successful career as a graphic artist, tech engineer and marketing specialist. But when a health crisis left her temporarily unable to talk or keep up with the fast-paced corporate lifestyle, she became a massage therapist and began participating in local street-painting festivals.

“I found doing street paintings very healing. The conditions are tough; sometimes the chalk is so hot you can barely touch it. But I’d get so much energy doing it,” Castelan said.

When admirers of her street chalk paintings began asking if she made any permanent art, Castelan decided to improve her painting skills and started doing murals in homes and businesses. In 2006, she painted six murals in the pediatric waiting rooms at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center. The peaceful murals depict underwater scenes, beaches and lakes, complete with animals and people.

She said murals allow people to enjoy nature and other unexpected scenes while indoors.

“I think there’s something magical about it. You don’t expect it,” Castelan said. “The spirit gets an impression inside of it, like when you walk into someplace and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m outside.’ And yet, if you’re in a bathroom, it’s completely climate-controlled: You’re not camping; there are no bears. But you get to enjoy something natural.”

Info: For more about Erin Tajime Castelan’s art, go to .

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