Lowell Meyer made two trips to the newspaper office in the past five weeks looking for a reporter to write an article about his wife’s art project.
Kathleen Meyer, a veteran art teacher at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, never would have done such a thing. But Lowell was convinced his wife’s project was newsworthy: After all, had anyone else painted an intricate, 40-foot-long mural of Descano Gardens along her dining room walls?
“It has exact detail,” he said when he pitched the story by phone in December. “It looks exactly like Descanso. And it goes from one end to the other. It’s fantastic.”
For her part, Kathleen didn’t know she’d be showing off the mural until the morning of the day she was to do so. But she politely obliged, shading in some of the mural’s backstory one recent afternoon in her kitchen before opening the dining room doors to reveal an exquisite, inspired landscape of her favorite place.
Lowell rested upstairs; he had strength enough to appear only briefly, thanking the visitor for coming to look. Kathleen explained that her husband has stage-4 colon cancer.
Bringing La Cañada Flintridge’s renowned botanical gardens into their home had been his idea. He knew that for Kathleen, Descanso Gardens has always lived up to its name as a tranquil, peaceful place where nature’s artistry calms her. Her mural feels just that way.
“You could see, we’d be having dinner at Descanso Gardens,” she said, smiling.
It hasn’t happened much, however. About a month after Kathleen began the project, Lowell was diagnosed. “Unfortunately, he’s in a stage where he can’t eat here,” said Kathleen, who serves as his caregiver when she’s not at work, teaching.
For years, the dining area was among the portions of the house — located just off Chevy Chase Drive, up the hill from Descanso Gardens — that had been rented out to art students. When the Meyers reclaimed it in order to entertain out-of-state guests one night, they had to spruce it up in a hurry, splash a coat of paint on the walls, lay a rug and hang a light fixture.
“We had a very nice dinner, but my husband and I knew there was something lacking,” Kathleen said. “So my husband said, ‘Why don’t we just go to the antique center and frame some pictures to put on the wall?’ But to me, that’s like, ‘No, no.’”
Kathleen has always had a determined artistic eye and an undeniable impulse to explain what she is seeing. She remembers disagreeing with what her kindergarten teacher told her classmates during art lessons and taking it upon herself to show them what they really ought to look for. She knew then that one had to know how to really see a thing, really see it, before being able to effectively depict it artistically.
She had a calling, that was plainly visible, and she followed through, earning an art education degree from USC and leading her first class in 1962. She taught at Manual Arts, Crenshaw and El Camino Real high schools before arriving at Immaculate Heart 38 years ago.
There, she instituted classes that successfully served beginning, intermediate and advanced students all at once, and never assigned the same project twice.
“She’s pretty amazing,” said Camille Villanueva, a pupil of Meyer’s from 2002-06 and now a fellow art teacher at Immaculate Heart. “She definitely knows how to get anybody to create art and feel confident about themselves. She has this demeanor: It’s strict, but in a way that makes you feel like you need to challenge yourself.”
For Kathleen Meyer, her four dining room walls presented the challenge.
She said Lowell, formerly an educator who worked a lot with special-needs students, was confident in her ability to sufficiently portray the beauty of Descanso Gardens, but she thinks he might have doubted her chances of completing such an ambitious project.
“He ought to know me better,” said Kathleen, who applied the first brush strokes to the first tree on June 7 and spent the next six months dedicating several hours every weekend to the mural, climbing on and off scaffolding built by a friend to gauge and then make the next appropriate stroke of acrylic paint.
The details are A-plus sharp. She dedicated one wall to her favorite camellias, in bloom. The other surfaces belong to the Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden and the recently opened natural habitat of the Oak Woodland. There’s a steady skyline near the ceiling, but below is a purposefully uneven terrain that invites discovery, a representation of the natural twists and turns one takes during a stroll through the gardens.
“You notice that it’s not just one level,” she said. “You step down and go down here and turn a corner, you turn and you see this, and then you go down another path. It’s not just all laid out for you flat.”
The mural was finished just before Thanksgiving, on time for a party on Dec. 7, when some 80 guests mingled, eating and drinking merrily, and feasting their eyes on the mural for the first time. But Kathleen didn’t make a big deal about that. To her, the party was about celebrating Lowell.
He was feeling particularly fine that day, Kathleen said. He’d opted to halt chemotherapy treatments and was free from its wicked side effects.
Villanueva was there. She shot footage of the mural that she’s turned into a video documenting its creation.
“It’s an amazing mural,” Villanueva said. “And the size of the room for a lady of her [petite] stature is sort of overwhelming, to comprehend that she took all this time to get this job done. But I feel this mural is almost like her really trying to let out a lot of the stress she’s going through, which is really amazing — amazing because she doesn’t give up and she didn’t give up, which is totally her. She’s such a strong woman.
“But it’s also just so beautiful, and that’s also overwhelming.”
Kathleen said the mural kept life from feeling overwhelming the past few months.
“It’s helped spiritually,” she said. “I had no problem at all doing this. It was not tiring. It was not a chore. I looked forward to the weekends. I looked forward to my time on the scaffolding.
“And do you know, if someone painted [over it], I wouldn’t care. No. It served its purpose. I can’t control its destiny. It was selfishly done for me to prove that I could do it and to give me some peace because I couldn’t be at Descanso. Mentally, I was there, and I got the same joy out of it. And it was for the party, which was so wonderful.”