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Tromp l’oeil (Deceive the eye) – Elizabeth Schellberg learns to paint an illusionary vista in her back garden

By Brenna Wiegand

Sequestered on the outskirts of a town known for its murals is a hidden gem of magnificent proportion.

Prior to moving to Silverton in 2013, Elizabeth Schellberg and husband Gary Watkins lived in Portland, she a CPA and he an Intel engineer.

“I had an artist come and paint a mural on the back of our single car garage,” Schellberg said. “It was based on a birthday card my mom had sent me with hills and a lake with a canoe; and it really opened up the backyard.”

When they moved to Silverton they purchased a 1963 ranch house with lots of potential. That place, too, had a disused corner behind the garage that seemed to beg for a mural, but with all the other renovations under way, adding the cost of a muralist just didn’t make sense.

Though it wasn’t in her wheelhouse, the retired CPA who had heretofore funneled her artistic expression into music decided to do it herself.

“I’d taken an art class here and there, but I’d never done anything like this,” Schellberg said. “I found a guy on YouTube, ‘Mural Joe,’ who has a whole series of videos on painting murals.”

She started at the top of the 22′-by-14′ wall and, using almost entirely primary colors of acrylic house paint, dove right into learning to paint the sky. Then came snow-capped mountains, hills and forest, rocks, water, dirt and even animals.

Elizabeth Schellberg and her backyard mural, five years in the making
Elizabeth Schellberg and her backyard mural, five years in the making

“I was way over-optimistic about how long it was going to take,” Schellberg said. “I must have painted that dirt seven times. It was just layer by layer and every time I got down to another level I would watch more videos, and I had artist friends who’d come by and give me their advice.”

Schellberg, who placed her final stroke around the Fourth of July, said the five-year process ended up bringing home several life lessons.

“What I learned about painting is that once you paint the first stroke you begin correcting what you’re doing,” she said. “You need to get down from the scaffolding and step back to look at it from a distance, kind of like life.

“Sometimes I’d look at it as a whole and go ‘what was I thinking?’”

She learned to listen to the advice of others but to decide for herself how
to proceed.

“I’ve had people say, ‘You should really do this’ and I know I’m not going to do it,’” she said. “I have another friend who kept saying the same thing whenever he came over and I finally saw that he was right.”

The importance of keeping things in perspective throughout the mural’s creation was brought home as she wrestled with painting its highest peak, which she refers to as “Mt. Jefferson, more or less.”

The result is a sweeping vista that captures the type of natural beauty the Pacific Northwest affords.

The more you look, the more you see, especially when it comes to the painting’s rich fauna, from circling turkey hawks to hovering hummingbirds; grazing elk to scampering chipmunks; even a baby bear peering out from behind a rock.

“As it turns out, that little bear is an inch and a quarter square,” Schellberg said. “If you really want to feel ridiculous, try painting it with a quarter-inch brush.

“For the animals I would find images and print them out, making them bigger or smaller until I found the right perspective,” she said. “When we have parties, we always have wildlife surveys for people to check and make sure that the wildlife is all doing OK.”

Clad in cement board lap siding, the exterior wall needed no prepping, but the overlapping boards and simulated woodgrain texture presented challenges in design flow and its dry surface becomes as hot as a griddle when the sun beats down, shortening paint’s drying time considerably.

For that reason, Schellberg was pretty much stuck painting on weekend mornings until her retirement a couple years into the process.

The line between real and unreal becomes fuzzy where the mural meets the ground. For instance, the campfire in the mural’s foreground morphs into the real thing on the ground.

What first appears to be the post for the garden hose situated there turns out to be part of the painting, and the birch trunks that were already part of the scene have since been joined by an actual trunk from their own tree, downed by the ice storm.

“One of the main life lessons is don’t tell yourself that you can’t do something,” Schellberg said. “I made my living as an accountant and I think I did that because it wasn’t hard for me.

“Apparently that isn’t where my real heart is and, after retiring, I have found myself doing all kinds of crafty things and all kinds of new things musically,” she said. 

“I didn’t have time for Tai Chi before and now I’m doing Tai Chi in the park every day in a class led by
Barb Dahlum.”

The couple’s backyard is amazingly private for being in the middle of a neighborhood and there’s practically no way to spot the huge mural from the outside. The public’s only hope lies in the reinstatement of the Silverton Garden Tour, assuming that happens after its COVID-19 hiatus.

“I think it would be fun to be part of the garden tour,” Schellberg said.

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