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Retired teacher creates school mural after 30-year painting furlough

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
Feb. 18, 2011 at midnight
Updated Feb. 18, 2011 at 8:19 p.m.

Harlow looks at what she has achieved so far on the mural at Placedo Elementary School.

ABOUT THE MURALIST Carolyn Harlow created the mural from pictures she found online and added different details to the students. "It's a happy picture," she said. "I think I wanted it to be a happy picture. I wanted it to be something to make people smile."

PLACEDO - Carolyn Harlow's 18-foot school mural is the first thing she's painted in 30 years.

The retired teacher uses slow, steady strokes to coat the walls at Placedo Elementary in reds, greens and yellows. The colorful play scene greets visitors near the front office.

Every once in a while, she'll remember her three-decade furlough and second guess herself.

"It'd been so long, I didn't know whether it was going to turn into anything or not," she said, not moving her eyes from her brush. "I'd hate for a real artist to see this to point out all my mistakes."

Harlow first picked up brushes to find healing after divorce. The split left her with a 3- and a 6-year-old and forced her to work to support the family. The Corpus Christi native moved to Victoria to be closer to her sisters.

She got wind of an oil painting group, joined and painted five canvases. She worked her first job in newspaper classifieds for a few years until her boss talked her into going to college. After a little coaxing, she decided to go into teaching, but in the early 70s, she couldn't finish a degree locally. So, she packed up her life and headed north.

"I headed to Houston, and me and the kids roughed it out while I went to college," she said.

Harlow eventually finished and headed back to Victoria after a short teaching stint and gave up painting

"Working and teaching and raising kids is a double-full-time job," she said. "There wasn't time for hobbies."

She heard about Bloomington, got a job teaching fifth-grade reading and 26 years later retired in 2004.

It's hard to tell Harlow is retired. The school still keeps her mailbox full of substitute assignments or volunteer work. She comes in regularly to help with both.

"The only thing I lost was my paycheck," she said.

Harlow hopes adults and children can find lessons in her work. Diligence keeps her going and painting once helped her re-define herself as a single parent.

"That was the purpose of painting - to get me to be a little more me, instead of mommy and everything else," she said.

When the rumor spread about her painting skills, Harlow never heard the end of this mural idea.

"We just kind of kept nudging," said Maria Salazar, the school secretary, who can see the mural through her office widow.

Harlow said no, and no, and again, no until - "That no went right over the bridge and fell into the water," she said. "I said, 'let me look and see.' Well, that was the beginning of the end."

She pulled out her old brushes, collected donated supplies and went to work to please her biggest critics - children.

Many often run to the nearby restroom, poke their head around the corner to see her progress.

"Everyday, she adds something new to it," said Allison Canales, a fifth-grader.

"It really comes to life," said Kiana Gaona, also a fifth-grader. "It just pops at you when you walk into the door."

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