In 2009, after West Valley College built its brand new biology building, a group of faculty stood in the natural history lab staring at a blank wall. "It's too empty," they agreed.
"How about a mural?" suggested biology and genetics instructor Molly Schrey. She knew an artist from her church, and asked the woman--Debbie Bakker--if she could paint a teaching mural. "Of course," said Bakker, who was still in art school and had never attempted such a feat.
Bakker has worked as a teacher in both her homeland of Canada and her current habitat of San Jose, and she carries a lifelong passion for education. But for a long time, she says, "I didn't draw because it was never good enough." She changed her mind one day on a field trip with her daughter's school class to visit an illustrator who did pen and ink drawings of historical buildings. "I could do that," she thought, and began to take art classes at De Anza and West Valley College.
In 2007 Bakker enrolled in the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to work part-time toward a BFA. Eager to avoid a required digital art class ("Old dog, new tricks," she explains succinctly), Bakker signed up for a replacement course in wildlife illustration--and fell in love.
So when the invitation came to paint a wildlife mural, Bakker wasn't about to say no. She talked to Schrey and the other biology instructors and put together a proposal, complete with scale drawings, that convinced the college administrators to hire her. Schrey credits the fact that the project ever got off the ground to West Valley's identity as a teaching-driven community college, rather than a high-powered research university. "The instructors here all focus on people," she says. "They're very open to collaborations like this."