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A Tap on the Shoulder—Being Receptive to Unexpected Moments


Sometimes we are faced with an opportunity—Mark Sylvester shares how a sunny winter’s day painting windows led to an Oscar-winning idea.


Dec 22, 2022


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It’s 3 pm on a Friday in December 1969. I’m driving my girlfriend Cheryl home from school. We’re in the San Fernando Valley, and while it is almost winter, it’s a glorious 70˚ outside, and we’re ready for a great weekend.

She turns to me and says, “My mom asked me if you would be interested in painting the day room windows at the LA Children’s Hospital. She runs activities there and thinks it would be fun to lift their spirits. She loves your art and thinks you’d be great at it.” Wow. At that moment, my first reaction was no way, and after a minute, I had a different thought cross my mind and replied, “This might be fun, and I have an idea on how to get started.”

Yes, I was an artist and loved drawing, playing the drums in the quintessential garage band, cooking a lot, and spreading my creative wings over many disciplines. I’d grown up in the Valley, where it was normal to see windows decorated for the holidays with lavish displays of winter-themed designs. This was an art form I still needed to explore, and here was an ideal opportunity to experiment.

My idea to get me going was to have Cheryl drive me around the downtown area so I could sketch windows I liked. We went all over, and by late that night, I’d collected a bundle of drawings from an Elf workshop of reindeer flying in the air. I’d studied a bit of calligraphy and saw how my training would be perfect as I spelled out “Season’s Greetings”.

The following day, I went to the art supply store to purchase tempura paints and brushes. Then, I went home and started practicing by looking at my sketches, conjuring new designs, and painting them on my bathroom mirror. I’d paint a motif, then wash it off and start over. I got a sense of the right amount of water to add to the paint, how to hold the brushes to get the correct stroke for long snowflakes, and the correct angle for a foam brush to execute a perfect Old English script. After a few hours, I was ready.

I put together a painting rig with the supplies and headed to Sunset Boulevard in East Hollywood to the Children’s Hospital. When I arrived, Cheryl’s mom had filled the day room with kids, some sitting on the floor, some in wheelchairs, and all the staff expectantly watching. 

It was go time. I hadn’t realized I would have an audience of bright smiling faces and kids eager to be entertained. Apparently, I have a dormant improv performer gene in me and was able to turn into a performer instantly. Feeling their energy and excitement spurred me on, and the moment became a performance piece. 

Honestly, I don’t remember what I painted. I know there was a lot of snow, pine trees with brightly colored ornaments, several snowcapped cottages, and the words “Season’s Greetings” painted in script large enough to go the room’s length. An hour later, I was done, and we’d all enjoyed ourselves. I am sure the moment will be a memory that lasts to this day when the kids reflected on that Saturday morning in December 1969.

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Looking back over fifty years ago, I realize a higher power had tapped me on the shoulder. Whatever you want to call it, the universe made sure I had a paintbrush in my hand, an audience at the ready, and a willingness to perform. I heard from Lt. Col. Scott Mann a few years ago that the universe will tap you on the shoulder a few times a year.

What happened after that weekend was the beginning of my fifteen-year hobby of painting windows. When I moved to Santa Barbara, I found a town that loved art and enjoyed my windows, so I started painting every holiday—Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July, and our famous local holiday, Old Spanish Days. I became known for my Holidays on Glass.

As this hobby also generated pretty good money, I saved and eventually bought my first computer. In 1983 I bought an Atari 800XL and started playing around with painting pixels instead of windows. A year later, I co-founded Wavefront Technologies, which went on to produce Maya, the first Oscar-winning animation software package.

All these years later, this story comes to mind because I was asked last week if I’d be willing to paint the windows in the day room of Casa Dorinda, the well-known retirement facility in Montecito where Julia Child spent her final years. 

Of course, I said yes. Later that day, I realized my first windows were painted for kids, and possibly the last windows I painted would be for senior citizens. I love how these events have bookended that part of my life.

So, pay attention the next time you feel a tap on the shoulder, accompanied by an opportunity to do something outside your comfort zone—it may be the precursor to something that will change the world.



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