Artist Shyaam Khufu was driving along West 54th Street in South Los Angeles when he spied the modest sign outside the small private school.
"It was pathetic--it was clear they couldn't afford a professionally painted one," he said.
So Khufu stopped to offer a nicer sign for the storefront entrance to the Enlightened Minds School at 2700 54th St.
But something clicked when he stepped inside and spoke with school co-founder Ty Yiyara about the needs of the 200 youngsters enrolled at the struggling, two-year-old campus.
Khufu, 52, found himself volunteering to paint a mural that will soon stretch across the half-block front of the school and through inside hallways into its empty multipurpose room.
The huge painting will mix images of pupils at the school with those of black historical and cultural leaders of the past.
The free mural has amazed students and teachers alike at The Enlightened Minds School, whose multipurpose room bears the motto, "Success Is a Do-It-Yourself Project."
"He's turning that plain wall into something beautiful," marveled seventh-grader Michelle Gutierrez, 12, as Khufu worked Wednesday on a ladder out front.
Dabs of yellow and red paint were spattered on Khufu's dreadlocks as he worked on the figure of an early Egyptian pharaoh beneath a stylized depiction of a pyramid.
"The idea is basically to capture the civilization of man and the contributions we've made," he said. "I'll integrate the children of the school into the mural as if they're on an archeological expedition."
Khufu, a Claremont resident, is a self-trained artist. He said he inherited his skills from his father, mechanical engineer G. Westinghouse Butler, who painted oil portraits as a hobby.
During the past three decades, Khufu has painted 20 major murals around Los Angeles, including a three-story artwork at Harte Junior High School in 1982. He says it was there that he realized the impact a mural can have.
"I saw how important it is for black students to see the importance of the contributions of their ancestors," he said. "It's depressing to see kids relate to contemporary gang-bangers instead of to their heritage."
At the Enlightened Minds School the artist found educators who share that philosophy.
Yiyara, a 34-year-old former Air Force captain, launched the school with his wife, Tisa, 25, after he ended a 10-year military career.
"We were concerned about the results of public schools in this area," Yiyara said. "We felt there was sort of a neglected educational atmosphere."
Sinking every dime they had into the school, the couple promised high levels of discipline, small classes and low tuition rates to parents likewise unhappy with the neighborhood's public schools. The average cost per pupil is $250 a month--although some students from poor families are admitted for free.
"I saw that the owners of the school are decent people," Khufu said. "We have the same concerns about education and the community."
Khufu and Yiyara said they are doing careful research to make certain the figures in the mural are authentic. The finished artwork will be a timeline of sorts, starting outside with the early Egyptian architect and physician Imhotep and ending indoors with such modern figures as Dr. Charles Drew, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
For now, donations of high-gloss, oil-base enamel paint are being sought for the project.
Eventually, though, Khufu sees postcards depicting the finished mural being sold as a school fund-raiser.
That's the kind of rosy picture that students at the school like to see painted for them.
"He's going to put this school on the map," predicted 11th-grader Zakia Bell.