First Friday Santa Cruz

Into the Waters of Empowerment

Into the Waters of Empowerment

by Bree Karpavage

Circles. Raindrops. The four directions. The river meets the ocean meets the clouds. Facing the San Lorenzo River from the River Front Parking Garage is one of Santa Cruz’s newest public art pieces, an expansive mosaic mural telling the story of water through Pacific Island and Ohlone history – two cultures and folk who majorly influenced Santa Cruz culture today. Afterall, what would Santa Cruz be without the surfboard? 

Paying homage and reparations to stolen Ohlone land and ancient traditions of her heritage, local BIPOC sculpturist and designer, Maha Taitano designed “Dancing Waters” with the community and for the community alongside Community Arts and Empowerment director Kathleen Crocetti. Through a grant received from the CARD (City Arts Recovery Design) Program, Kathleen and Maha joined creative forces and voices to empower BIPOC artists and acknowledge the ancient water traditions that shaped Santa Cruz.

The 480 square foot mural comprised of glass mosaic on lightweight substrate was crafted on 32, 3’x5’ panels, each weighing in at 50 lbs. Designed to be removed and stored if necessary, the mosaic was a three month undertaking involving over 80 volunteers giving over 1200 hours of time to the project. Mosaic, Kathleen says, lends itself well with community involvement, something both Kathleen and Maha feel is one of the greatest benefits of this mural. 

“This project supports culture and community and the essence of home – the public gets to participate and have ownership and pride.” Something Maha feels is “huge.” “Public art is really important for the culture of a community and the town. I think that it helps bring peace and connection to people and especially with diverse people,” says Maha.

The theme of water and restorative justice resonated strongly with Maha as she approached the design of the mural, incorporating the roots of her Chamorro ancestors and the community she calls home. And Kathleen was on board. The basis of the project, Katheen says, was to support and uplift BIPOC artists in the community. Kathleen served as the project manager and lead artist, having many years of experience with large public art projects, but mentored Maha to take initiative on the project as a way of empowering her to step into the light as the brilliant artist, organizer and teacher that she is. Maha says that Kathleen is an exemplary model of what true white allyship should be.

Community feedback was an important aspect of the mural’s creation. Local cultural storytellers were invited to share stories of the Pacific Islanders and the Ohlone as a way to inform and contribute to community knowledge about the past. The influence of these stories had a great impact on those attending and Maha used their feedback to bring in elements to the design that folks felt were important. Traditions of weaving, land based knowledge, cycles of water and cultural symbolism and colors were incorporated into the piece along with the sun and moon, sea life, people, boats, surfboards, fishing and other seafaring activities.

It’s a gorgeous offering of gratitude and homage to our cultural roots, the circle of water, life and knowledge never to be forgotten.

Stop by and see this spectacular mosaic on the River Front Garage on Front Street along the San Lorenzo River Walk. Look for more amazing projects and collaborations to come from Maha Taitano and Kathleen Crocetti. 

On Instagram: @maha_taitano and @kathleencrocetti