As 19 murals went up around Santa Cruz last month, Bridget Lyons made a point to visit each of them. She took photos of blank walls before the artists began working and helped bring food to the teams across town. A member of the City Arts Commission, Lyons was watching a project unfold that she helped approve months earlier.
“It was an easy decision for a number of reasons,” she says. The project, called Sea Walls Santa Cruz, was organized by PangeaSeed, an international foundation working on public art installations in coastal cities around the world.
“In their proposal, they showed evidence for having been able to pull off events of this size before,” says Lyons. “And they also showed an obvious commitment to marine health issues and ocean advocacy issues. And that for them, it was absolutely an art event and an art festival, but it was also something called Artivism, or activism through art.”
While certainly the biggest, the Sea Walls project is not the only recent Artivism project in Santa Cruz. Environmental organizations of all sizes are getting creative.
A drop in the ocean
For the Sea Walls project, “the proposal included ideas like having artists go on field trips to learn about specific ocean issues in the Santa Cruz area, incorporating local communities, and incorporating local schoolchildren,” says Lyons.
The foundation brought in artists from around the country and partnered with the local artist collective Made Fresh Crew. Taylor Reinhold, the Made Fresh Crew founder, worked with PangeaSeed for about two-and-a-half years to bring the concept to life.
“It’s the largest beautification project in Santa Cruz history,” he says, adding that because of external funding, “the city basically spent what one mural would normally cost to get 20 murals.”
The organizers also tried to minimize their impact by using eco-friendly paint. All the artists who worked with bucket paint—instead of something like spray paint—used recycled latex paint called Smog Armor. The Florida-based company claims that a mineral formulation in the paint also captures carbon.
“We’re excited to be able to not only create murals that serve as environmental education tools but ones that also act as carbon sinks,” says Akira Biondo, the director of operations for PangeaSeed. It isn’t clear exactly how effective those “sinks” will be, but the murals now serve as bright homages to ocean conservation.
Circling the drain
In another recent project, local artists partnered with communities and the Coastal Watershed Council to paint storm drain murals along the San Lorenzo River. Each one raises awareness about the importance of watershed health.
Starting in 2017, the Coastal Watershed Council began holding community meetings in the beach flats and neighborhoods along the river. The group wanted to know what people liked about their area and what they wanted to improve.
The most common feedback was the desire for more community gatherings, less trash and more public art. The council decided to tackle the requests with storm drain murals.
“They would bring people together to design and install them. They would increase public awareness about stormwater pollution and how litter and trash move from our communities into our waterways. And they would bring that public art component,” says Laurie Egan, the programs director for the Coastal Watershed Council.
After the first murals went up in Beach Flats Park and Felker and Pryce streets, residents requested another in Poet’s Park.
So local artist and community organizer Irene Juarez O’Connell began working with the neighborhood to design a new piece.
“A few months before the install, we put a bunch of paper on the floor around the storm drain and put out markers and invited the community to draw directly on the ground,” she says.
When it came time to paint, Juarez O’Connell again invited the public to participate.
“It’s very sweet, because some of the kids are able to say, ‘Look, I painted that turtle,’ or ‘That’s my butterfly.’ And they’re excited about it, and they have ownership over it,” she says.
The Poet’s Park mural highlights native species that live along the San Lorenzo River. Gumweed, California rose, coho salmon and other important species dot the piece. In the center, Juarez O’Connell painted the original Awaswas name for the Santa Cruz coastal area: Aulintak. It means “place of the red abalone,” she explains.
“The reason I chose to include the Indigenous name for Santa Cruz is to honor the importance of Indigenous stewardship in protecting and preserving not only our waterways, but our entire ecosystem and landscape,” she says. “That is a big part of the solution to the climate catastrophe.”
Juarez O’Connell considers herself an “Artivist.” She feels motivated by the power art has to shift culture. And she expects those shifts in culture to then shape policy.
“I believe that art is one of the many ways that we can communicate our vision for what’s possible,” she says. “It’s also a way for us to reckon with what’s present.”
Her newest storm drain mural does both for people of all ages.
“We’ve been able to continue that education and awareness with the kids who helped design it and their classmates by doing field trips from Bay View Elementary to actually go to the storm drains themselves, see the murals and follow what the path of a raindrop would be,” says Egan of the Coastal Watershed Council.
The Coastal Watershed Council carefully considered sealants and environmental concerns for the murals before beginning the projects. In light of the first few successes, the group now plans to create a formal program through the City. It would allow any neighborhood to install its own storm drain mural.
Trash to treasure
Artivism doesn’t just take the shape of murals. Local nonprofit Save Our Shores is currently calling for entries in two ocean-related art contests.
The organization has hosted an annual Marine Protected Area (MPA) photo and video contest—called the Waves and Wildlife exhibition—since 2016. It challenges people to appreciate and capture interesting moments in the many local MPAs.
Participants must submit entries by the end of the day on Oct. 23 to be eligible for prizes. The group will host a virtual awards ceremony on Nov. 5.
Save Our Shores also created a new plastic pollution art contest. The contest sprang out of a larger sustainability campaign.
“We had decided to launch this petition to try to get all of the municipalities in both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties to move away from all single-use plastic beverage bottles,” says Gail McNulty, a communications manager for Save Our Shores.
The pandemic delayed those plans, but it didn’t scrap them entirely. Save Our Shores hopes to use some of the entries from the contest to promote the petition.
The nonprofit welcomes entries from all ages. The art should include recycled plastic beverage bottles and highlight the effects of single-use plastics on the ocean. Submissions will close on Nov. 3.
“Art has a tremendous potential to make change,” says McNulty. “The visual can have an impact that resonates with people more directly and in a more memorable way than data.”
The groups hope that inviting the community to participate directly in Artivism will grow that personal connection to environmental stewardship even more.
For information about the Plastic Pollution Contest and the Waves and Wildlife Exhibition, visit saveourshores.org. For information about the Sea Walls Santa Cruz initiative, visit seawalls.org/activation/santa-cruz-usa/. For information about the storm drain murals, visit bit.ly/2YTHaTn.