21 for ’21: Kathleen Crocetti takes on the ambition of creating art that reflects everyone in Watsonville

Kathleen Crocetti
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Artist and teacher Kathleen Crocetti is using an imposing downtown parking structure in Watsonville to reflect the character and the heritage of the city

Where everyone else saw an enormous gray concrete block in the middle of Watsonville, artist Kathleen Crocetti saw a canvas.

A long-time resident of Watsonville and an art teacher at Mission Hill Middle School in Santa Cruz, Crocetti has led one of the most ambitious public art projects in Santa Cruz County’s history.

The object of the project is the six-story Civic Plaza parking garage adjacent to the Watsonville Public Library and the Superior Courthouse, in the heart of downtown Watsonville. And its aim is to create imagery that does nothing less than represent the city’s rich cultural heritage through its wide variety of immigrant groups.

Lookout's 21 for '21

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“Watsonville Brillante,” as it’s being called, is a five-year project that kicked off in the early weeks of 2019. It is, on one level, a magnificent showcase for celebrated Chicano artist Juan R. Fuentes who grew up picking fruit in the fields of the Pajaro Valley and Monterey County.

Fuentes, 70, who became the first in his family to earn a diploma when he graduated from Watsonville High in 1969, is the visionary behind the 60-foot-tall twin images that were both completed in 2020.

Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project are two separate Fuentes works, based on his woodcut style, called respectively “The Strawberry Picker” and “The Apple Picker.”

Kathleen Crocetti
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Those images and all the others to be part of the “Brillante” project are to be rendered in mosaic tile, Crocetti’s medium of choice. It’s in the tile work where Crocetti envisioned the other key aspect to the project: community participation. As the executive director of the non-profit Community Art Empowerment, Crocetti is recruiting hundreds of locals in the creative process of mounting, including battalions of young people from local schools.

Unfortunately, one of the years in the project’s five-year timeline turned out to be 2020, and the pandemic has thrown a wrinkle in Crocetti’s planning and logistics. For example, “The Strawberry Picker,” the project’s first mosaic mural, was put together by more than 180 people applying tiles to 4x8 plywood panels.

Because of restrictions brought on by the pandemic, the second mural was mounted by about a tenth of the workforce.

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That’s not stopped Crocetti and her team from pushing forward in planning the third phase of the project, which is to cover the blank expanse facing Rodriguez Street, which is in fact much bigger than the previous two spaces.

Coming in at around 2,400 square feet, the third Fuentes image will be called “Hermanita,” a portrait of an indigenous woman, wrapped in a poncho of culturally significant patterned textiles.

“We’re thinking of her as the sister of equality,” said Crocetti, “and not just equality for women, but for cultural equality of all people.”

Working the tiles
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Covering the immense vertical exteriors of the parking garage is a big reach by itself. But that’s only a part of the “Brillante” project. The other piece of it has to do with the much smaller, but much more numerous horizontal faces on the garage. Measuring at about 40 inches high and 8 to 10 feet long, the horizontals are to be covered with mosaic tiles as well— and there are 185 of those.

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While Fuentes, a commanding California artist and cultural activist, is the visionary behind the vertical spaces, the horizontals will be the creative work of Watsonville’s people. Crocetti’s idea is to give those spaces over to local artists to create works that reflect their cultural and geographical heritage.

“I myself, I’m European,” she said. “My background is Italian, Croatian, and Irish. And I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation for me to draw from those European countries. But I’m not going to draw something from the Philippines or Mexico or any other place. We’re reaching out to local artists to submit drawings that will represent their culture on the horizontal sections.”

Kathleen Crocetti
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The artistic scope of the project is daunting enough, but Crocetti is also facing head-on a considerable logistical challenge in organizing the tile workers, overseeing the submission process for the local artists, bringing in donations of mosaic tiles and other resources, shoring up political support in city government and in the community, balancing the various strands of ethnic representation, and working to make sure the project is in keeping with what Fuentes envisions for his work.

In the end, it means covering about 12,500 square feet of the downtown parking garage, to finish up, presumably in a community celebration long past the need for masks and social distancing, in 2024.

“The thread is to connect all the residents of Watsonville,” said Crocetti. “That’s the big idea. It’s going to be really complicated. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. But it will happen.”