Dancing Waters: Ambitious new downtown public art project to reflect water’s centrality to Santa Cruz history and culture

mosaic artists at work
Part of the “Dancing Waters” mosaic project, slated to be installed on the San Lorenzo River side of downtown Santa Cruz’s River Front Garage.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mosaic artists are working on a stained-glass art piece that is expected to be unveiled sometime in June on what is known as the River Front parking garage. “Dancing Waters” will eventually be a series of panels of stained-glass mosaic, brought together to form one large mural-like image that evokes the centrality of water to human life in the area, particularly Santa Cruz’s continuing dependence on both the ocean and the river that flows into it.

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For months, it was fairly quiet in the building that contains Lookout’s downtown Santa Cruz offices.

We do our work on the first floor of what’s known as the NIAC Building, the two-toned, cocoa-and-cream colored structure in between the Metro bus station and the ongoing construction of new affordable housing between Pacific Avenue and Front Street. Despite the noise and dust from the construction next door, the building itself was often as quiet as a tomb, which makes sense given that Lookout was the building’s only tenant. (The NIAC is slated to be razed in the coming months to make room for even more housing units and a new bus station.)

That changed back in March when we began to hear voices and footfalls above us on the building’s second floor. Suddenly, we had neighbors. And they were creating a buzz.

Those new neighbors, it turned out, were artists, working on a specific project that, unlike the NIAC, will likely be part of downtown Santa Cruz for decades to come. The project is called “Dancing Waters” and it will eventually be a series of panels of stained-glass mosaic, brought together to form one large mural-like image that evokes the centrality of water to human life in the area, particularly Santa Cruz’s continuing dependence on both the ocean and the river that flows into it.

The stained-glass art piece is expected to be unveiled sometime in June, on what is known as the River Front parking garage. If you’re walking along the San Lorenzo River levee between the Wells Fargo Bank and the former Regal Theater (now The 418 Project), you’ll be able to view it, in all its glory, on adjoining vertical planes of the garage.

If this sounds to you like the mosaic artwork in downtown Watsonville, that’s no coincidence. “Dancing Waters” is the work of Community Arts & Empowerment, the same arts group, led by mosaic artist Kathleen Crocetti, that designed, created and mounted the dazzling mosaic portraits known as “Watsonville Brillante.”

Mosaic artist Maha Taitano at work.
Artist Maha Taitano overseeing the construction of the ambitious mosaic project. Taitano has been working with Kathleen Crocetti for more than six years.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Dancing Waters” is mostly the vision of Santa Cruz-based sculptor and installation artist Maha Taitano, drawn largely from the myths and iconography of her heritage as a Pacific Islander, and the cultural links between that heritage and Santa Cruz’s history, from seafaring to surfing.

“I was looking at the history of Santa Cruz,” said Taitano in her makeshift studio on the NIAC’s second floor, surrounded by thousands of glass tiles and a handful of volunteers working on the panels of the mural. “And I was looking at the cultures that make up contemporary Santa Cruz. So we had an Ohlone storyteller and a Hawaiian storyteller come in and meet with us. And they told stories, mostly revolving around water.”

mosaic artists at work
Dancing Waters mosaic artists at work.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

From those stories — and input from community members on those stories and the meaning of water in local culture — Taitano fashioned the long, horizontal sketch that would form the basis for the finished mural.

Unlike the Watsonville project, which looms over downtown and can actually be spotted a mile away from Highway 1, the Santa Cruz project is not as prominent, and is oriented toward the riverwalk. It’s one part in the planned redevelopment of the riverwalk on the downtown side of the river that might one day form a seamless consistency with the new vision of the riverwalk to be created by the development projects between Soquel Avenue and Laurel Street. There’s also an echo with the project in the nearby Chinese Dragon gate, designed to commemorate the former Chinatown in Santa Cruz and erected in 2020 during the pandemic. The gate was created by Crocetti and concrete artist Tom Ralston.

mosaic artists at work
Dancing Waters mosaic art.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Another difference is the materials — ceramic tiles in Watsonville give way to stained glass in Santa Cruz, which will, of course, create a characteristic aesthetic impression for viewers. But the most significant difference between the two projects is architectural. While the mosaic tiles in Watsonville are now and forever part of the parking structure there, the glass panels in Santa Cruz will be, to a large degree, portable. That means if the River Front garage is to be demolished one day for some future new development plan — a distinct possibility given the scope of redevelopment in Santa Cruz — the “Dancing Waters” mural will not have to go down with it. It can, in fact, be moved and erected somewhere else.

Kathryn Mintz of the city’s arts commission said that the project represents something more permanent than a mural on a wall, which can always be painted over.

“It’s a way of transforming it from the temporary nature of muralism,” she said, “to something that’s really going to be able to last and be a community resource for years to come.”

Like many traditional murals, however, “Dancing Waters” takes a macro view, with a wide variety of images coming together to form one cohesive whole, suggesting the four seasons, the precipitation/evaporation water cycle, wildlife, and human habitation from the times of Indigenous peoples to the present day.

mosaic volunteer Owen Forest at work
Volunteer Owen Forest works on the large mosaic.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Under Crocetti’s direction, the Watsonville Brillante project enlisted scores of local volunteers to help with the daunting task of creating the huge murals. “Dancing Waters” has adopted the same playbook, bringing in, to date, up to 40 community volunteers to break and shape pieces of stained glass to apply to the 32 individual panels that will make up the finished piece. In the final weeks of the project, Taitano said that she can still use volunteers to assist. Anyone over 13 can participate; those between 11 and 13 can also participate with an accompanying adult.

Kathleen Crocetti and the artists of Community Arts & Empowerment, whose mosaic mural you might have seen in...

The project is still awaiting its final permits from the city, but it’s expected that the “Dancing Waters” panels will be applied to the River Front garage before the end of June. Mintz said the city would hold some kind of commemoration or event for the occasion.

Mintz said that she was particularly excited about the mural’s portability, that whatever comes out of the NIAC Building this month will remain an abiding feature of the Santa Cruz landscape for generations to come.

“What we’ve done is we’ve planned out the obsolescence,” she said. “Hopefully, if that area is ever redeveloped — and at some point it will be — we can sidestep the heartbreak that would go with tearing it down.”


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