the "Dancing Waters" stained glass art installment on the River Front Garage in downtown Santa Cruz
The “Dancing Waters” stained glass art installment on the River Front Garage in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Santa Cruz

Stained glass ‘Dancing Waters’ now adorns downtown Santa Cruz’s River and Front entryway

The “Dancing Waters” installation on the San Lorenzo River-facing side of the downtown River Front Garage is 32 panels of stained glass, documenting Santa Cruz’s long, enduring relationship with water. It’s ambitious public art, and maybe just the beginning of a new wave of it as redevelopment gallops along.

A visually boring part of downtown Santa Cruz is today a lot less visually boring.

On Wednesday, city officials unveiled a brand-new piece of public art called “Dancing Waters,” a series of 32 panels of stained glass that, taken together, form two broad narrative mosaics, one atop the other, paying homage to Santa Cruz’s long dependence on water, dating back to the time before it was even called Santa Cruz.

The visually boring part is, of course, the parking garage between River and Front streets. The new mural now occupies two levels of previously gray concrete facing the San Lorenzo River on River Street, which many locals experience only as the approach to or getaway from the chaos of the Trader Joe’s parking lot.

“Dancing Waters” is the work of artist/designer Maha Taitano, and was slowly put together over the course of four months by Taitano, her prominent mosaic-artist collaborator, Kathleen Crocetti, and a battalion of local volunteers. In creating the piece, Taitano drew from her own Pacific Islander heritage as well as cultural myths and traditions from Hawaiians and local Indigenous peoples.

In her remarks at the official unveiling, Taitano referenced much of the rich imagery represented in the mural, pointing to Santa Cruz’s dependence on the San Lorenzo River, its place in the history of surfing and the piece’s connection with the nearby Chinese dragon gate on River Street. She eventually landed at, “If anyone wants to know more, there’s a lot in there, so come talk to me.”

Local officials stressed that the panels that make up the mural — each weighing about 50 pounds — are removable, meaning that if the parking structure is ever targeted for redevelopment or removal, the art piece can be saved. That suggests that the mural could conceivably have a new home one day. Given the ambitious plans for downtown redevelopment, particularly farther down Front Street along the Riverwalk, “Dancing Waters” could be merely the first in several new projects in the city.

The obvious parallel, of course, is downtown Watsonville, where one particularly large white-elephant parking structure was transformed into a striking and stunningly vibrant series of mosaic murals under the title “Watsonville Brillante.” Crocetti was the guiding force behind that major project, and she lent her expertise and energy to this project. One of Santa Cruz County’s most prominent and busiest visual artists recently retired from her job as an art teacher at Mission Hill Middle School.

“Now I’m a full-time artist,” she said with a gleeful giggle. “I can’t believe it.”

Thinking of the public art she’s already done, on a part-time basis, and considering all the opportunities for public art as Santa Cruz transforms as well as all the other artists she’s inspired and enabled, “Dancing Waters” might be just the beginning of a new wave of art in the city.

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the "Dancing Waters" stained glass art installment on the River Front Garage in downtown Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)