red ball sculpture
The “RedBall Project” has been all over the planet.
(Kurt Perschke)
The Here & Now

Attention Santa Cruzans, the summer of the big red ball is coming!

THE HERE & NOW: This June, Santa Cruz County will be the latest site for a public-art curiosity that’s been around the planet, delighting sightseers at every stop.

Just when most folks are going to be looking for a return to something like normal, something very abnormal is going to happen in Santa Cruz County this summer — but in a good way.

For six days in the middle of June, a handful of places around the county will be visited by a giant inflatable red rubber ball, to be wedged into various tight places like a scene out of a pandemic-era sequel to “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” (which is totally a real movie and not something I just made up).

It’s called, with admirable directness, the “RedBall Project” and it’s an art installation that has been all over the planet in more than two dozen cities going back 20 years.

I know what you may be thinking: What’s the point?

And the answer is clearly: Yes!

Robb Woulfe, the executive director of the Museum of Art & History, is the guy who will be hosting the giant RedBall (spaces between words are apparently quite passé). And he’s not about to tell anyone why the ball is coming to town or what it means. He and his staff at the MAH will be on hand wherever RedBall pops up, but none of them are necessarily going to call it art.

“People have judgments about that,” said Woulfe, “depending on what their perception of art is. We just look at it as a found experience and let people interpret it however they want to. The art students can go deep and think of the many layers of what it means for society. And the kids can bounce off it and have fun.”

(Thomas Martin)

The 15-foot RedBall is planning a summer residency in Santa Cruz County for six days, June 8-13. For each of those days, it will show up in a different place to be inflated on site. Then it will hang out to pose for selfies and interact with the curious public, just as it’s done in Barcelona, Paris, Busan, Sydney, Montreal, and long list of other chic places, soon to include li’l ol’ Santa Cruz. In fact, other than brief stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco several years ago, Santa Cruz is the first place in California the RedBall will have visited.

How’s that taste, Monterey?

The RedBall’s creator and guardian is Brooklyn-based visual artist Kurt Perschke who, with an assistant, visited Santa Cruz County last week to scout locations and get to know the place. Perschke had never set foot in Santa Cruz before, and that’s the way he likes it. It’s best to go into a city cold, experience it as a newbie, and sense what its character and personality are saying.

“Being an outsider is an advantage,” he told me. “Working in a place where you have no context of how the streets should run or what the signs say is really very helpful.”

Mons, Belgium

Armed with a handful of recommendations from locals on you-gotta-see sites, Perschke traveled from UC Santa Cruz to the Boardwalk to Watsonville and many areas in between looking for spots where RedBall would be comfortable. It’s now up to the MAH to get the permits and permissions (Can you imagine those phone calls?: “Uh, so you want to put a big red what where?”)

Of course, RedBall has a particular resonance at the MAH which, entirely by coincidence, has been using its own red ball as its symbol for years. (The MAH ball dutifully and without hoopla sits on the corner of Cooper and Front streets downtown.)

Woulfe has been at the helm of the MAH for just over a year and in his previous life as a festival coordinator, he experienced the RedBall Project during the Luminato Festival in Toronto in 2008. Even before he began his stint at the MAH, the museum’s iconic red ball reminded him of that cool experience back in ’08.

When it came time to make plans for the MAH’s 25th anniversary in 2021, he reached out to Perschke.

“I was just intrigued by the whole thing,” he said. “I loved what the project represented. I thought, what a beautiful, joyful, wonderful thing to be able to do here at some point. And, with the 25th anniversary, all the pieces came together.”

What neither Woulfe nor Perschke knew about was Santa Cruz’s other brand connection with big red balls. The most prominent commercial logo in these parts is, of course, NHS’s Santa Cruz logo, its distinctive wordmark emblazoned in front of, yes, a big red ball — in NHS argot, it’s known as the “red dot” logo. And I think we’ll all be a little disappointed if RedBall doesn’t visit its blue brothers in the delightfully bizarre “Blue Ball Park” in Soquel.

"Skyballs," by Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, 2001.
The outdoor art at Anna Jean Cummings Park in Soquel is called “Skyballs,” by Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, 2001. It has given the park the nickname “Blue Ball Park.”
(Santa Cruz County Parks)

The Santa Cruz visit will be the RedBall’s first installation since the pandemic shutdown, and, after a year of unsettling weirdness, Woulfe feels that a little positive weirdness is in order. “Given what we’ve gone through,” he said, “we’re even more committed to making this happen.”

After spending a few days getting lost in Santa Cruz County, artist Perschke is also stoked about getting his giant Killer Tomato out in the world again. Even he, knowing next to nothing about Santa Cruz, thinks RedBall will feel right at home.

“I feel like it’s a good match in terms of audience,” he said. “I don’t always get to pick what the audience is going to be like in a given city. But this is going to be a great alignment.”

(Brit Worgan/Brit Worgan)