What started as a graffiti removal program has blossomed into one of the County’s most beloved artistic endeavors. One by one, traffic signal boxes are getting artistic makeovers. The Santa Cruz County Parks Department’s Outside the Box (OTB) program has employed more than a dozen local artists to beautify otherwise dull utility boxes. They are being transformed into one-of-a-kind pieces of public art adorned with butterflies, robots, marine life—even composer Lou Harrison.
Some of the more aesthetically sensitive Santa Cruzans have complained that the wearisome grey monoliths that are our signal boxes seem out of place in contrast to the great natural beauty that otherwise saturates Surf City. Additionally, by taking the urban landscape from drab to fab, OTB is reducing the County’s graffiti problem by occupying an otherwise tempting blank canvas.
“Outside the Box has been successful in reducing graffiti on the traffic boxes, and the community certainly appreciates seeing artwork as they walk or drive by,” says OTB Program Coordinator Kathy Dewild. “We’ve received only positive comments about the project.”
Dewild said that so far 42 boxes have been painted, and that a call to artists will go out for Phase 6 of the program, likely in 2017 or 2018.
The artists participating in the OTB program come from all walks of life. Some are full-time artists; others paint part-time or hold down three jobs to make ends meet. A few are teachers and musicians. Each has a unique story and journey of how they came to Santa Cruz and became involved with OTB. SantaCruz.com sat down with seven of the contributing artists to discuss their experiences, the Santa Cruz artistic community, and what OTB means to them.
Featured Photo: Artist Peter Bartczak on site painting his work “Lou Harrison” at 7th Avenue and Capitola Rd. See finished product below.
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY SANTA CRUZ COUNTY PARKS
Ann Thiermann is a classically trained landscape, portrait and mural artist, painting both on location and in her Santa Cruz studio. Her pastel and acrylic paintings from California and abroad provide the visual resources for her murals and hang as fine art in national and international collections. She teaches Studio Art college classes at Cabrillo College and Cabrillo Extension and offers art workshops in her studio and abroad.
What is it like being an artist here in Santa Cruz?
It’s hard. There are so many artists here! And the ultimate goal is to get the art outside of Santa Cruz. I get inspiration from the people in Santa Cruz. I split my time between teaching, art, and doing murals. I’m a musician. I need to paint. And I need to teach. I’m pretty disciplined; I have to be!
How did you get involved in OTB?
I met [OTB program coordinator] Kathy Dewild and there were a lot of box options for me. You just submit a drawing; it was a great process. First it was the ‘Sunflowers’ [at Soquel Dr. and Rodeo Gulch]. Then it was a child. Then it was ‘Together’. We’re in Santa Cruz together—we’re in this together.
What does OTB mean to you? What is it doing for Santa Cruz?
The ‘Sunflowers’—it became a little monument. People are so appreciative! They say “This means so much what you’re doing,” and “This is the best Christmas present ever!” When you paint an area you reclaim it. A painted environment suggests a lived-in environment. It represents care and it makes you feel safe. The boxes create nests—moments of beauty in an urban world. I can connect people in a sense of harmony. I like to incorporate myself in my murals. I’m a part of Santa Cruz.
Ann Thiermann’s signal box artwork can be seen at Park Ave. & Cabrillo College Dr.; Soquel Dr. & Rodeo Gulch Rd.; Soquel Dr. & State Park Dr.
Peter Bartczak has spent the last three decades in Soquel where he is “Chief Clown” at Clownbank Studio, his graphic art business. Bartczak is a master of airbrushing, and murals are his primary love. He has developed techniques that allow him to airbrush highly detailed, realistic images on a large scale on any surface. Bartczak began designing logos for small mom and pop stores, painting their signs and murals, and soon attracted bigger clients such as Disney, Universal Studio Tours, and Atari.
What is it like being an artist in Santa Cruz County?
I’m a local and I love this town so much. My first impression? It was like a thunderball hit my chest. It’s a hard place to beat! I used to hang out with a lot of artists. We were all poor and just trying to make a living. People with money buy art from San Francisco, not from local artists. Almost every artist needs a day job. Only 3 percent, maybe, of us make a living from art. It’s easier to be a commercial artist than a fine artist. People just don’t buy art. And most people feel like they don’t need to pay artists for what they do. Art is whimsical (people don’t need it) and artists get exploited. But Santa Cruz is a beautiful place!”
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m repainting the carousel horses at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. My technique is airbrushing, and there’s a lot of drudgery involved in mastering that. But I don’t ever want to be a robot. Something with heart is better than something with perfect technique. Now I don’t have the pressure of making a living with art. Priorities shifted, and I can enjoy the process more. The space it puts me into when I’m working on a piece is most important.
How did you get involved in OTB?
Any artist always keeps an ear out for projects and gigs. Kathy Dewild did a good job with outreach. I had a design and they really liked it. The rest is history. If you live for your art and enjoy what you do, to hell with the rest! I like there being a practical aspect to art. It’s more alive. I’ve been to Europe. You go to Europe and there’s art everywhere. In America there are ads and signs everywhere.
What does OTB mean to you?
I see everything as a blank canvas. I see signal boxes and they’re ugly, industrial. The finished boxes quicken your spirit; they give you a lift. Most people live in a narrow corridor and don’t notice a lot—they do notice the boxes when they’re finished. The $500 [stipend] helps a lot of local artists. You try to grab as many jobs as you can. There needs to be more projects like this. To me, the payment is a spiritual kind of payment. The true payment is feeling like I was part of the community—that I’m making a difference. I can take pigments and brushes and make an image that is actually alive. And that is beautiful.
Peter Bartczak’s signal box artwork can be seen at 7th Avenue and Capitola Rd.; Freedom Blvd. & Soquel Dr.
Arturo Thomae is a Santa Cruz muralist, artist and painter. After settling in Aptos in 1972, Thomae has painted commercial and residential murals ever since. Thomae does his work outdoors, and whether it’s sunny and warm or cold and damp, he keeps busy. After taking art classes at community colleges, he gradually became more skilled and began painting murals.
What is like being an artist in Santa Cruz County?
There are so many artists here. The community is fantastic. I’ve been told we’re in the top 10 percent of artists in the United States. There is such a good cross-culture here in Santa Cruz—the music, the Tannery. There’s certainly a need for more art, though. We need more so people can express themselves and improve the area. If it weren’t for my wife, I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I was in the Marines in the ‘60s. If there was more art there would be less war!
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got two projects going right now. One is a 160-foot wall in Salinas, but we’re waiting for the weather to clear. The other is a huge condor with a ten-foot wingspan. I’ve been getting a lot of commissions for graffiti abatement. The taggers don’t want to touch my work.
What does Outside the Box mean to you? What does it mean for Santa Cruz?
Art is extremely important to me and for the community. Every time I go by a signal box, I get ideas for what I want to do. I’d even love to do them for free. It would be great to get more programs and more money, though. Art will define our culture and our society. Our art is our culture! We’re all working artists, and this is our job and our business. I enjoy being on the street and doing the art you see on the street. You’re out there painting and having a good time. I probably look like an old bum. I wear old clothes and am covered with paint. This is the most fun you can have with your clothes on!
Arturo Thomae’s signal box artwork can be seen at Soquel Avenue & 17th Avenue; Soquel Drive & Park Avenue.
Vanessa Stafford is a local painter, illustrator, animator and digital video creator. Her series Artists airs regularly on Community Television of Santa Cruz. She received a teaching credential and a BS in graphic design from San Jose State. Stafford mostly paints with acrylics and oils and loves to capture local scenes.
What are you currently working on?
I’m mostly a landscape/cityscape artist. I also paint imaginary-type fantasy subject matter with acrylics. The inspiration I feel while painting is very engaging and challenging. I love looking forward to getting started on any new venture or project with painting. In the beginning, I was more timid about what I could do. I love trying new things these days!
What is it like painting utility boxes for OTB?
It’s really exhilarating! And painting a utility box is adventurous. There can be a few problems, depending on where the box is located. I painted a cabinet for the City of Santa Cruz on the corner of Pacific and Laurel with many types of people walking around and past me. I was a little worried about getting hassled by drunk people and stoned people, but nothing bad happened. It was actually fun, even when people hit me up for spare change. One woman absolutely demanded that I buy her a burrito. Since I knew her a little, I bought her a burrito.
How did you get involved with OTB?
I have been painting images for Outside the Box since its inception. I found out about OTB from an email sent to me from the County of Santa Cruz. From the start, other artists really hope to get chosen for Outside the Box. Some have been rejected. Some are chosen again and again. I choose ideas that are part of the history of Santa Cruz County. The public arts committee are the ones that choose what image they want to be painted on the cabinet. For example, out of six ideas you send in for your proposal, you might have only one chosen by the arts committee members.
Vanessa Stafford’s signal box artwork can be seen at Soquel Dr. & Cabrillo College West Entrance; 17th Ave. & Brommer St.; Capitola Rd. & Chanticleer Ave.; Green Valley Rd. & Airport / Holohan Rd.; Freedom Blvd. & Aptos High; Porter & Main St.
Sophie Webb is an ornithologist, artist, and author living in Santa Cruz, CA. Her travels as a biologist and artist studying and painting birds have taken her from the Amazon to the Arctic and Antarctic. She creates field guide plates that are based on observation and field study. Webb also writes and illustrates children’s books with pencil sketches and watercolor, and gouache paintings.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on three series of fairly small acrylic paintings. They each take a long time and some are not successful or are over-worked, but I am loving the process. I love birds, wildlife, and in general, art and natural history. I have found a way to combine those interests and I hope to give others some pleasure too.
What does the Outside the Box program mean for artists like you and the community?
Outside the Box gives us great exposure and it’s a fun project. I love it when I drive around Santa Cruz and see all the different ways artists have enhanced and beautified the town with their paintings on the boxes. Art is an important element in any society. It can express so many things: beauty, angst, anger, politics. The list is endless. A society without art—visual, literary, or music—is flat.
What was it like to paint utility boxes for Outside the Box?
It’s so much fun, and a great way to engage with the community. When I was painting the boxes I received so many thank you’s and positive feedback. It was inspiring. I usually work very small so I was working really outside my box. When it was hot frequently, the paint would dry too fast, so I had to continually spray it.
If you could have one magical power that you could use to make art, what would it be?
Breathing life into my paintings.
Sophie Webb’s signal box artwork can be seen at 17th Ave. & East Cliff Dr./Portola Dr.; Graham Hill Rd.& Lockewood Ln.
Bruce Harman has been an artist locally since moving to Santa Cruz from the east coast in 1982. Many of his paintings from his studio, Harmon Visions, are inspired by spontaneous visions in meditation and quiet moments. An abiding interest in spiritual ideas from many sources informs his personal philosophy, while a fascination with sacred geometry guides compositions and symbols embedded in the work. Harman’s paintings typically start as acrylics, and then he makes his own prints and finishes each by hand.
What does Outside the Box mean to you and local artists?
Of course it’s fun to be driving and see the work I’ve done on display. It’s the ultimate democratic art, a polar opposite to the elite gallery scene. Unpretentious, colorful, direct, and unaffected. It helped me to open up the energy of self-promotion, a subject repellent to many creatives. It’s forced me to work briskly, and enjoy completion in days, not months.
What was your experience painting the utility boxes?
Being an illustrator for a few years, I knew I could do the work technically, but was a bit apprehensive about the large size and the outdoors as a studio. I dove in and found it quite fun. It’s a performance art, since there are always cars going by or stopped at the lights, staring at the work going on. And the noise! A constant stream of supportive shout-outs and horns blaring. Harleys and pickups roaring by making you jump out of your skin—not the quiet space I’m used to, but it helped by forcing me to paint faster and bolder.
How would you describe your artistic process?
I have great admiration for painters who are productive and disciplined, but that’s not me. I eke out a painting over the course of months, and am thoroughly tired of it by the time I am finished. Each one takes the challenges a step further, so every painting is hard work. I wish it were different, but that seems to be my way. My deepest inspiration is in the sacred art tradition. Spanning centuries and countries across the globe, sacred art aims at something well beyond the personal ego. We must do the work, even if it never gets noticed.
Bruce Harman’s signal box artwork can be seen at Green Valley Rd. & Paulsen Rd.; Soquel Dr. & Capitola Rd.
Margo Mullen began her prodigious artistic career at the age of four when she won an international art competition and her work was featured on the cover of a children’s magazine. Since then, Mullen, through her studio studiomargo has been creating “acrylic, encaustic, photography, and public art” throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Mullen is perhaps most famous for her cute and quirky robots. She earned a degree in Public Art at California State University, Monterey Bay and is currently working on her MFA in Social Practices at Otis College of Art and Design.
What role does the artist have in society?
This is a great question and one I think we as a society always need to be addressing and questioning. For me, I believe it is the duty of an artist to speak the truth, to be a reflection of the times, to create work that makes people question and stop for a moment. Specifically for my practice of radical friendliness and in a turbulent time, to create work that heals the hearts of our community. Being an artist anywhere means making work about the truth, either my personal truth or the truth of society as a whole.
What does the Outside the Box program mean for you, and artists in Santa Cruz?
The program is a fantastic program and I know it means so much to the artists who have the opportunity to create on the boxes as well as the communities that get to interact with the work. I have painted four boxes and each time I learn from them and get to connect with that specific community. I love being able to connect with people through the arts. I want to create a space of care for one another, we are all connected. I want to create moments of compassion using radical friendliness. My first traffic box was the Robot Love on Soquel and Morrissey, which is where I also met my friend Doug Ross, who recently passed on to art heaven.
What are you currently working on that excites you?
Right now I’m currently working on my MFA thesis show in Los Angeles. I’m about to complete my thesis paper about Radical Generosity, Hospitality, and Pedagogy within the Social Practice field. I am excited to share my two-year journey in Los Angeles with an exhibition here in May.
Margo Mullen’s signal box artwork can be seen at Capitola Rd. & 17th Ave.; 17th Ave. & Felt St.; Green Valley Rd & Minto Rd.; Soquel Ave. & Morrissey
An article on the Outside the Box program would be incomplete without writing about local artist Doug Ross, who passed away suddenly in December of 2016 at the age of 55. Ross played an integral role in the development of Santa Cruz’s Outside the Box program, and ended up painting more utility boxes than any other local artist. His work is spread across Santa Cruz County, but the legacy he leaves behind is so much more than art.
When Ross and his wife Ginger Mosney came to Santa Cruz from Toronto 25 years ago. The flora, fauna, and scenery of the Monterey Bay area captured his heart and never let go. A self-described eco-warrior, Ross was passionate about Monterey Bay and all of its creatures. Thousands of birds and marine animals in the Monterey Bay owe their lives to Doug Ross, who during his short life regularly went on daring missions to rescue marine mammals entangled in the lines of crab pots or fishing lines. Ross once said, “We humans were the cause of a lot of problems for these animals and it was a moral imperative for us not to let them die.” Volunteering for the Whale Entanglement Team (WET), Ross invented a highly sophisticated type of telemetry buoy that could triangulate the location of whales in trouble. Marine life and Santa Cruz became the dominant subject of Ross’ art.
In an artist statement he made before he passed away, Doug Ross described his artistic process: “Whether it’s art or illustration, I try to create images that convey an idea without unnecessary details. I minimize everything as much as possible, to get at the essence of the thing.” On his website, Ross wrote that “simplicity and being true to the form along with clarity of communication are paramount goals.”
You can see Doug Ross’s signal box art at Soquel Dr. & Mission Dr.; Soquel Dr. & Commercial Crossing; Soquel Dr. & Thurber Ln.; Empire Grade & Heller Dr.