Santa Cruz: Beyond the beach

March 16, 2015
Detail of a mosaic that volunteers are making at the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. The mosaics are part of the Ebb & Flow arts project and the community build going on at the Tannery Arts Center.

Back in my high school days in California, we were all about the beach, and Santa Cruz was the ultimate summer hot spot for us cool kids living in San Jose. Just a short hop over the hill in my ’84 Mustang GT, my gal pals and I would make a blinders-on beeline for the Boardwalk’s sand, sun and swabs of cotton candy crystallizing in the soggy seaside air. We’d ride the creaky wood-ribbed rails of the Giant Dipper until we could do the dip no more. It was awesome.

But, wow, did we miss a lot.

Now in my advanced years, I see there’s far more to Santa Cruz than meets the surf. In fact, the beach is not the only aquatic attraction. The San Lorenzo River runs right through the center of town. Once fished by the Ohlones and celebrated by early dwellers, it was walled off with levees in the 1950s and all but ignored ever since.

Such indifference may soon fade to the past, though, with the debut of the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project. It’s a public art event and sculpture series based around the Tannery Arts Center, kicking off June 6 with a kinetic-arts parade, daylong celebration and the unveiling of permanent and temporary works. Colorful, fused-glass medallions will dangle from trees like gems the size of dinner plates; massive mosaic-wrapped pots will embrace even more massive steel trees; human figures, glowing from within, will be poised with fishing poles on a pedestrian bridge — all with themes relating to the natural landscape and the history of the site. And it’s designed to remind folks about the river as a destination.

If that’s not enough to encourage beyond-the-beach exploration, stroll the rejuvenated downtown streets, grab a scoop of organic candy-cap mushroom or spiced mascarpone prune at the Penny Ice Creamery or bury your nose in Grateful Dead history with the Dead Archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz. More on all that in a moment.

"A lot of people don’t know about this incredible river that’s running through town," says Michelle Williams, director of the Arts Council, Santa Cruz County, which is presenting the summer Ebb & Flow project. "Sixty-five percent of our drinking water in this area comes from the San Lorenzo River. There’s a rich history connected to it. In the late 1800s, they’d hold the Venetian Water Festival. Over the decades there were boat parades, swimming, fishing.

"We want to bring back that sense of celebration around the river. And art is at the core of it."

Ten major temporary works will be positioned at access points along the levees, all produced by local artists — from Geoffrey Nelson’s glowing human figures to art teacher Linda Cover’s "Creature Banners" with student drawings of raccoons and great blue herons. Some of the temporary sculptures will remain at least through June, but the ultimate goal is permanent art, Williams says.

To that end, a series of permanent mosaics — the vision of artists Kathleen Crocetti and Anna Oneglia — will welcome visitors to the Tannery Arts Center, a cluster of barn-red buildings on the river’s bank where the old Salz Tannery once operated. It’s now a thriving complex with residences and studios, its hallways lined with paintings and sculptures. A performing arts center will be completed later this year.

On my recent visit, Crocetti led me to the mosaics’ ultimate destination — three massive concrete planter pots at the entryway.

"These are some of the most uninteresting things you’ll ever see," she says, slapping the side of one of the giant pots, originally placed there to keep people from driving into the main walkway. "We’re going to change all that and make this a focal point. Keep the pots, but wrap each one in beautiful mosaics."

A 12-foot-high stainless-steel tree, created by the master metal craftsmen at Cheney Metals in Watsonville, will be installed in each pot.

Community involvement was key in this project, Crocetti says, and volunteers have spent hundreds of hours in the studio, creating waves of color and splashes of fish, birds and plant life out of tiny colorful chunks of ceramic tile, called tesserae, on large sheets of sticky, flexible plastic to affix to the pots. "The grouting will be another big community event," Crocetti says, chuckling at the thought.

If your grouting arm gets tired, feel free to hop over a few blocks to Santa Cruz’s main downtown drag, Pacific Avenue, and check out the funky vibe — somewhere between the swank of San Jose’s Santana Row and the counterculture quirk of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. There are upscale kitchen supplies at Chefworks and chic "rustic California" dining at the Assembly. But visitors also will find shops offering henna and tarot appointments, a couple of surf shops and plenty of street vendors selling dream catchers and beaded chokers.

A block over at 913 Cedar St. (and at a kiosk on Pacific), you’ll find Penny Ice Creamery, tucked in a tiny tile-roofed, 90-year-old Spanish Colonial Revival building with an open kitchen and production room, where you can watch workers create small batches of ever-changing, intriguing flavors from scratch (orange star-anise sorbet one day, whiskey custard another). After waiting in a line out the door, I had a scoop of ginger honey on a house-made waffle cone. I was in heaven, or at least my mouth was.

Get your tie-dye on and visit the Grateful Dead Archives in the McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz (the band and the school are turning 50 this year). Check out old posters, programs, cover art, news clips, photos, letters. It’s free and open during library hours.

Head down to the wharf and the old Santa Cruz Dream Inn at 175 W. Cliff Drive and check out its new Jack O’Neill cocktail lounge, a near shrine to the man who brought the world the wetsuit. Surfboards line the ceiling, there’s an original prototype wetsuit under glass (said to have been crafted out of neoprene from the carpet of a DC-3), plus vintage photos and a drink menu featuring Jack’s favorite libation, a Ketel One martini.

Of course, there’s still nothing wrong with a trip to the Boardwalk. These days, I like to go there in the early morning, before the crowds hit, and the beach is the sole property of seagulls and a growling sand-grooming vehicle — kind of a beach Zamboni. Workers test the rides, running empty cars through their paces. Speakers blare "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." Vendors set up games such as the milk-bottle toss, three balls for $2 — what a deal! And I could win a large neon-orange baboon? Sold!

Be sure and celebrate (and by celebrate, I mean eat lots of salt water taffy) the 100th birthday of a Boardwalk staple, Marini’s Candies, by the entrance to the arcade. Italian immigrant Victor Marini started this sweet legacy in 1915. The 90-year-old taffy-pulling machine in the window cranks a mesmerizing rhythm. And fluffs of cotton candy whirl onto sticks, soon to crystallize in the soggy seaside air.

 

 





 


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