Art across the water

Colorful painted fish now line the 525-foot-long Aromas Bridge, which stretches over the Pajaro River. The volunteer-run community art project is ongoing. (Johanna Miller/Register-Pajaronian)

Mural project underway on Aromas Bridge

AROMAS—The process of starting a mural project on Aromas Bridge was a challenging one.

The bridge, which connects Aromas to Highway 129 along Rogge Lane, is at the intersection of Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. Permitting was immediately complicated.

“It took a lot of work,” said Rachel Wohlander, Co-Executive Director of local Aromas Organization Terra Cultura, which helped the Aromas Hills Artisans (AHA) facilitate the project from the very start. “We had to find out who had legal jurisdiction. Eventually things landed on Santa Cruz County and we went from there.”

The 525-foot-long bridge that reaches over the Pajaro River had for years remained bare and often a target for graffiti. The community had long been interested in creating a mural on the bridge. Eventually, Terra Cultura stepped in to help AHA get things started. Meetings were held with local leaders to discuss going forward with the project.

“Everyone was for it,” said artist and Aromas Hills Artisans member Linda Bjørnson. “We expected a bit more pushback…but everyone was really enthusiastic.”

For the past few weeks, community volunteers have been hard at work cleaning, priming and finally painting a series of brightly colored fish along the bridge. Things began at the end of the school year, when art students from Anzar High School in San Juan Bautista were brought to the site to start the process.

The idea of fish being the centerpiece came from muralist Joyce Oroz.

“We couldn’t have anything too detailed,” Oroz explained. “We needed something simple but eye-catching.”

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ABOVE: Rachel Wohlander (from left), Linda Bjørnson and Joyce Oroz pose in front of one of Aromas’ many public art pieces. The women helped organize the new mural on the town’s bridge. (Johanna Miller/Register-Pajaronian)

Oroz was inspired by Bjørnson’s stained glass work. Each fish will be outlined in black, and colored with just a handful of pure colors to give it a similar look to stained glass.

But the fish aren’t just a stylistic choice—they also represent an ecological comeback.

The Pajaro River, once one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S., has seen a resurgence of life. In particular of Steelhead trout—who are once again using the river as a migration pathway.

“It’s a way to honor them, and to celebrate them coming back to Aromas,” Wohlander said.

Wohlander moved to the area about a year and a half ago. Having grown up in San Diego and living in New York City for about eight years, she has embraced the small but close-knit, artistic community in Aromas. Terra Cultura is a "teaching farm" for artists, scientists, educators, students and other community members. The organization helped with grant writing and budgeting for the mural project.

“One of the reasons I decided to move here was that I saw all this public art,” Wholander said.

According to Bjørnson, the Aptos Hills Artisans has about 70 members currently—impressive for a town of less than 3,000.

“It’s become a real hot-bed for artists,” Bjørnson said.

The mural project has been a joint effort. The San Benito Arts Council (http://sanbenitoarts.org/) awarded a number of grants to Terra Cultura and AHA to start the project. AHA’s Cindy Couling helped design the shapes of the fish, and fellow member Leslie Austin had the idea to involve the students from Anzar High School. Community members have not only dedicated time but also money to cover supplies. The Aromas Eagles assisted with buying the special mural paint.

As a response to the support, Bjørnson had another idea: to offer residents (for a $50 donation) the option to dedicate a fish in someone’s name.

“People have dedicated fish to people from their past, present and even their grandkids,” Bjørnson said. “It’s really sweet.”

The mural is close to being finished. A couple more weekend gatherings should see the pieces completed, Oroz guessed.

“It’s seems like the entire community wants to be involved,” Oroz said. “We couldn’t ask for better support.”

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To learn more about Terra Cultura, visit https://terracultura.org/. For information on the Aromas Hills Artisans, visit http://www.aromashillsartisans.com/index.html.

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