by Michelle Williams
Arts Council Sanat Cruz County
Kathleen Crocetti is an artist – but cannot be described in that one word. She is an activist, relationship builder, project manager, mentor, administrator, true friend, and a bringer of light, love, hope, and community.
I moved to Santa Cruz eight years ago, and I heard Kathleen’s name time and time again. But I hadn’t met her until the Gail Rich Awards in January of 2010. She was an awardee, and in her acceptance speech, she spoke about “F.O.K.’s”, or, “Friends of Kathleen”. People who had participated in one of her many community-built public art projects, classes, or programs. She asked all F.O.K.s to stand, and several hundred cheering people got to their feet.
I wondered about this magic woman, who inspired so many. And I conspired to find out.
A couple of years later, the California Arts Council launched a new program which provided large grants for creative placemaking projects. By that time, I’d seen Kathleen in action, and knew I wanted to work with her. So I brought her and community leaders together from many sectors: public safety, environment, watershed stewardship, and arts. An hour later, the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project was born.
Ebb & Flow celebrates and enlivens the San Lorenzo River, its adjacent Santa Cruz Riverwalk, and the Tannery Arts Center. It marked the first large-scale collaboration between the Arts Council and multiple other sectors, aimed at making a lasting, positive contribution to our county. One element of Ebb & Flow was the creation of a new public art piece at the Tannery. Kathleen led this project, and I first saw her magic when we sat down to plan how it would unfold.
She envisioned a year-long process to create a river-themed sculpture that would be meaningful for Tannery residents, and also welcome people from around the world. She talked me through her timeline: community visioning meetings where people wrote, drew, and talked about their hopes for the Tannery and river; working with a 2D artist to create a visual representation of those hopes; and then months of community builds to lay all of the tile for a large-scale mosaic.
She then described the creative process, including words that to this layperson sounded both fundamental and magical: thinset, grout, mod podge, backer board, sealer. It was one of the most educational and inspiring conversations of my life.
Intertwined with the creative process was the community process. The community meetings were welcoming, creative, and inclusive. “First I need to find out how a community identifies itself, and then how they use and envision the use of their shared public space,” she said. “The meetings I hold are the beginnings of creative community building as folks sometimes meet their neighbors for the very first time, and are encouraged to think and dream big together. These community meetings are just the start of a long journey we take together. The journey fosters both relationships and creativity, which is why I do what I do.”
Then she got to work. It turned out that she wasn’t just a brilliant thinker and community builder. She was a highly adept project manager. She organized and smoothly ran months of community builds, involving people of all ages and abilities. She patiently taught my then-two-year-old how to safely pound large tile squares into right-sized mosaic pieces; she guided teenagers and octogenarians alike in how to lay the pieces. She also navigated challenging personalities and numerous project hurdles, pivoting, being firm, and laughing and shaking her head as needed.
And then – the artwork itself. Breathtakingly beautiful, telling a hundred stories, involving the hands of hundreds of people.
Kathleen has repeated this process dozens of times over the years, bringing thousands of F.O.K.s together, building relationships across the county, celebrating our many cultures, and creating stunning works of art.
When Kathleen was in graduate school, she was “taking a beating” in a grueling critique by one of her teachers. The professor snidely asked, “What is your medium, anyway?” Kathleen, distraught and speechless, couldn’t answer. But a visiting professor answered for her. “Her medium is hope.”
Kathleen does work in hope, and empowerment, and love. She helps communities claim their public spaces and build relationships while they are at it. I’m lucky to now firmly belong to the F.O.K.’s, which has helped me feel like I truly belong in Santa Cruz County. Thank you, Kathleen, for the gifts you share with our community, and for creating spaces that make so many of us feel like we are finally home.