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Arts Beat: Santa Maria sees public art boom

There’s a public art boom going on in Santa Maria. It includes brightly painted utility boxes and murals celebrating the town’s culture and heritage.

Dennis Smitherman, who oversees public art for the Santa Maria Department of Recreation and Parks, said art is on the rise in the city. He coordinates the Utility Box Art project, which features the work of local artists on the city’s utility boxes with themes of Santa Maria.

The Box Art project began in 2017 and, to date, utility boxes are painted with strawberries, wildflowers, dancers, wine, and more. The newest phase of the project is now in progress.

“In our third round, we are looking for some more unique art that highlights the Santa Maria lifestyle,” Smitherman said.

The citywide project brings colorful, culturally relevant artwork to otherwise bland street corners, according to Smitherman.

Local artists submit their designs for consideration and, if chosen, receive a stipend and reimbursement for their expenses. Ruben Espinoza’s artwork has been selected twice.

“The first one I submitted was a charro and a bull – that was playing to my culture and the heritage of Santa Maria, which was a western town,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza also paints murals. He spent almost four days painting a mural on the side of a downtown business. Espinoza’s “Welcome to Santa Maria” mural is located at East El Camino and North Broadway. It features vintage lettering in English and Spanish.

“I wanted to do something that was welcoming to people that were visiting, and also beautify their neighborhood and the building,” he said.

Espinoza painted the mural for free. He said a fund for public art would make more projects like this possible.

“Some sort of public funding, where more businesses would be involved in funding these projects,” Espinoza said. “Because, ultimately, I think public art does benefit a lot of the businesses around.”

Funding is a challenge, but local artists and advocates are working together to bring new art to public spaces. Santa Maria adopted a Public Art Plan in 2019 but not a way to pay for it. One common approach cities use is called a Percent-For-Art fund.

San Luis Obispo has such a fund that generates money from a small fee on capital construction project budgets.

Without a specific fund, Santa Maria, and its local art community, must rely on other sources of support, such as private donations and grants.

Santa Maria’s Corazón del Pueblo, a non-profit cultural and creative arts center, is also bringing art to outdoor spaces. The organization mentors young people and offers art classes, including mural painting.

Alex Espinoza-Kulick is the center’s executive director. He says they have received grants from the County of Santa Barbara as well as generous donations to support their work, and they partner with other organizations.

“Our new mural will be a collaboration between the Boys and Girls Club, our organization, and young people we work with through Chicano Renaissance, as well as Youth Arts Alive,” he said.

Espinoza-Kulick said the new mural project creates an opportunity for meaningful conversation.

“The mural will be an opportunity not just to create public art, but for young people to come together and have a facilitated conversation through the arts about how they see themselves in their community, and the aspects of history and culture that influence their day-to-day lives,” he said.

Corazón del Pueblo Co-founder Alma Hernandez, said the center began as a place to gather for art and conversation to address youth violence.

“Art is a way for the community to be able to share ideas, to create an understanding of one another,” she said.

Corazón del Pueblo partnered with artist Ruben Espinoza to paint another large mural on Main Street. The mural is called “Nuestro Corazón,” or “Our Heart.”

“The heart of Santa Maria," Espinoza said. It’s a heart with wings but also ornate patterns of Mixtec designs.”

The Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture makes grants to support projects throughout the county. Executive Director Sarah York Rubin said public art plays an important role in communities.

“It can be a deep community celebration of identity, and it can also be a reason for people to come to a space to experience it differently,” she said.

The city of Santa Maria has a map on its website to help locate city-sponsored public art. The murals at schools or on the sides of local businesses can be discovered while walking or driving through town.

If you want to join this growing art movement, Santa Maria Department of Recreation and Parks' Committee for Public Art welcomes volunteers, as does Corazón del Pueblo.

Corazón del Pueblo Board President Samuel Duarte said they are always looking to collaborate with other organizations, and always in search of new walls to paint.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Shanbrom Family Foundation.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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