Something Fishy Aromas bridge mural welcomes steelhead back to Pajaro River

Story and photos by Kathryn McKenzie

A new mural being painted on a bridge isn’t just a way to welcome people to Aromas — it’s also a way to welcome steelhead trout back to the Pajaro River after a long absence.

The project, put together by two nonprofit groups and assisted by Anzar High School students and other community members, has been in the works for some six months but has run into numerous interruptions, including rainy weather.

Last week, though, students were out on the bridge painting fish designs in bold tones of orange, blue, green and yellow, on a long concrete strip that forms the bridge’s west side. The bridge, more than 500 feet long, crosses the river at the border of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

Truck drivers coming and going from the nearby Graniterock quarry honked their horns in approval as they rumbled by, shaking the bridge with little earthquakes each time they passed.

It didn’t seem to bother the artists, though, who were intent on their work.

“The bridge was cleaned, primed and painted blue,” said Linda Bjornson of Aromas Hills Artisans, one of the groups involved in the project. “The fish are initially painted white, and then the colors go over the top of the fish.”

Bjornson was out there painting alongside Anzar art students as well as their teacher, Emily Scettrini, who teaches the advanced art class. Scettrini notes that each student was given a template and the color scheme, and then had to come up with the design on their own.

The result is that each fish is an individual, but all complement each other other in color and shape.

Coming up with a design was challenging, said Cesar Vazquez, an Anzar senior who was carefully painting his fish in a striped pattern.

And each student had a slightly different take on the style — Ruby Rodriguez created wave-like patterns, while next to her, Kiauna Oliver put down patches of color.

“I think of fish, I think of scales,” said Oliver. “I’m trying to make the whole thing scaly-looking.”

Bjornson said the fish theme is no accident, and has ties to several different community projects. More than a decade ago, the Aromas Hills Artisans erected a fish sculpture in the park that is in the heart of the little town. It’s a big fish made up of little fish, each one painted by a community member.

In 2004, artist Jennifer Colby, a professor at CSU Monterey Bay and a longtime Aromas resident, co-curated an traveling exhibit called “Rumme: The Pajaro River Watershed Experience,” which called attention to the problems facing the river, including the plight of steelhead trout, whose numbers had been severely impacted by watershed pollution and agricultural runoff.

In fact, steelhead weren’t seen in the river at all during the 1990s and early 2000s, and environmentalists feared that the fish were gone forever. But as measures have been put into place to protect the river as well as community cleanup efforts and habitat restoration, the river coming back to life.

In 2017, steelhead once again began spawning in Uvas Creek near Gilroy, which feeds into the Pajaro. Now, slowly, the steelhead are making a comeback.

The idea for a mural started last year; the concept came from AHA member Joyce Oroz, who looked at the long, curved surface and thought a river design would be perfect.

Murals are nothing new for the artisans, who have not only liberally decorated Aromas buildings with colorful designs, but also created murals at the Watsonville Wetlands Watch visitors center.

For a small group, though, it was big. “It sounded like a wonderful idea, but it’s just huge,” said Bjornson.

With the help of nonprofit Terra Cultura, the bridge project went forward in gaining permission and permits, which had to come from both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. The fish design came from AHA member Cindy Couling.

Now, the community at large is being invited to be part of it. Painting days will be held starting this Sunday at the bridge, and will continue until all 500-plus-feet are completed — perhaps as many as 80 fish, each 42 inches long.

The mural project is being funded by part of the AHA budget as well as a $1,000 grant from the Aromas Eagles service club. To cover the rest of the expenses, locals are invited to dedicate a fish for a $50 donation. Bjornson is working with Aromas-area organizations to find painters and donors.

When everything’s said and done, the mural will be a beautiful reminder of the river’s importance in this community, and of caring for it.

With the mural, “We’re welcoming people to Aromas, and also welcoming the steelhead back to the river,” said Bjornson.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).