Everywhere Paul De Worken goes, he sees blank walls.
“But I don’t see a wall. I see a blank canvas just waiting for artwork,” says De Worken, who founded Monterey Bay Murals (MBM) in 2008 with his friend Jaime Sanchez.
“Our first mural was at La Mesa elementary school, which is a school for military families, so there were a lot of different cultures there. It was called ‘Reading Out Loud’; when you look at it, it’s a character reading out loud from a book, but all the words that the character is speaking are positive words in multiple languages coming out onto the wall,” says De Worken. That first mural, a collaboration with students and staff, took 16 weeks. And De Worken was hooked.
Since its inception, MBM, which De Worken now runs solo, has orchestrated some 20 murals from Santa Cruz down to Monterey, with community members—and really, anybody lucky enough to walk by during the painting process—invited to take part, even if they’ve never picked up a paintbrush before. “One important thing I’ve experienced is all of these friendships that I’ve made. I always invite people to participate, and when they do they just have a blast. In the end you have this brother or sisterhood of artists that come out,” says De Worken.
The Watsonville native says that beautifying the town he loves benefits the whole community and counteracts urban blight. “When people come up to me and say ‘You’ve enhanced my commute to work,’ or ‘I purposely take this route now so that I can look at this beautiful painting,’ that really inspires me,” says De Worken. “It’s instant to the public. It’s like they own it, they have a relationship with it.”
A couple of years ago, De Worken, Sanchez, Martin Garcia and members of the Watsonville community decided to tackle local alleyways with the Monterey Alleyway Project (MAP). They painted huge California poppies on a heavily graffitied wall between Sudden and Jefferson streets. “The whole thinking behind that was to get into the alleyways and bring art to people who wouldn’t normally see it, making art accessible,” says De Worken. To this day, the mural has not been re-tagged with graffiti—a positive sign that the community respects and appreciates the art. “The cool part was that the same day we finished, while we were packing up, there were children already playing in front of it and looking at it, and people were coming out thanking us and offering us food. It’s a really good feeling when that happens,” he says.
The Volunteer Center in Watsonville, which currently holds MAP under its wing, provides volunteers, and all of the paint and materials are donated by a local paint source, as well as from Grey Bears in Santa Cruz and the City of Watsonville’s recycling center.
When he’s not painting walls and utility boxes, De Worken is deeply immersed in other public art-related projects. He’s the arts commissioner for Santa Cruz County, as well as an art teacher in the after-school program for Pajaro Valley School District, where he teaches mural art, skateboard art, and high-school art. He’s working on three new art series, including one you can wear: his “The Ville” T-shirts—the most popular of which features a strawberry—which highlight the assets of Watsonville, from historical landmarks like St. Patrick’s Church to a bonsai tree, for Watsonville’s bonsai club.