Local muralist, Elijah Pfotenhauer, literally paints the town red
While most people would classify Elijah Pfotenhauer as a “working artist”—he makes a living by teaching art to children, painting murals, and painting live at local cafes—spend a little time with him, and it becomes clear that “living artist” is a more appropriate term. That’s because Pfotenhauer utilizes art whenever he can to interact with his environment.
“When I was young, I used [art] a lot more for awkward times, for looking at myself internally,” he says. “As I’ve progressed, it’s a way to escape, but it’s also a way to address your surroundings as well, and engage them.”
Pfotenhauer is currently working with students at Happy Valley Elementary School to create a mural backdrop for their production of “Peter Pan.” When he’s teaching, he likes to think of himself not as an instructor, but as a facilitator of the creative process.
“A mural is interesting because it’s working with a group,” says Pfotenhauer. “You’re trying to achieve a common vision that everyone works on, so it needs to find a way to utilize every individual voice.”
He often starts by introducing students to a few basics—demonstrating concepts such as space and time, or how to portray a desert scene or an underwater scene. Next, he’ll introduce the idea of adding tone to a picture, making suggestions to students such as, “Maybe make it a scary desert.”
Once they have the foundation, Pfotenhauer finds that children end up running with those ideas—and what they create sometimes surprises him, which is just the way he likes it.
“You don’t know where they’re going to go with it,” says Pfotenhauer. “You give them the start of a spiral, and they take it from there.”
Whether instructing classes four days a week, producing pro-bono art pieces, or just creating art for the love of it, engaging his surroundings has become an essential part of his process. “It all kind of relates,” say Pfotenhauer, “painting murals, painting live, teaching classes—it’s all about interacting visually, interacting in visual art, and combining people’s ideas.”
Pfotenhauer knows murals are often thought of as a passive art form; an artist paints a piece, and later someone views it. But some of his most rewarding experiences have come from encounters while working.
“With murals, you’re outside observing, as well as being observed,” he explains. “It’s interacting with the community. Every time I’ve done a mural, there are people who start congregating—it’s a chance to become intimately integrated with the art. I’ve ended up getting to know people that way.”
One of Pfotenhauer’s recent murals, an underwater scene on Cliff Street in Santa Cruz, uses acrylics and spray paint. In January, he live-painted an oceanscape during Chris Rene’s homecoming concert at the Civic Auditorium, which raised funds for recovery programs at Janus Santa Cruz. His latest gig? A mural of Twin Lakes Beach in Janus’ new Chris Rene Room.
While ocean-themed artwork is popular in a beach town, Pfotenhauer’s repertoire is diverse. At Santa Cruz Stoves and Fireplaces, he crafted a massive three-part, fire-themed mural, which features a fire-breathing dragon, a family huddled around a hearth, and the Roman god, Vulcan. One of his favorite murals, painted in collaboration with fellow artist Mike 360, and on display at the Brown Berets Bike Shack in Watsonville, combines Mayan imagery with a young girl riding a bicycle.
On Thursday, March 15, Pfotenhauer, Mike 360, and other artists will discuss the art form during the Tannery Arts Center’s presentation, “If the Walls Could Talk: Discovering the Murals of Santa Cruz,” moderated by Margaret Niven.
The monthly lecture series came about when Niven and others saw the need for a space where artists could interact with each other and with the public. Each program features at least one resident Tannery artist—this month it’s Pfotenhauer.
Niven is excited to have Pfotenhauer participate because of the way he immerses himself in his craft. “He’s working as an artist and a painter,” says Niven, “earning his living doing that kind of work.”
“If the Walls Could Talk” takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 15 at the Tannery Arts Center, 1040 River St., Santa Cruz. Elijah Pfotenhauer’s art can be viewed at paintedladder.com.