Name: Kei Deragon
Occupation/Business: Co-founder of Creative Crossing. Full-time student pursuing a career in clinical social work.
Tell us how you got into your field. I am a U.S. Army veteran; I have a background in corrections and am currently pursuing my MSW to become a licensed clinical social worker. I think this is important to state because it might look like I’m simply “an artist” doing art-sy stuff. I’m an advocate for my community and art is my activism.
In 2019 I watched a man on my block spray paint “kill all the junkies first” across a business building in the middle of rush-hour traffic. This took place in front of a crowd and for the second time. I didn’t want my neighborhood to be associated with his hate speech; I wanted to respond without the anger his message contained. I ask my neighbor if I could paint their 125-feet cinderblock wall and started my mural. This first mural was solely an act of resistance against hate speech, but within the first day I had curious neighbors asking me questions and volunteering their public-facing walls. In that moment I knew we were viewing our shared space differently; we were investing in the potential of our neglected allies and reimagining them as art walks. The neighborhood wanted to invest art into itself.
I teamed up with my friend/artist Sarah Nobles, and we invited local artists who were willing to donate their time and talent to recreate the space as a local art collective, Creative Crossing. We have completed an eight-block art walk through the the historic Oleander neighborhood, donated murals in east Bakersfield, Oildale, Rosedale, Stockdale Elementary School, and led multiple awareness events surrounding mental health, suicide, substance abuse recovery, and supporting our local LGBTQ+ community.
What is your "why?" (Why do you get out of bed every morning and do what you do?) My “why” changes with every project. Initially it was in response to hate speech. But the man who spray-painted those words sought me out while I was working on my mural and apologized sincerely. We talked about what brought us together, hugged, and are happy to run onto each other now. My efforts could have ended right there, but then we had a pandemic.
When the pandemic hit we found a new reason to continue painting. Artists would go to their walls to take a mental/emotional break from all the confusion, and admirers walking or driving in the neighborhood now had something new to look forward to every day. Social distancing didn’t limit our ability to support our community, even when most support services were restricted. Our “why” has evolved once again as we prepare to take a more active role creating opportunities for art to be a catalyst for direct community change. We have created a wrap-around program which we hope Kern County Probation, Kern High School District, and/or Bakersfield Police Department will support, designed for youth who may be struggling to find a positive connection to their community.
Currently I am painting a mural in collaboration with Kern Behavioral Health and Memorial Hospital/Dignity Health. The neighborhood has a large transient population that suffers from mental-health issues. As I was painting, one of these community members walked by, stopped having an argument with a voice that only he could hear, and lit up with joy. He began talking and gesturing as if to say “Look at this!” It’s moments like that which remind me why I paint at all.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I try to live by Van Goh’s words of wisdom: “If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced." I replace “paint” with anything I feel unsure about attempting.
What is your proudest achievement of your career thus far?
I will always be most proud of the fact that this movement was started by locals who just wanted to improve their community, and they initiated it and took action without waiting for a city initiative. I don’t call myself an “artist,” because that title doesn’t really matter. Everyone is CREATIVE in some way. I wasn’t a “muralist” before I decided to to paint a mural. I’m proud of every person who shows up to donate their time and talent to take on that role and gift our community with more art.
What’s next for you in your career?
I graduate from Cal State Bakersfield this semester (B.S. psychology) and am pursuing my master's degree in social work. I would like to establish Creative Crossing as a wrap-around program in our local juvenile detention facilities, providing a unique social service. I’ve created a program that complements existing realignment efforts inside facilities, and provides a support system for youth returning to our community. This proposal has been made to both Kern County Probation Department and Bakersfield Police Department with great interest from counselors who serve Juvenile Hall, but funding is not there. I’d love to marry my creative actions to my professional interests to continue serving my community.
What advice would you give to other young professionals and entrepreneurs in Bakersfield?
Everyone has the potential to make their city proud in their own unique way. I applaud anyone brave enough to create their own way, and I hope Bakersfield facilitates an environment that will encourage you to stay.
How do you hope to help improve Bakersfield, or bring to the community overall?
We turned alleys into art walks. I want to continue to bring positive attention to forgotten spaces because I see untapped potential everywhere.
Social media contacts:
FB: The Creative Crossing