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Laguna Beach

 Volume 13, Issue 61  |  July 30, 2021

Art in (Unexpected) Public Places: Stroll Blue Bell Gardens in the Canyon


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Famous artists Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, and Chagall had this in common: they all loved cats and painted iconic images of them, perhaps the most famous being Matisse’s The Great Cat, depicting a cat swiping at fish in a glass, or Picasso’s rather unsettling Cat Catching a Bird.

Indeed, cats and creativity seem to go together, perhaps because felines are such soothing companions for artistic types flush with ideas, passions, and emotions.

Which perhaps helps explain why the stunning gardens around the Blue Bell cottages, that wonderful nonprofit sanctuary in the Canyon for senior cats, have become the site of works of original art paid for by private donations. Cats and art simply go together as naturally as canvas and paint.

What’s more, the original owners of the land, the Cather family, had a pottery studio on the site, and sold their art at the Festival of Arts and Sawdust when the shows were first launched. So, from the very beginning, the place had a link to Laguna’s art scene. 

Art in garden

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First step: Blue Bell nurtured gorgeous gardens to entertain the cats and provide a beautiful setting for cat art

“When we were envisioning Blue Bell Gardens, one of the goals was to deepen our ties with Laguna in support of the arts and environment and at the same time increase awareness of our mission to provide a sanctuary for cats whose owners can no longer care for them,” explains Jeff Zakaryan, chairperson of the Advisory Board.

“The gardens are now lush and vibrant and a perfect place for the public to stroll around or sit on a bench to read, write, or paint. At the same time, the bees, lizards, and butterflies offer must-see TV for our cats.

“Our goal is to add new original works of art by LCAD students and graduates, to help advance their careers and celebrate the beauty and mystery of cats through their creativity.” 

A bench, a statue, and a mural

There are now three original pieces of art on the grounds.

A mosaic Cats in the Canyon bench created by Marlo Bartels and sponsored by Susan Hamil, chairperson of the nonprofit, and her husband John, was the first to be installed, in the spring of 2018.

Art in bench

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Marlo Bartels’ bench provides views of the gardens in every direction

“We first presented the idea of the bench to Jesse, but he said the bench was more his dad’s deal,” Susan says.

She adds that the first thought was to make it a conversation bench, but then it was decided that a flat bench would allow the visitor to view the entirety of the 14 differently themed pocket gardens. 

“My artistic inspiration was the garden,” Marlo says. “It’s beautiful and the location is fantastic. I worked from photos of cats and wanted to include as many breeds as possible. I love cats. I used to have them but not now. I’m so happy to be part of this project.”

Jeff points out the painstaking detail on every tile, with depictions of iconic Laguna sights discreetly tucked in amongst furry feline faces.

Art in tiles

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Bartels included as many breeds of cats as possible

The second piece of art to be installed was a larger-than-life-size cat sculpture of Screamer the cat, painted by LCAD graduate Rebecca Kruger and dedicated on November 20, 2019. Jeff sponsored Screamer.

Screamer was one of a series of cat Greeters, in another parallel to Laguna, long known for its eccentric but friendly Greeters, including Eiler Larsen, and nowadays Michael Minutoli. 

“Screamer had a loud meow and loved using it. She was a darling cat and craved attention,” Susan says. “We miss her.”

Rebecca knew just how beloved Screamer was at Blue Bell. 

“Her cat-carers wanted the design on the sculpture to honor her memory, so I painted the face and front in her likeness,” she says.

“On the body, we wanted to depict a garden scene, so I combined items from the gardens at Blue Bell along with fantastical elements. I wanted to create a garden that Screamer would really love and could explore.

“I painted half of Screamer’s body as a nighttime garden scene and the other half as a daytime garden scene, so she could get the best of both worlds,” Rebecca adds.

Art in Screamer

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Screamer, the Greeter Cat

Next, in 2020, came a mural – this inside the Upper House – created by local artist Bill Atkins. Cats in the Garden features Blue Bell cats peeking out of the greenery and, in a nice touch, also depicts Boris, a black cat who lives with Lynette Brasfield, sponsor of the artwork, and the late Cubby, Jeff’s beloved cat, as a tribute to Jeff’s many, many contributions to Blue Bell.

“I responded to the question of a mural concept with curiosity, but at that point I didn’t realize what a valuable resource the Blue Bell Foundation was to our unique city,” Bill says. 

“In the gardens, I saw contributions from organizations and artists such as the Laguna Beach Garden Club and designer Marlo Bartels. Inside the cottage, I saw the extreme attention to detail the staff has in caring for the resident cats.

“Assignments like this one are important to me because I am given the opportunity to help promote the good works of the organization,” Bill adds.

Art in mural

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Vibrant art by Laguna’s own Bill Atkins

There are also several beautiful birdhouses on the property, custom-painted by Sue Brown’s kids (Sue is Blue Bell’s horticulturalist), as well as fountains and benches dedicated to Laguna cat-lovers, including one to Daisy Mae Messer. It’s all about community at Blue Bell.

Cat’s Meow Champagne Breakfast will showcase art

The nonprofit Blue Bell Foundation for Cats will hold its annual fundraising Cat’s Meow Champagne Brunch on September 26 from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Seven7Seven in the Canyon. Tickets are $70 for adults, $20 for children 12 and under, and cat-themed attire is encouraged but not at all necessary. 

Art in cat

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Cats roam around the spacious cottages and peek out through the mesh to watch animal, human, and insect life in the gardens

“We’re now putting together a gallery of cat art for the silent auction for Cat’s Meow,” says Jeff. He adds that there are many ideas in the mix to support both artists and the cats. “We’re thinking of hosting a plein air day, for example, and we’re starting to reach out to local arts organizations to see what collaborations may make sense.

“We’re working on formalizing the ongoing integration of Cat Art into Blue Bell. Cats and the community, that’s what it’s all about.”

For more information about Blue Bell and the Cat’s Meow, visit

The Blue Bell Cat Sanctuary is located at 29082 Laguna Canyon Rd. The Gardens are open to the public, but cats can only be visited by appointment on certain afternoons.


Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Stacia Stabler and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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