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LPAPA finds a new home in one of Laguna’s historic locations

By MARRIE STONE

Since its inception in 1996, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPAPA) has been searching for a permanent gallery space. This month, it found one. On Thursday, Aug 19, artists, board members, patrons, founding artists, and spectators gathered for the gallery’s grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. As they welcomed the public into their new home, LPAPA settled into a storied space with roots that began nearly a century before. 

The historic El Paseo building in North Laguna’s gallery row (located between Jasmine and Myrtle Street) has a rich past befitting of its new occupants. LPAPA has an equally robust history of its own. Together, this perfect union of plein air art with early 20th century Spanish design creates a pleasing sense of synergy. The building’s use of natural light and open spaces, and its reflection of 1920s architectural sensibilities, allows the plein air collection to feel like it’s found an innate home.

LPAPA finds building

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

The historic El Paseo building, located at 414 North Coast Hwy

LPAPA celebrated the opening by honoring its own roots. The current gallery exhibition features work by its five founding members: Ken Auster, Jacobus Baas, Cynthia Britain, Saim Caglayan, and John Cosby. Their paintings will be on display through September 6th. 

In that spirit, let’s look back in time – both to the building itself and LPAPA’s own origins – to appreciate how the past rose to meet this present moment in providing the organization’s new home.

The storied history of this unique place

Early plein air artists founded the original Laguna Beach Art Association in 1918. That same year, they secured the Old Town Hall as an exhibition venue and opened their first art gallery. The small group of artists began a permanent collection and, in 1926, secured the property that would become their public gallery. That location would eventually become the Laguna Art Museum. 

LPAPA finds LBAA

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Courtesy of LPAPA

The original Laguna Beach Art Association members

During this same period, right down the dirt road, Lynn and Thelma Aufdenkamp – descendants of two of Laguna’s earliest settling families who were instrumental in founding the town – built their marital home which would eventually become the historic El Paseo. Then, the structure was a modest, small-scale bungalow for the newlywed couple. Aufdenkamp says he bought the materials and townspeople “just showed up” to build the house. No one then imagined that, nearly a century later, it would become the latter-day artists’ gallery space.

No doubt, though, those early plein air painters were familiar with Lynn and his father. In 1914, the elder Aufdenkemp opened a box-ball and bowling business, as well as a silent movie theater (which would eventually become Laguna South Coast Cinemas) in town. Lit by kerosene lanterns beneath an enormous tent, Lynn operated the theater for years by hand-cranking the movie projector. Lynn’s father also co-founded the lawn bowling green in Heisler Park. Both Laguna’s artists and businessmen were building their legacies, side by side, in this budding new town. 

LPAPA finds 1933

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Courtesy of Jay and Mary Linda Strotkamp

Plein air master George R. Brandeiff instructs a class at Shaw’s Cove in Laguna Beach, circa 1933

By 1939, Lynn and Thelma expanded their cottage to include a modest U-shaped apartment complex around a courtyard, naming the compound “Aldeita Court,” meaning “little village.” The brick courtyard still features the Spanish tiled fountain which graces the north side of the gallery. 

LPAPA finds tile

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Photo by Marrie Stone

This tile piece by Martin Roberts (the past occupant of the space) depicts El Paseo’s courtyard. The work was recently acquired by Jay and Mary Linda Strotkamp for their private collection.

The historic property eventually became the site of the Martin Roberts Gallery for over 20 years. When Martin Roberts moved to the center of town, the building’s owners contacted Celeste Gilles, LPAPA’s new vice president and a local real estate agent. The owners had a long relationship with Gilles and wanted to ensure the property continued supporting the arts and artists. 

When Gilles saw the building, she knew it would be an ideal fit for LPAPA. “The space is so charming,” Gilles says. “And the owners gave us a beautiful arrangement. Their generosity, their desire to support the arts and support us, made this possible. They love our history, they love plein air, and they love that long plein air tradition in Laguna Beach.”

LPAPA finds three women

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Executive Assistant and Gallery Manager Bonnie Langner, Executive Director Rosemary Swimm, and Vice President Celeste Gilles

Celebrating its own roots – LPAPA’s founding members

This month, as LPAPA settles into the new space, they honor the five people who made their organization possible. The founders came together in the mid-1990s with the goal of maintaining and fostering this long artistic tradition and educating the next generation about its history and techniques. Here are those five founders and their unique backstories. 

LPAPA finds entryway

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Tom Lamb, Mayor Bob Whalen, Cynthia Britain, Celeste Gilles, Mary Linda Strotkamp, Saim Caglayan, Bonnie Langner, Rosemary Swimm, Anthony Salvo, and Jeff Pierce

Saim Caglayan. LPAPA was founded in 1996, when Turkish-born Saim Caglayan invited four of his local artist friends to launch the Laguna Beach chapter of the national organization known as Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA). 

“I was trained as a sculptor,” says Caglayan. “I saw a plein air exhibit from a New Mexican artist and knew that’s what I wanted to do.” Caglayan attended the artist’s workshop in Taos and was hooked. His instructor was the president of PAPA, and Caglayan realized Laguna needed a chapter of its own. He returned to Laguna and immediately began organizing LPAPA. 

“Most of these Laguna painters were members of the California Art Club, which was far away,” says Caglayan. “Laguna is the painting grounds for all these great California painters, so why not have an organization here?”

Though Caglayan moved to Hawaii two decades ago, he’s never left LPAPA and keeps a studio in town. He did, however, bring the plein air painting tradition to Hawaii too. “They call me the Johnny Appleseed of plein air,” he says. “Spreading the love of this art.”

Ken Auster. Laguna native Ken Auster was steeped in the town’s 1960s surf culture for decades. In the mid-1990s, he turned his artistic focus to plein air, uniting his love of the ocean with the artistic immediacy of oil paints (as opposed to the laborious and slow process of his past printmaking endeavors). 

It didn’t take long for Auster’s work in this new medium to be recognized as he began garnering awards at juried exhibits and quickly becoming a collectible artist among major corporations and distinguished patrons. Auster was awarded “Best of Show” in the Laguna Plein Air Painting Invitational in both 2000 and 2002 and received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2014. 

“I simply want to achieve the ultimate communication on the canvas,” Auster said. “To say more with less.”

Auster passed away in 2016, but his work lives on in LPAPA’s gallery. There is a collection of his work on display, as well as a compendium book about Auster, his life, and work available at the Gallery.

Jacobus Baas. Born in the Netherlands in the mid-1940s, Jacobus Baas was steeped in the Dutch masters’ artistic tradition. Lush landscapes and moody skies framed the backdrop of his childhood. Trained as both a painter and goldsmith, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Baas began painting on location. On a trip to Santa Fe, Baas discovered plein air. “It was like discovering a new world,” he says. He now divides his time and shows his work in Hawaii, California, and Maine.

“I seek to expand my painting experience searching for scenes with a natural beauty that the viewer might miss in their rush through everyday life,” Baas says. “This could be as simple as the reflections in water of fishing boats tied to a dock, a wave breaking against the rocks, or clouds floating across the sky. The more I paint, the more I see this beauty around me.”

Cynthia Britain. Inspired by natural light and the beauty of Laguna’s cliffs and lush landscapes, Britain’s paintings have been exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum, the Bowers Museum, the Monterey Museum of Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, and the Pasadena Museum of Art. Her work has received a gold medal from the San Diego Museum of Art, and a silver medal in the Carmel National Plein Air Competition. 

“My intent is to express the intrinsic truth and beauty of my subject,” Britain says. “To reveal the power or presence of spirit in a place or person. I am inspired by what I feel and by what I see…they reflect one another.”

LPAPA finds Britain

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Cynthia Britain’s oil painting “Autumn Glow”

John Cosby. It was John Cosby’s grandmother who, at a young age, introduced him to the possibilities of oil painting. “She would give me the paint, some brushes, and a scrap of canvas and set me off to paint,” says Cosby. “This early experience took the fear out of creating a painting.”

At age 18, Cosby was selected as an advance man for the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, serving under two presidents and traveling the world. While the experience exposed him to a broad range of people, places, and ideas, it was the great works of art that captivated his interest. “They haunted me and helped set the course for my career as a painter,” Cosby says. Traveling the Eastern Seaboard on an old classic sailing sloop that he restored, Cosby wedded his love of nature to his talent for oil painting. Cosby’s work has been shown in the Irvine Museum, the Cape Cod Museum of Art, the Presidential Museum in Texas, the Haggin Museum, the Bakersfield Museum, the Autry Museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. 

“When a person stands in front of one of my paintings, I want that person to feel the wind and the heat I felt when I painted it,” he says. 

LPAPA finds interior

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

LPAPA’s gallery opening on Thursday, Aug 19

LPAPA’s founder passed down his own historic home

Before moving to Hawaii, Caglayan lived just up the block from LPAPA’s new gallery space for nearly two decades. He used his Jasmine Street home as the organization’s original headquarters, maintaining his own sculpting studio while hosting artists in residence and holding events. 

Caglayan sold the historic 1917 bungalow to Jay and Mary Linda Strotkamp in 1999. The Strotkamps were avid art collectors and enthusiasts of early 20th century architecture. They soon assumed their new home’s legacy, hosting the annual gathering of plein air painters and collectors, and inviting artists for extended stays during the annual invitational.

“Every year we open up the house – and the guest house – and let people enjoy the art,” says Jay. Most of the invited artists’ paintings hang on the Strotkamp’s walls. Once, two renowned masters met at one of these parties, having known about each other’s work for years. 

LPAPA finds Strotkamp

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Jay and Mary Linda Strotkamp in their North Laguna home

The Strotkamps now own one of Laguna’s largest private plein air collections. They’ve amassed nearly 200 works of art, most of the pieces by contemporary California artists. More important, the couple has formed personal connections with almost every artist in their collection. There’s literally a story behind every work of art. Many of the paintings are signed with long notes and personal insignias to Jay and Mary Linda. Jay then attaches the history of the painting, the artist, and other important information on the back of each canvas. 

“Pretty much all the artists have been to our house,” says Jay. “And we’ve visited their galleries, been to their studios, and some of their homes. It’s such a personal collection.”

 “We didn’t set out to create a collection,” Mary Linda adds. “We just kept gathering works we loved and then suddenly…”

Intent aside, the Strotkamp’s story and their extensive assemblage have been documented by several publications.

In 2008, Mary Linda joined LPAPA’s Board and just recently passed the baton of her vice presidency to Celeste Gilles. In 2015, she and Jay were presented with a “Lifetime Member” award. 

“Our home had been the headquarters of LPAPA,” says Mary Linda. “We live where it all started, and now we’ve come full circle with a collection of our own.”

The next chapter

Standing inside the old El Paseo building for the grand opening ceremony, Caglayan’s eyes scan the space. “It’s perfect,” he says. “This architecture takes you back. It’s a time warp in here.”

LPAPA finds room

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The 1923 space has been restored but retains its original roots, including the fireplace and casement windows

Beyond the perfection of the space are the options afforded by having a dedicated gallery with room for growth. “This is a big opportunity for us,” says Gilles. “It’s opening up a lot of possibilities.” While Gilles isn’t at liberty to share any major announcements yet, her excitement suggests she’s on the brink. “It’s like the old Field of Dreams adage,” she says. “‘If you build it, they will come.’” 

The LPAPA Gallery is located at 414 North Coast Hwy.

Gallery hours are Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Founder’s Exhibit will run through Monday, Sept 6. Laguna’s City Hall is currently hosting the LPAPA installation From Dusk to Dawn, going on now through September 30th. For more information, visit www.lpapa.org.