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2020 – Three Artists Respond to a Historic Year:
A conversation with Jorg Dubin, Carrie Zeller and Tom Lamb at the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Plenty of people might prefer to forget 2020. Either to preserve their sanity or put the past behind; some folks are prone to move on. Others, like Winston Churchill, understand that “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

If you can’t quite recall the flood of events from our recent past (and who could blame you for missing a few?), some of 2020’s most momentous milestones are chronologically highlighted here: 

The first case of COVID-19 is reported in the United States (January 20); Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashes (January 26); the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 an emergency (January 30); Trump’s first impeachment trial ends in acquittal by the Senate (February 5); Ahmaud Arbery is murdered in Georgia (February 23); the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) plummets 1,190 points, triggering market closures (February 27); COVID-19 is declared a global pandemic (March 13); Breonna Taylor is shot by police in her apartment (March 13); the DJI plunges 2,997 points, the single largest point drop in history, and second largest percentage drop (March 16); DJI soars 2,113 points, its largest point gain in history (March 24); Trump suspends funding for the World Health Organization (April 14); oil prices turn negative, reaching a record low (April 20); George Floyd is murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (May 24); protests responding to Floyd’s murder begin breaking out across the nation (May 26); civil rights icon John Lewis dies (July 17); Death Valley records a temperature of 129.9 degrees, its highest since 1913 (August 16); Governor Gavin Newsom declares a state of emergency as 367 wildfires ravage California (August 18); Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos becomes the first person in history whose net worth exceeds $200 billion (August 26); Hurricane Sally strikes the Alabama coast, killing four and causing $7.3 billion in damages (September 16); Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies (September 18); Justice Amy Coney Barrett is sworn into the Supreme Court, seven days before the election (October 27); Americans vote in one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history (November 3); Biden is declared the 46th President of the United States (November 7); a state election in Georgia gives Democrats control of the Senate (November 7); the first successful Phase III trial of a COVID-19 vaccination is announced by Pfizer (November 9); Trump’s campaign files a lawsuit in Georgia, contesting the election results (December 4); Trump tweets, “Big protests in D.C. on January 6. Be there. Will be wild!” (December 19); Trump urges acting Attorney General Phil Rosen to declare the election corrupt (December 27); California reports a record 9,917 wildfires that burned 4,397,809 acres, more than 4% of the state’s land (December 31). 

This list is condensed and fractional, representing only a sampling of national headlines and omitting the global ones. It doesn’t address the ongoing fallouts and escalations of 2021 (which included a deadly insurrection and saw more violent crimes committed, and more COVID deaths logged, than the prior year). 

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“The Orange Stand” (2020)

Regardless of one’s political point of view, it’s safe to say 2020 was a tumultuous year. One that some of us, perhaps wisely at times, shelter ourselves against. But many artists don’t have the luxury of blocking out the world around them. They’re compelled to respond. 

Three of those Laguna Beach artists, working independently in the solitary confines of their studios, attempted to make sense of the chaos. Painter Jorg Dubin, mixed-media artist Carrie Zeller and photographer Tom Lamb each absorbed the crush of news, churned it through their creative filters and assimilated it into powerful pieces that mirrored our world back to us. 

I moderated their panel discussion at the Laguna Beach Cultural Art Center (LBCAC) last Thursday evening, Feb. 3. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

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(L-R) Moderator Marrie Stone, Jorg Dubin, Carrie Zeller and Tom Lamb in a panel discussion at the LBCAC on Thursday, Feb. 3

Jorg Dubin opens up about his artistic curse

Jorg Dubin welcomes controversy. Over the course of his 45-year career as a ceramicist, painter, sculptor and production designer, Dubin has produced 10 public art installations and was anointed “Artist of the Year” by the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance in 2012. That same celebrated artist was also permanently ousted from our local art festivals in 1989. He currently sits on Laguna’s Planning Commission. 

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Dubin with a masked self-portrait (2020)

Dubin’s work tackles socio-political topics from abortion to gun violence, police brutality to the war on women. Prior to 2020, Dubin frequently targeted Trump. I joked with Dubin that he’d been responding to the events of 2020 for the past 20 years. He incorporates satire and brute honesty to confront third rail issues, societal fault lines and human frailties. That’s nothing new for him.

His nudes are gritty, raw and rarely sensual. Their bodies aren’t airbrushed and sanitized for the male gaze. Instead, they dare you to stare. For Dubin, discomfort is the point.

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“Closed,” “A House Divided,” “Supreme Decision” and “From Russia with Love” (2020)

But it all comes at a cost. Defiance, it turns out, is a tough sell. Dubin no longer has gallery representation in town. He’s been bounced from both the Festival of Arts and the Sawdust Festival, apparently for life. Two recent proposals for provocative public art installations were rejected by the Arts Commission (including Dubin’s BLM fist sculpture shown below). His paintings have piled up in his studio. But hopefully his artistic activism allows him to sleep better at night. After all, many consider him to be our town’s creative conscience.

Still, he said, “There isn’t a dealer in town that’s willing to show my work because it’s not economically viable for them. But I can’t get away from making content-driven work. I feel constantly compelled to say something about what’s going on in the world. It’s partly for myself to work out my own anxiety and how I feel.” He admitted there’s a little sarcasm in some of it. “But it’s frustrating at times to be stuck in that world. It’s a curse, in a way.”

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“Breathless” (2022)

Dubin had cautious hope for the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 when, for a moment, Americans united against a common threat. “We got about six months where everybody was kind to each other. Then, as the little flags everybody flew on their cars frayed, people went back to hating each other. You’d think we’d be a little more united and try to take care of each other and the world. It just doesn’t seem to manifest that way. Instead, it divided us even more. So how do I respond to that? I’m glad I have a creative outlet for my own personal angst.”

Dubin came to Laguna in 1976 because it was the place to be for artists. Forty-four years later, he directs some of his critical commentary toward his hometown. “Back then, there were art studios in every other house, and ceramic studios in people’s backyards. Over the decades, there’s been a real demographic change. The city prohibited home studios for ceramics and other industrial art endeavors without creating space for them in other industrial settings,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the city has bled the creative community over these decades. How many full-time, working artists – people who make their entire living from their creative endeavors – still live in Laguna Beach? I figured maybe 50. A lot of people say it’s more like 25 or 30.

“Over time, the city has become more and more beige in terms of its art and what’s being produced here. The Festival of Arts portrays itself as being a contemporary, cutting-edge art fair,” Dubin said. “It’s not anymore. There used to be edgy, interesting artists that did content-driven, provocative work. Now that’s all gone. It continues to be more and more provincial, as far as I’m concerned.”

Whether it’s social obligation or creative compulsion, Dubin doesn’t plan to change. “Now I’m thinking about ideas centered around civil war number two,” he said. “I heard tonight that Missouri is trying to pass a bill that if you feel threatened by somebody and kill them, as long as you say it was in self-defense, you won’t be prosecuted. It blows my mind what’s happening in this country. People looking in from the outside must be as shocked as we are.”

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Tom Lamb’s “BLM triptych” (2020)

Carrie Zeller’s collages attempt to piece together our broken world

For photographer, mixed-media artist and filmmaker Carrie Zeller, the tragedies of 2020 began with Kobe Bryant’s death. The two-time Festival of Arts exhibitor felt compelled to cut out Bryant’s photo and hang it on her wall. But the catastrophes kept coming. “All these crazy things started happening with the weather and climate change, then George Floyd. I kept putting photos up on the wall and it started forming this collage.” 

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That collage, over the course of two years, became known as Triple Threat, a blended triptych that tackles climate change, racial injustice and COVID-19. Fabricated from wood, paint, glass and photography, the piece evolved as the crises piled up. Kobe Bryant faded away as Kamala Harris and Greta Thunberg stepped in. “It came together organically once I started arranging the magazine cutouts,” Zeller said. “I put the globe in the center because we all live on this planet. We’re responsible for taking care of it. I also decided to put a nightlight behind the glass because, when you turn off the lights, it’s just this peaceful globe showing us what’s possible. But when the lights go on, we’re surrounded by all these issues.”

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“Triple Threat” (2020)

Over the course of 2020, Zeller expanded her range from photographer and documentary filmmaker to mixed-media artist. A challenge posed by The Getty Museum served as her inspiration. “We challenge you to recreate a work of art with objects (and people) in your home,” the March 25, 2020 tweet read. Zeller was home alone, so her carefully crafted selfies became the foundation for a collage she created of Lucille Ball. 

Zeller chose Ball’s portrait from a 1952 cover of Time Magazine. “It took me three days to shoot Lucy. I used whatever I had in my house [which included a mirror to mimic the lights, tinfoil for a tripod, and wood samples to fill in the background]. Then I took photos of myself and collaged them with Lucy’s face.”

Zeller chose strong subjects who seemed to tell her what they needed. “I felt like a vehicle [bringing these women to life and into the world]. I communicated with Lucy. She was challenging to make, but I think Lucille Ball would be a challenge in person. She’s a leader. All the women I chose were leaders – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frida Kahlo and Lucille Ball. They were three strong women, all leaders, all independent. We’re lacking leadership right now, so I wanted to inspire women and men. That was the goal.” 

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“Lucy” (2020)

Vitruvian Woman (2022), patterned after Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1490), blends a plurality of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds into the natural world. Zeller melded images of her own body with Afrah Salahuddin (a Saudi Arabian woman) and Bose Kaylia (a young Nigerian American model) to incite conversations about the female experience and how it connects with the natural world. Vines and flowers weave through the amalgamated body to illustrate Zeller’s point that femininity and nature are often intertwined. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing also intended to connect man with nature, depicting the microscopic man within the macroscopic universe, and illustrating the relationship between art and mathematics.

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“Vitruvian Woman” (2022)

“The Vitruvian Woman combines three different women, three different ethnicities and their three different upbringings. I wanted to express the point that we need to talk to each other and listen to each other’s experiences, even if we disagree. The Vitruvian Woman is about coming together and moving forward in a positive way. It’s meant to symbolize that we are all part of the greater global community with a shared belief in the common good.”

Tom Lamb’s photographs both bear witness and give back

Aerial landscape and documentary photographer Tom Lamb used his time and talent to bear witness to the events of 2020. Days after George Floyd’s murder, Lamb flew to Minneapolis to chronicle the city’s reaction to one of the most public police killings in U.S. history. 

“I’m a documentary photographer, so I photographed some of the artifacts left behind. Not the people, but the objects. Then I merged the images for this show. I’ve never shown them before, except in casual conversations.”

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“George Floyd, BLM” (2020)

Just last week, another Minneapolis police officer fatally shot Amir Locke in his apartment while executing a no-knock warrant. Meanwhile, the federal trial against the three former officers who stood by Derek Chauvin has been underway since January 24. These latest events highlight both the timeliness and timelessness of Lamb’s LBCAC exhibition. 

“I’m used to photographing stimulating images quickly,” Lamb said. “I understand when I’ve gotten what I wanted. But it wasn’t until I put these together that I started to really look at the objects, see the crosses, the words, the juxtaposition of elements within the photos. That’s why I put those images together – to further reinforce the messages inside them. It was a powerful, moving place to be.”

When Disneyland closed its doors as a theme park and reopened as a mass vaccination site, Lamb was there. Over a three-month period, the site delivered more than 200,000 doses of the vaccine. “I got vaccinated at Disneyland and when I returned the second time, there were chalk drawings on the ground. I merged those chalk images with photos of the vaccination site and printed those specifically for this show.” 

But Lamb is better known for his aerial photos. He estimates he’s taken roughly 1,000 helicopter flights over more than 30 years, documenting our land and changes to our planet, particularly in and around Orange County. 

“I was making these beautiful aerial photographs that no one could understand,” Lamb said. “All of a sudden, I started layering stripes of color over them, obscuring them. No idea why, but I couldn’t stop making them. Then the pandemic hit, and I thought, “AH!” So, I called them Interrupted – Altered Landscape.” 

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“Interrupted – Altered Landscape,” aerial triptych (2020)

All of these images were of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, a coastal estuary rich with wildlife. “The heart of Bolsa Chica, which I documented for a long time, suddenly became the heart of an oil spill,” Lamb said. “Bolsa Chica was all oil fields with intensive oil production. Now we had an oil spill on the outside that tainted it. It hurts to see that, but the history was intense.” 

Lamb said his decades of flyovers have revealed significant changes to the land. “I do see change,” he said. “Much of my photography focuses on man’s mark on that land. Flying over Apple Valley, I’ve seen abandoned boats and all sorts of weird stuff. My work is not about nature scenes, per se. It’s about how we interact with our land. I’m looking for the anomalies at the edges of the things I’m photographing.”

A few years ago, Lamb took those aerial photographs to the next level, turning paper and ink images into textured carpets woven by craftswomen in Tibet and Nepal. “The carpets are an extension of my work. They’re all natural. The materials are naturally sourced. It’s long fibred Tibetan wool from the high Tibetan plateau. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Tibetan Highlands. The silk is from organic silk farms in southern India, and I’ve spent a lot of time there also. All the dyes are naturally sourced. All of that’s important to that extension.”

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Tom Lamb poses with two of the carpets from his aerial landscape series

Lamb’s decision to transform his aerial photography into carpets was a product of pushing his own artistic boundaries. “I’d been seeing things from above, looking down. Now I’m bringing that vision full circle, taking a full spectrum color photograph and making a large image that’s made of four or five colors. I asked myself, ‘How does that abstract it further? What does that become?’ That pushed me as an artist. The pandemic became a soul-searching time for me.”

The critical role of the LBCAC in our community

Last month, Allyson Allen’s “Piece-Ful Protest” quilt exhibition, sponsored by the Community Art Project, was removed within days of its installation at Wells Fargo Bank. Although the 36-piece exhibit was pre-approved by the bank, a few customers complained about the political messaging contained in the quilts. In light of that event, all three artists made lengthy statements about the important work being done by the LBCAC and its willingness to promote edgy artists and showcase provocative work.   

“This particular spot in Laguna Beach is unique,” Dubin said. “It was never run as a commercial gallery. We need to support this because it’s the only space in town that will show this kind of work.” 

Lamb reinforced the point and provided some historical context. “The LBCAC, formerly known as BC Space, was run by Jerry Burchfield and Mark Chamberlain when they were still alive,” Lamb said. “Mark called himself an ‘artivist’ [a term he coined to reflect activism through art]. Every show was controversial back then. I moved to Laguna Beach because of this place. Jorg and I have both had eight or 10 shows here over the last 30 years. You’d never find that work in any other gallery in this town. Rick [Conkey] invites this kind of work and this sort of controversy. We all have to step up, search our souls and figure out where we’re going as a town.”

History’s most difficult moments are often accompanied by great opportunities. Today is no exception. These are challenging times, both globally and locally, and most outcomes are beyond our control. How we respond is not. The future is simply a composite of our individual choices collectively assembled. Whatever choices we make should be fully informed and done with open eyes. Centers like the LBCAC and artists like these are imperative to the discourse. 

“The only way to effect real change is to be engaged as an individual,” said Dubin, “whether it’s in your community, or at the state or federal level. It’s about how we want to be as a society. Do we want to be a society that is inclusive, or do we want to be exclusive and divided?”

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Rick Conkey, founder of the LBCAC, poses in front of “The Orange Stand”

2020 – Three Artists Respond to a Historic Year will be on display through Thursday, March 3. For more information on this exhibition or other programming at the LBCAC, visit their website at https://www.lbculturalartscenter.org/about.