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Laguna Beach

Guided by art: The Laguna Beach Poetry Trail offers visitors and locals alike a new way to explore our town


Regardless of how long you’ve lived in Laguna, the town always seems willing to show you something new. Even for those who know every nook and cranny, and all the city’s hidden secrets, there are nonetheless fresh ways to experience old gems. Last week, when local poet and writer Ellen Giradeau Kempler offered me a guided tour of Laguna’s Poetry Trail, I expected to discover some creative voices and original perspectives on our public art. But I never imagined how much I’d learn about the places I pass every day. 

After living in town for nearly 25 years, I’d never seen the koi pond, stocked with swimming turtles, tucked inside the Water District’s “Waterwise Garden.” While I’ve walked by Road Blossoms (a seating sculpture created by Kyungmi Shin and Todd Gray) countless times on my way into Whole Foods, I’d never paid attention to all those mosaic details. And though I’ve seen several photos of Raymond Persinger’s poetic stained-glass screen located in Brown’s Park (entitled Sight and Sound), I’d never visited in person. 

Beyond that, though I’ve seen much of our town’s art, I haven’t taken enough time to reflect on it. Nor have I experienced it through someone else’s imaginative point of view. That’s what the Poetry Trail offers – lots of art, some Laguna history, local poetry and a little exercise. It’s a reminder to slow down and take our town in and it gives us an opportunity to see old treasures anew.

“Laguna was founded as an art colony, and visual art has always had a strong presence here,” said Kempler. “But we have also become a cultural arts destination. It’s time we recognize the role creative writers have in contributing to a healthy and thriving arts community.”

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Local poet and writer Ellen Giradeau Kempler created the Poetry Trail after receiving a grant from the City of Laguna Beach. Kempler chose 10 poems written by community members in response to 10 pieces of public art. 

“Groups like Third Street Writers, Laguna Poets and the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance, the library’s annual poetry contest and the Cultural Arts Commission’s literary laureate program have encouraged adult writers,” Kempler said. “But we need more recognition of the ways all the arts can inspire each other. We also need to encourage young people to explore the written word with creative writing classes, workshops and projects like the Poetry Trail. I have long advocated a literary festival that would bring people together to celebrate books, reading and writing of all forms.”

In 2020, Kempler received a Fostering Creativity in a Time of Crisis Grant from the City of Laguna Beach. Funded by the city with a donation from the Wayne Peterson Trust through the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, the funds allowed Kempler to partner with the Friends of the Laguna Beach Library and produce a 26-page free booklet that guides visitors throughout Downtown Laguna to explore 10 different pieces of public art and their accompanying poems. The roughly 1.7-mile walk takes visitors through City Hall, down Ocean Avenue, over to Forest and eventually to Brown’s Park and Main Beach. The trail ends in North Laguna at the opening of Jahraus Park. 

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Local artist Jessica DeStefano was inspired by Ralph Tarzian’s bronze sculpture, “The Discussion,’ located at the corner of Ocean and Forest avenues in front of Anastasia Café

“When I found out about the Poetry Trail, I was very excited to walk it and let each art piece inspire prose,” said local artist Lisa Mansour. “I’ve always loved the concept of Art in Public Places. A few of the public art pieces were installed during my tenure as a Laguna Beach Arts Commissioner, so it was particularly fun visiting those stops.”

Between November 2020 and April 2021, after choosing 10 pieces of contemplative and thought-provoking art, Kempler solicited community members to contribute poetry that engaged with the pieces. In the literary world, the exercise is known as ekphrastic poetry – works written in response to art. Ekphrasis paints a picture with words. But, of course, those words are refracted through the creative lens of the writer and reflect their own experiences and vision of the art. Of the 127 submissions anonymously submitted, Kempler blindly chose 10 poems to represent each of the 10 public art pieces. The contributors represent a range of ages, backgrounds and life experiences.

The first stop on the poetry trail is Gerard Stripling and Michele Taylor’s collaborative sculpture Moving Forward. Installed in front of the Susi Q Community Center, the limestone bench protects an array of bronze shoes and one pair of glass ballet slippers enclosed in protective glass. 

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Joy Dittberner, executive director of the Laguna Dance Festival, wrote about her bygone ballet days in response to Stripling & Taylor’s 2009 installation, “Moving Forward”

“I’m not a poet, but I decided to submit something,” said Joy Dittberner, executive director of the Laguna Dance Festival and board member of the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance. “Since I’m involved in the Laguna Dance Festival, it was appropriate to write about the ballet shoes under the bench at the Susi Q. It was fun to try something new, stretch to find some creativity and be involved in the project. I cannot wait to walk the Poetry Trail with friends and share the artistic vibrancy of Laguna Beach.”

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Stroll down Third Street to Loma Place and gaze at the wall facing the Police Department. Canyon Preserve, the 2006 tile mural by the late Michele Taylor, has always been one of Mansour’s favorite pieces. “I wanted to honor Laguna Beach’s open space and history as an arts colony through my poem,” Mansour said. “I chose haiku because of its simplicity and tie to nature. Combining art and poetry was a brilliant idea by Ellen Kempler, and I’m so happy this project has finally come to fruition.”

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Local artist Lisa Mansour stands with one of her favorite pieces in town, “Canyon Preserve” 

Three of Kempler’s 10 chosen poems were written by students. Kai Bourne Turok, the youngest poet, responded to Yuri Kuznetzov’s whimsical mural Adventure, located on Ocean Avenue in the West Lot B parking lot. “It was an honor to be chosen as the youngest on the Laguna Beach Poetry Trail,” said Turok. “It gives me confidence in my voice and makes me want to create more stories, songs and poems.” 

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Kai Bourne Turok poses with Yuri Kuznetzov’s mural, “Adventure,” located on Ocean Avenue in West Lot B

Ten-year-old Barrett Bernholtz-Purko selected Girl and Dog, a 1933 bronze sculpture by Ruth Peabody located in Jahraus Park. “Poetry makes you look at things in a whole new way,” said Bernholtz-Purko, who plans to continue writing poetry and stories.

For Laguna Beach High School Senior Alina Dziuk, the project provided an inspirational alternative to completing a final exam for her creative writing course. Dziuk’s teacher suggested students submit poetic responses as part of their course work after completing a unit on poetry. “I thought it would be a great opportunity regardless of whether I won,” said Dziuk, who responded to Andrew Myers’ 2004 sculpture The Shopper on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Beach Street. “I’m glad the poetry community was able to construct such an artistic outlet for locals to display their passions. And I love how diverse our poets are. The project encapsulates the idea that poetry is both timeless and possible at any age.” 

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“The Shopper,” a bronze sculpture by Andrew Myers, served as inspiration for LBHS senior Alina Dziuk’s poem (written for a creative writing course)

The other striking feature about the Poetry Trail is its success in highlighting the varied unique traits of our town. From our cultural engagement (stop 3) to our ocean escapades (stop 9), from our ecological preserves (stop 2) to our artistic whimsy (stop 4). It also pays homage to the diversity of our residents – from every generation (stop 1) to every economic stratum (stop 8). Local writer Theresa Keegan’s poem in response to A Tranquil Moment (a 2002 cast bronze sculpture created by Jason Kopydiowdki) is a poignant tribute to Laguna’s less fortunate. 

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Writer Theresa Keegan responded to “A Tranquil Moment” with a moving piece about one of our town’s unhoused 

“To see long-standing art pieces interpreted through another medium is really powerful,” said Keegan. “Each individual art piece stands on its own, as does each poem, but together they demonstrate such a wondrous commitment to keeping the arts a vital part of daily life here.”

Keegan recently spent an afternoon walking the Poetry Trail herself. “It reminded me of the first time I walked through downtown, falling in love with the beauty and uniqueness of Laguna,” she said. “Too often, we’re rushing around or stuck in traffic and forget how special this community is. It was fun to walk the town, look at art, read the poems and see people out enjoying Laguna Beach.” 

Laguna Beach librarian and branch manager Nadya Hickam said the Poetry Trail also inspired some mindfulness training. Poet Jan Tattam shared the source of her inspiration for Terry Thornsley’s 2014 metal wall sculpture Grace (located at Main Beach by the Lifeguard Headquarters). “I’d walked by this mural for years,” said Hickam. “I’ve never noticed those details. The Poetry Trail has been a good reminder to pay attention.”

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Poet Jan Tattam poses with Terry Thornsley’s 2014 metal wall sculpture, “Grace,” located at Main Beach near the Lifeguard Headquarters

 “When I first saw the sculpture, what impressed me was the powerfulness of the piece,” said Tattam. “I was taken by the strength depicted in the two oarsmen rowing out through the rough waves. Still, I was uncertain about the title Grace. I wondered how it related to the piece, but then I noticed to the left in the sculpture, in the distance, the little sailboat with the broken mast, torn sail and the sailor desperately waving his arms. Ah...then I understood! The title is perfect. Hopefully, the lines of my poem may help another viewer to better appreciate this sculpture as well.” 

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Poet Jan Tattam focused on a detail embedded on the mural’s left-hand side to inspire her response to the piece. These small facets invite viewers like Nadya Hickam to pay closer attention to art they see every day.

Inspiring an audience to pay attention is largely the goal of both poetry and visual art. We walk too fast. We look too quick. And we reflect too little. The project is a reminder to slow down, look, listen and appreciate.

“Having an opportunity to look at our community with fresh eyes – and words – is a gift that will last for years to come,” Keegan said.

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“Girl and Dog” is Laguna’s oldest piece of public art, installed in 1933 in Jahraus Park. It’s the final stop on the Poetry Trail.

Copies of the Laguna Beach Poetry Trail Guide & Map are available for free at the Laguna Beach Public Library located at 363 Glenneyre St. A downloadable PDF of the guide is also available by clicking here

This is a self-guided 1.7-mile tour. The guidebook includes a detailed map and directions (as well as a QR code that leads to a Google Trail Map), poems, a biography and photo of each poet and information about points of interest along the way.

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