Headliner James Clay Garrison will rock the stage at the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center on February 5

By MARRIE STONE

In the great debate about whether musicians are born or made, James Clay Garrison might be a bit of both. The virtuoso guitarist and vocalist calls himself the “walking iPod.” Ray Charles once referred to him as music’s “utility man.” Name a song and, regardless of sound or style, Garrison can probably play it. For someone entirely self-taught, his ability and range are remarkable. Nothing feels off limits.

How does that kind of prodigy happen? How can one man straddle so many genres and styles while remaining successful in a cut-throat industry for more than 50 years? According to Garrison, it’s a combination of authenticity and adaptation. It’s also lots of time at task and inherent talent. Some of it may even have been his early exposure to the music scene. 

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

James Clay Garrison has been performing since the 70s with legends like Eddie Van Halen, Ray Charles, Stephen Stills and Brian Wilson. His lifelong passion for music and instinct for perfectionism have made him a force in the industry for almost 50 years.

As a kid, Garrison sat in Spain’s nightclubs with his father, absorbing the flamenco guitar. As an adult, he shared a stage with some of the most iconic musicians of the late 20th century, including Eddie Van Halen, Brian Wilson and Stephen Stills. The local legend began touring at age 14 and recorded his first album the following year. Now nearing retirement, Garrison has never stopped performing. He’s toured the world on stage, recorded albums, played for television shows, commercials, movie soundtracks, video games and voiceovers. 

On Saturday night, Feb. 5, 2022, he’ll bring his six decades of musical talent and experience – and a few old friends – to the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center (LBCAC) stage. But first Garrison shares his unbelievable backstory and the secrets behind his self-made success.

The unexpected benefits of growing up in the military

Garrison grew up in a military family. His father served as an Air Force colonel. “The last thing he wanted was for his son to become a musician,” Garrison said. But the transient lifestyle exposed young James to a variety of cultural influences. When he was only 18 months old, the family moved to Madrid, where Garrison began speaking Spanish alongside English. He also started training his tongue on a universal language – music. 

This was the early 1960s, when Franco still controlled Spain, but the intoxicating music scene was spreading across the globe. Garrison’s father, an audio/visual geek, began recording his 4-year-old singing Spanish songs. When Garrison turned six, his father introduced him to the live music scene. “My dad took me out to the Madrid clubs at 3 a.m.,” he said. “We’d listen to flamenco all night long.” Time functions differently in Spain. Spanish hours, with their siestas and midnight meals, mean something else. 

Garrison’s early exposure to that heady witching hour lifestyle may have helped establish both his love of music and his internal clock. “The rhythms and sounds of Spain were really influential. I don’t play flamenco, but my solo style is definitely influenced by those sounds and rhythms,” Garrison said. 

By the time Garrison turned 8, the family transferred to Texas, a place with its own musical style. “The first stop was the Air Force Base in Dallas Fort Worth. That was a culture shock,” Garrison said. “But I started digging the Texas swing.” 

Two years later, they were living in Shreveport, Louisiana where the sounds were completely different. “There was dancehall music and Zydeco (a blend of rhythm and blues that originated in southwest Louisiana within the French Creole culture). Most bands were playing that style,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Garrison’s sister introduced him to classic rock like Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. By the 1970s, Garrison was obsessed with British bands, listening to Queen and Yes, becoming infatuated with the long-haired rock scene.

“I love music,” said Garrison. “The genre doesn’t matter. There are only a couple genres I don’t enjoy playing. Beyond that, I try to be as authentic as possible, whatever the genre is. That’s what connects with people – when you’re genuine. There’s raw, natural ability and there’s being genuine. That’s when you’re winning with an audience.” 

Striking out on his own

By the time Garrison turned 14, his father bought him a beat-up Gibson electric guitar. His parents tried finding instructors, but no one could teach their son anything he hadn’t already taught himself. “There were a lot of great musicians in Louisiana, but not a lot of great teachers,” he said. “It deprived me of the more technical, educated side of music.” 

Garrison never formally practiced the guitar. Instead, he’d constantly play along with television commercials and TV theme songs. Whenever he got a new record, he’d try to emulate the tune, playing entirely from ear and improvising. “We didn’t have the luxury of YouTube back then,” he said. “But I could play a whole side of a Yes record.”

That same year, Garrison was offered a spot in a Christian recording band and began touring Europe and the U.S. The group recorded two albums together. “I was very lucky,” said Garrison. “I got chosen out of a bunch of kids mainly because I both sang and played the guitar. I was the youngest one in the group at age 14.”

No one in Garrison’s family played music professionally. He didn’t know how to plan a career as a musician. Instead, he began studying broadcast journalism at Louisiana State University. “I came home for my summer break after freshman year and got a phone call asking me to try out for a group that was passing through town. It was with some Italian crooner from Long Island. Tom Jones meets Tony Bennett – that kind of style.” Back then, hotels had big showrooms and brought bands in to play every night. He began playing five shows a night, five nights a week. By the age of 19, Garrison’s career had officially launched.

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison (center) passed along his love of music to his son, Cory (right), who’s also a professional musician

He spent the next few years playing those kinds of gigs around the U.S. before forming his own band – Room Service – three years later. “I met this amazing girl from a little town in Texas,” he said. “I couldn’t believe her voice and she played really good keyboards.” 

The two toured for five years, becoming well known from Jamaica to Texas. “She was 19 and I was 22. We were two youngsters going out on our own with only a station wagon,” Garrison said. “Within a year, we had a truck following us. We were flying to Jamaica and Cayman and playing Miami.” The Room Service duo eventually broke up when Garrison’s partner succumbed to the escalating drug culture around them, but it remained one of the most successful bands of his career. 

Meeting Eddie Van Halen

In the early 1980s, one month after getting married, Garrison was playing a gig in Shreveport when Eddie Van Halen walked in and saw him. “He fell in love with us,” Garrison said. “He told us to come to California and he’d give us a record deal.” With no place to live in Southern California, Garrison and his wife took up residence in the Van Halen home. Valerie Bertinelli, Eddie’s wife, taught Garrison her makeup tricks. “I watched her turn herself into this cute little America sweetheart,” Garrison said. 

“We started writing songs. The first gig I did was with Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills and Eddie Van Halen.”

Eventually, the direction in the band changed as one faction moved toward pop and the other wanted a heavy metal sound. They parted ways. “We remained friends with those guys,” Garrison said. “If I saw Eddie or Valerie, especially during those next few years, it was very cordial.”

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison’s sound and style fit right in with 1980s rock legends like Van Halen

How Garrison became Ray Charles’ “Utility Man”

Around 1988, Garrison got a gig to play with an African American woman – Sheila Raye – who claimed to be Ray Charles’ daughter. Garrison was skeptical. But he started writing songs for her and worked with her as music director. One day Raye suggested they visit her dad at his office.

“We drove to this horrible part of downtown Los Angeles,” recalled Garrison. “We walked in and sat in this old waiting room that looked like a doctor’s office with crappy chairs. I was thinking, ‘Oh yeah. This belongs to Ray Charles.’” 

Garrison watched Raye’s silhouette talking to someone behind an opaque glass wall. When she finally called for Garrison to join her, they walked down a hall and into Ray Charles’ studio. “It was a massive studio with a grand piano and huge boom mic. This was old school, serious heavy duty recording studio equipment. Then Ray Charles walked in. My jaw dropped.”

Charles loved Garrison’s sound. The two became friends and spoke often. “Every time I played a new song for him, he’d say, ‘That’s gotta be Jimmy!’” 

Charles called Garrison his “utility man” because Garrison could play everything in the studio. “I played the congas, the bass, the guitar and the background vocals on the records,” Garrison said. “I hate being called Jimmy, but that’s what Ray called me. He said, ‘Jimmy, I love you man. I love you because you think musically just like I do.’” Garrison tears up telling the story. “I don’t want to namedrop,” he said, “but I’ve never told the full story before.” 

The art of adaptation

Back on his own, Garrison kept doing what he did best. He dropped the guitar in favor of vocals for almost eight years because there were plenty of guitarists around. “I was just singing in bands,” he said. “There were so many great guitar players then. They needed new singers.”

Eventually, though, Garrison picked up his guitar again and people noticed. “I started writing my own material and getting some songs in 21 Jump Street and other TV shows. I was doing music for commercials throughout the 1990s. Then the whole industry changed. Suddenly anybody could do music at home. It took all those jobs away.” 

Garrison was well equipped for adaptation. Whether it was all that moving around as a kid, or choosing an industry where nothing was stable, he knew how to quickly pivot. “I did voice overs, soundtrack music and sound FX design for some of the biggest video games in late 1990s and early 2000s, including Redneck Rampage, Quake III and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The soundtrack song 'Trash Can,' written by myself and game producer Drew Markham, still gets massive numbers of streams, especially for a song now 25 years old.” Garrison also did the guitar work for the 1999 film Digimon

But Garrison missed having his own band. In 2009, he founded the group The Giant Peach (a perfect name for James) and moved to Laguna Beach the following year. 

“We started playing every Tuesday at Harvelle’s in Long Beach, where I was living at the time,” said Garrison. “We found a good sound and had some great sit-in players including blues guitarist Kirk Fletcher, Grammy nominee Josh Smith and Matt Rohde (the keyboardist for Jane’s Addiction and American Idol’s musical director). It was earthy and bluesy, but with a little sophistication. It was a fun band.” 

Since 2010, Garrison has regularly played gigs around Southern California and routinely in Laguna Beach. “Rick Conkey, founder of the LBCAC, was instrumental in getting us noticed in town,” Garrison said. “He knew how good we were, but the bands around Laguna have played here forever and were already well established.” 

Despite being newcomers in town, Garrison’s band took off. Soon they were offered regular gigs at Mozambique, the Cliff, the Marine Room and regularly headlined at the Sawdust Festival. They’ve also been a frequent fixture at the LBCAC, where they’ll play again in early February.

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison (center) plays guitar alongside his son, Cory James on drums, Matt Rohde from “American Idol” on the keyboard, Mick Linden on bass and Jesse Olema playing the fiddle at the Blue Water Festival in Laguna Beach

1000 Million Miracles

If you miss Garrison’s February performance, you can still enjoy his recorded songs. In 2014, Garrison released his album, 1000 Million Miracles. The follow-up album, The Other Side of Miracles, is forthcoming soon. 

Much of the music on both albums was produced with musicians Garrison met in Manhattan Beach, playing with a band called Day of Days. “That’s where I met Tod Sucherman from STYX, the drummer from Foreigner, the drummer for Alanis Morissette and Mick Fleetwood, the drummer from AC/DC and Lighthouse,” he said. “A lot of these drummers are on my new record. I kept those friendships. They volunteered to play for me.” 

The industry is small and good players recognize each other’s talents. That’s a benefit for the audience, who’s treated not only to Garrison’s wide-ranging talent, but the talents of many of the musicians he knows and brings along.   

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison has resided in Laguna Beach since 2010 and regularly plays in local clubs like the Marine Room, Mozambique, the Cliff and the Sawdust Festival

Garrison and his friends will rock the LBCAC stage this February

Garrison plans to bring a few old friends from a band he used to play in called the VooDudes. “We played at Studio Cafe in Newport Beach every Sunday for 10 years. That’s where I developed my repertoire of cover songs and guitar playing. People in this area know me from that gig more than anywhere else.” Ironic, given Garrison’s extraordinary resume. Most folks aren’t aware of the record contracts, the touring, the iconic stars with whom he’s shared a stage and all the screen appearances. “People want to remember you for their own experiences watching you,” he said. 

The secret to Garrison’s enduring success stems from a lot of innate talent. Few musicians make it this far without any formal training and entirely on their own. But what underlies his accomplishments is pure passion and a commitment to the craft. His standards are high and the talent surrounding him must be equally committed. “Legitimacy is important to me,” Garrison said. “I just love music, and I try to be authentic and genuine in every genre I play. That’s how to connect with the audience.” 

For tickets and additional information about the LBCAC, visit their website at https://www.lbculturalartscenter.org/. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The show will run from 8-11 p.m.

James Clay Garrison and his band perform Bill Withers “Use Me Up” in 2018 at Laguna’s Mozambique for a farewell show


Artist and community art leader Kathy Jones delivers the next LOCA Art Talk at the LCAD Gallery

By MARRIE STONE

“When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Kathy Jones encountered this query on a billboard she passed one day. The message stuck with her. Considering the trajectory of Jones’s professional and artistic careers, and the intentional way she lives her daily life, it’s clear she takes these kinds of questions seriously. She seizes on opportunities, embraces adventure and never shrinks from a challenge. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Kathy Jones will appear at the next LOCA Art Talk at the LCAD Gallery

Next Thursday, Jan. 20, the public is invited to join Jones and access her artistic headspace. The painter has mounds of practical wisdom to impart. She came to art after a long and successful career in academia, having served as the first female vice chancellor at UCI and as the vice president of Georgetown University. After leaving Georgetown, Jones worked in management consulting and as a strategic planning consultant. 

But art was always her passion. Jones began showing her paintings at the Festival of Arts in 2000. She served on the Festival board for 5 1/2 years and the LOCA Arts Education board for seven years, voluntarily retiring in 2019 to pursue other artistic opportunities. Today, she serves as the current president of the FOA Foundation and shows her paintings at the Sue Greenwood Gallery in Laguna Beach, the Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Seattle, the Marshall Gallery in Scottsdale and The Lily Pad Gallery’s two locations in Milwaukee and Rhode Island.

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Courtesy of Kathy Jones

“Trying to Make Sense of It All” (spring 2020), cold wax on panel, 40 x 30

Her impressive resume aside, Jones recognizes the impediments (both real and perceived) that artists face. Over the decades, she’s developed strategies to combat the inner critic, maintain a balanced lifestyle and continue posing fresh challenges to herself. 

“We all live with barriers and perceived obstacles,” Jones said. “Many people came to my booth at the Festival and said things like, ‘I would love to paint, but when I was in third grade somebody told me I didn’t have any talent,’ or ‘I don’t have the right to do this work,’ or ‘I should be doing something else.’ They spent their lives living under these shadows without taking opportunities to do things they loved because of these perceived slights. We all live with barriers and perceived obstacles.” 

Simply listening to Jones talk breaks some of those barriers down, or at least allows us to recognize their existence. Whether it’s her rich life experiences or her innate approach to life, Jones has a way of stripping away the superfluous and clarifying the issues that often constrain us.

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Courtesy of Kathy Jones

This 2003 piece conveys the progression of Jones’s process. 

One piece of artistic advice has served Jones particularly well. “I had a teacher who emphasized the importance of making contracts with yourself,” Jones said. “That guide became a lodestar for me.” Jones pointed out how easy it became to get overwhelmed by artistic options. Choosing a medium, a canvas size, a color palette and a subject matter can paralyze any artist. Unbound freedom is the artist’s enemy. 

“You need a starting point and an end point,” Jones said. “When I’m interested in exploring something new, I make that contract with myself. I give myself a timeline and a set of things to explore. It may change as I go along, but the contract gives me a set of parameters that allows me to operate with some sense of order. For me, that’s important.” 

The contract usually includes a deadline. It might restrict Jones to certain colors, canvas sizes or subject matters. But, for her, those restrictions are liberating.

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Courtesy of Kathy Jones

Kathy Jones at work in her studio on Laguna Canyon Road

“I also want to talk about not worrying about your work,” Jones said. “What is it you do that takes you completely out of your work, allows you to step away and then come back at it with a fresh eye?” It’s important, Jones said, to give yourself permission to take breaks and recharge your creative energy. “It may be cultural, but many of us get caught up in the pressure of producing the next piece. It’s all we think about. Instead, slow down and give yourself the opportunity to do things that have nothing to do with your work so you’ll come back with more energy and freedom. I don’t think that sense of freedom is innate in most of us. We’re not a very playful society.” 

Jones is an artist who works from the inside out, painting what she feels instead of what she sees. Her images walk an elegant line between the abstract and the figurative, but each one evokes an emotional response. 

When asked how the pandemic impacted her work, Jones said, “I recently had a chance to look at that issue. I sent a new batch of paintings to a gallery and realized my prior paintings – ones I’d done maybe four or six months earlier – were quite a bit more jagged. They almost looked constrained. They had all these lines that looked like barbed wire and seemed influenced by a sense that bad things were happening out there. My more recent paintings were quite cheerful. Maybe they shouldn’t be cheerful considering where we are today, but I painted them during a time where there seemed to be a lift in the world. A sense of optimism was reflected in those pieces.” Of course, Jones said, that’s all subconscious. She never strives to depict her awareness of the world or her moods. That’s simply the internal machinery of an artistic mind at work. 

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Courtesy of Kathy Jones

“Shadowed” (spring 2020) showcases the internal struggles of an artist working during the pandemic

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Courtesy of Kathy Jones

“Blessings” (late 2020), cold wax on panel, 12 x 9, captures a sense of hope and optimism

“I never know where a painting will go,” Jones said. “And I tend to work on multiple pieces at a time to give myself opportunities to see new things.” 

Jones envisions her upcoming talk more like an interactive dialogue with the audience. “What I really appreciate and value is the conversation,” she said. “I’m hopeful this talk will be informal. This is a chance to support one another. It’s about enhancing and strengthening the arts community. If I can contribute anything to that conversation, I’m really happy to do it.”

Jones’s talk promises to be inspiring for artists working across all mediums, and perhaps even for those who don’t identify as artists. Much of Jones’s advice has applications to everyday life. Start by asking yourself: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” 

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Courtesy of Kathy Jones

Jones delivered a 2015 LOCA Talk with artist Betty Haight in her studio. Participants used Matisse’s cutouts as inspirations to make their own pieces, which were assembled into a mural.

The LOCA Art Talk is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20 at 4 p.m. at the LCAD Gallery located at 374 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach. Due to a recent surge in COVID cases, there’s a possibility the event will be postponed. Visit LOCA’s website at www.locaarts.org for the latest updates and information. 


Breathing life into art: Rehearsals for Pageant of the Masters are heating up

The Pageant of the Masters, presented by Laguna Beach’s Festival of Arts, is heating up the beachside community with preparations and rehearsals underway for the highly-anticipated 2018 production of “Under the Sun.” 

Celebrating its 85th anniversary, the 2018 Pageant of the Masters will amaze audiences nightly July 7 - September 1 with 90 minutes of tableaux vivants. These “living pictures” are re-creations of classical and contemporary works of art with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces. Tickets are available now at www.PageantTickets.com.

“We started work on pre-production for “Under the Sun” in October 2017. Currently we are building different sets each week, and conducting dress rehearsals every Thursday night for 3-4 set pieces,” said Richard “Butch” Hill, Technical Director and Lighting Designer for the Pageant. “This will be my 34th year with the Pageant and the passion and dedication from the designers, volunteers, make-up artists, Pageant Director, and everyone involved truly shows in the masterpieces created.”

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Pageant Sculptor Daniel Stonebreaker (far right) helps volunteer cast members (left to right) Sunshine Iller of Lake Forest, Ferne Ames of Laguna Beach and Caroline Reese of Ladera Ranch, into their poses at a rehearsal for the 2018 Pageant of the Masters

Since opening in 1933, the Pageant has welcomed approximately 500 volunteers each year who eagerly contribute more than 60,000 hours of their time in total. Many staff members, like Butch, have worked with Pageant of the Masters for decades, creating a family-reunion-like environment that attracts mass numbers of volunteers and crowds to learn, appreciate and perform in the fine arts. The volunteers vary in ages with the youngest volunteer at just four years old, and the oldest in his late 80s.

Every Thursday night through June, staff and volunteers gather in the Irvine Bowl studying details from stage lighting to specific pose placement, and unique make-up art to complicated set designs. Volunteer actors fill the backstage area during rehearsals, along with Allyson Doherty, Makeup Director, who coaches the make-up volunteers with step-by-step tutorials on how to transform the actors into living art. To complete the final picture, Costume Director Reagan Foy and her team help cast members into their costumes and make final adjustments.

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Scene from Under the Sun: Garden Wall

The Director, Diane Challis Davy, selects the pieces in the Pageant and oversees pre-production and each rehearsal to perfect the living pictures and transform their presentation, with help from the Pageant staff, into a full production with music, narration and backdrops.

In the 2018 Pageant of the Masters, “Under the Sun,” theatrical magic, live music and light-hearted storytelling will honor masterpieces including work by Leonardo da Vinci, Kleitsch, Rosenthal, Monet, Kuntz, Sargent, and Wasil. Staying with tradition, the finale of the Pageant will feature Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

The Pageant of the Masters runs July 7 - September 1 with advance tickets now available starting at $15 per person. A Pageant ticket is also a season pass to the Festival of Arts Fine Art Show. 

The 2018 Festival of Arts Fine Art Show will take place in conjunction with the Pageant of the Masters, July 5 - September 1, with general admission tickets starting at $10 per person. 

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.LagunaFestivalofArts.org.


With Hymns to the Silence, Jacques Garnier captures the sublime

By MARRIE STONE

“A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window, and stairway to express it.” –Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

If architects bestow souls onto their structures, photographer Jacques Garnier lays them bare for the rest of us to appreciate. Like a portrait artist who captures a subject’s essence, Garnier’s photographs bring that same reverence and attention to architecture. But what of the artist himself? Where does the creator’s imagination originate?

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Photo by Jeffrey Rovner

Photographer Jacques Garnier

Looking at the poetic tranquility in Garnier’s current exhibition, Hymns to the Silence – on display through October 24th at the Laguna Art Museum – no one could guess at his artistic origin story. Inspired by a lifelong obsession with beautiful buildings and iconic structures, Garnier can also trace his influences to some unlikely sources, including a college job collecting trash, a long love affair with poetry, and a captivation with abstract art. There are also hints of Buddhism and a fascination with the Japanese artistic treatment of negative space. 

Whether subject matter is implicitly incorporated or obviously left out, Hymns to the Silence represents the distillation of decades of work that’s come before it. Tracing the trajectory of Garnier’s journey is therefore central to appreciating his art.

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

Garnier’s image of the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, titled “The Veil and the Vault,” illustrates his use of spareness, light, and negative space

Deconstructing an artist’s odyssey

Artistic influences are often easier to appreciate in hindsight. After a photographer has amassed a body of work, and assembled several different collections, audiences can absorb them in one swoop, seeing trends and repeating themes. Though Garnier didn’t pick up a camera until his 50s, his mind regularly returned to similar subject matter and intellectual ideas for decades.

Garnier attributes a recurring job in college as one of those defining moments. In his late teens and early twenties, he spent his summers collecting trash for the Department of Sanitation in Los Angeles. Even in the 1960s, realizing how much waste Americans generated had a visceral impact on him. “The amount of working and useful objects thrown away left an indelible impression on me,” Garnier says. That awareness of how much excessive junk our culture accumulates – whether explicitly examined or intentionally avoided – is woven throughout his work.

Earlier in his career, Garnier made a study of clutter. One such exercise, which never made it into a formal collection, investigated the hidden mess behind hotel room doors. Instead of the unblemished, sanitized spaces that guests encounter at check-in, Garnier was interested in what they left in their wake – unmade beds with disheveled sheets, dirty linens, and trash cans that hadn’t been emptied. “I’m not interested in the people,” Garnier says. “I’m interested in the places people have been, and what they leave behind.” 

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

Garnier’s obsession with clutter and waste led to an examination of hotel rooms where guests had recently checked out

Around this period, Garnier found himself attracted to the traditional Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that embraces transience and imperfection. This worldview can be reduced to three principles: nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, and nothing lasts. Wabi-sabi adopts an appreciation for things that are imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent, finding beauty in the flaws. “I isolated pictures of the impurities of life,” Garnier says. “The neglected things that are often overlooked. I think this fascination began because of the garbage collecting. I was always interested in what was discarded and thrown away.”

In another series, called Second Chances, Garnier captured images of abandoned cabins in California’s Mojave Desert. World War II veterans, attracted by the federal government’s offer for land grants to homesteaders in the mid-20th century, came to the desert in droves. But the punishing heat and inhospitable conditions eventually pushed most of them away, leaving behind beds and couches, curtains and clothing, rotting appliances and rusted equipment. Even a few graves. Garnier’s photos bore witness to the tangible impact of human waste on the environment.

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

“Second Chances” explored abandoned cabins in California’s Mojave Desert as a commentary on human waste

This hyper-awareness of clutter eventually led Garnier in the opposite artistic direction – an equally aggressive instinct to declutter. What if he could strip buildings down to their bare essence, subtracting not only the nonessential elements surrounding the structures, but even parts of the structure itself? This led first to the collection, LA Remembered, then to re[VOIR] and, ultimately, to the most extreme body of work in this series, A Deconstructed Odyssey

Moving into abstraction

Along the way, Garnier became interested in Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko’s color field paintings and abstract art. “I was emotionally drawn to the work, but I couldn’t figure out why,” says Garnier. “It was a visceral response.” Newman, Rothko, and similar artists moved Garnier’s photography from literal representations of spaces and into the abstract. 

“I’m not an expert on photography, but I am an expert on minimal and geometric abstraction,” says gallerist Peter Blake. “And that’s what I see in Jacques’ body of work.” Blake has followed Garnier’s work for years. Since 1996, The Peter Blake Gallery has exhibited four past collections of Garnier’s photography. “At some point, Jacques was shooting these rust spots in metal and making what looked like abstract paintings out of photographs. Then there was a period of architectural shots that, again, you wouldn’t know what they were unless told. But they had this sense of a kind of structural feeling to them that was really incredible.” 

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

A Deconstructed Odyssey chronicled Garnier’s first serious foray into abstraction. “Construct #96” is a representative sample, though not the most extreme.

“Something shifted,” Garnier says. “Around the time I began exploring black and white photography, a feeling of wanting to take away unnecessary things from the photographs started to percolate. I began taking black and white images, but without the background – or with a minimal background. I knew I was onto something, but it wasn’t working. It went through three or four different incarnations before I started doing the LA icon series.”

The concept behind Garnier’s LA Remembered collection was born when he discovered the classic La Cienega hangout, NORMS diner, was destined to be razed. “NORMS had such an iconic sign. It’s called Googie architecture,” Garnier says. “I wanted pictures of the building but ended up taking a photo of just the sign. I started playing with it, isolating the sign by itself, and floating it in negative space. Then I started doing that with other iconic buildings in Los Angeles.” The series includes images of Union Station, Capitol Records, Mann’s Chinese Theater, and the Theme Building at LAX (to name just a few). They’re all recognizable structures, the majority of them even including the signage to easily identify them. But when removed from the busy cityscape of LA’s congested streets, floated in the ether of white space, the buildings give an almost ghostly impression of disembodied architectural elements that’s both beautiful and haunting.

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

The Theme Building at LAX is part of Garnier’s “LA Remembered” series

A body of work distilled

In some sense, Hymns to the Silence represents the consummation of a body of work that’s been building for decades. As Garnier refines his process and homes in on his intentions, the images have gathered a kind of artistic momentum. 

The 25 photographs on display in the upper-level Thomas T. and Elizabeth C. Tierney Gallery of the Laguna Art Museum represent only about 40 percent of the total collection. Even viewers familiar with the buildings will experience them anew when reimagined through Garnier’s lens. Several images were taken at UCI: Langson Library, Gateway Study Center, Aldrich Hall, and McGaugh Hall to name just a few. Others are iconic to southern California: the Broad Museum, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and San Diego’s Salk Institute. But some of Orange County’s well-known structures, like the Segerstrom Center, are largely unrecognizable when stripped of their surroundings. 

In addition to isolation and abstraction, Hymns to the Silence explicitly makes use of another Japanese notion – the importance of negative space – more formally known as ma. In traditional Japanese art and culture, ma (literally meaning gap, space, or pause) holds as much meaning as the subject matter of the work itself. For example, the doors, walls, and windows of a house are structurally necessary. But it’s the space inside that’s the essence of the home. In other words, “the silence between the notes makes the music.”

This inclination toward negative space might be a nod to Garnier’s time as a poet. Earlier in his life, he produced four collections before applying those poetic principles to photography. “Poetry is ambiguity and I try to have that in my work,” Garnier says. His images, like his poems, reflect the idea that beauty often lies in what remains unsaid. They give the eye – and the mind – a quiet space to rest and reflect.

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Photo by Jacques Garnier

“Infinitum” an image of York Hall at UCSD is part of the “Hymns to the Silence” collection, on display at the Laguna Art Museum

“The exhibition is a beautiful visual conversation between dark and light, absence and presence, void and existence,” says Meg Linton, writer and independent curator. “The reduction of these glass and concrete monumental buildings to snippets of pattern surrounded in a pristine blackness poetically reveals the minuteness of the man-made to the vastness of the universe.” 

Beyond that, though, the photographs are also an homage to California’s contemporary art scene, while simultaneously evoking something more modern. 

“The two things that were important in California’s contemporary art genre were hard-edge paintings and light and space,” says Blake. “Jacques manages to capture both in these photographs. There’s a kind of hard-edge abstraction to the work and, of course, the use of light. He brings you back to an older time. There’s a feeling in these photographs that’s very Bauhaus, very modern. It has a certain feeling that takes you back to the 1930s. It’s a very strange thing.”

For the armchair art enthusiast, the images are simply stunning. Cody Lee, Director of Communications at the Laguna Art Museum, summarizes what guests can expect. “The photographs are endlessly fascinating,” he says. “They are at once aesthetically beautiful, with stark contrast of black and white; technically impressive, made with precision and detail; and very thoughtful, with architecture shown in abstract forms and from Jacques’ unique perspective.” 

The will of man made visible

Although Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead endures as one of the more controversial novels of the 20th century, her protagonist Howard Roark (loosely based on Rand’s architectural hero Frank Lloyd Wright) remains a clear-eyed visionary. The following excerpt refers to the New York City skyline, but illuminates one of Garnier’s enduring goals:

“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of…skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky…and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?” 

Jacques Garnier will appear at the Laguna Art Museum on Thursday, July 29 at 6 p.m. to speak about the collection. Advance tickets are recommended: $13 for adults; $11 for seniors and students; free for LAM members. Visit www.lagunaartmuseum.org for more information about the collection, the event, and other exhibits on display at the Museum.


Wayne Thiebaud’s Clowns: A fitting finale to a long career

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

When centenarian artist Wayne Thiebaud was a boy – back in the early 1930s – the circus came to his hometown in Long Beach. Thiebaud became captivated by the clowns and took a job with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, bringing water to the elephants and helping the clowns pick up the tent in exchange for tickets. “It was probably the biggest event that happened during the year,” Thiebaud said in an interview with Janet Bishop in his 2020 book Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns. “Because it was so bizarrely the opposite of most American’s lives.” 

Thiebaud befriended a carnival worker known as “The Wild Man from Borneo.” His act took place in a simulated cave, and he played the role of the untamed savage, swallowing lit cigarettes and eating glass. But Thiebaud remembers him as a wonderful guy whose real job was combing Southern California’s beaches for lost treasure – coins, wristwatches, and rings. He invited young Thiebaud to tag along, letting him keep the pennies. Then there was “Ossified Roy,” a stony man with rock-hard skin that sounded like it might crack when hit with a hammer. 

Like most visceral childhood memories, these men made an impression on Thiebaud. But the bulk of the artist’s career didn’t concern clowns. Instead, Thiebaud became known for his colorful still life portraits of another kind of Americana – brightly painted pastries (cakes, pies, and cupcakes), ice cream cones, hot dogs, and gumball machines. He also did several series of mountains, streetscapes and landscapes, cities built on a hill, and some portraiture. 

He mostly kept the clowns locked in the treasure chest of his own memories, waiting until his mid-90s to bring them back out. But they bear all the hallmarks of his artistic expressions cultivated over decades of practicing his craft, this time with a twist.

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The Wayne Thiebaud “Clowns” exhibition is on display at the Laguna Art Museum through October 24

Thiebaud’s exhibition, Clowns, has been on display at the Laguna Art Museum since December 2020 and will close on Sunday, Oct 24. It features more than 40 works from the series, representing the culmination of more than seven decades of artistic work. Opening just three weeks after the artist’s 100th birthday, the show coincided with a retrospective of his work on exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, where Thiebaud lived most of his adult life. 

Clowns is a particularly poignant and fitting finale for an artist nearing the end of life whose career largely celebrated the simple joys of our colorful American culture. Clowns conjure the innocence of childhood memories with their red noses and oversized shoes. These animated settings and painted faces appeal to Thiebaud, whose art reflects his enduring fascination with the cartoon form. But, of course, there’s always been something more complicated about the clown. 

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“Clown Mystic,” oil on board mounted on panel, 2019

Thiebaud began the series in 2015 during a time of personal transition. The artist was 95 years old. His son, Paul, had passed away in 2010 at the age of 49 and, five years later, he lost his wife of 56 years to Alzheimer’s. “It was a time of trying to figure out what to do to keep going,” he told Bishop. Several of the pieces reflect that struggle. 

For Thiebaud, the clowns represented transience and elusiveness. They were there and then they weren’t. As an artist confronting mortality – both his loved ones’ and his own – what could be more elusive or transient than life itself? 

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“Clown and Oversized Mask,” charcoal and chalk on paper, 2019

“They’re almost like spirits or like figures of that domain that are of a different character,” he said. “These people were just like me, but they had these extraordinary experiences, most of them having a lot to do with moving all the time.” They were both familiar and exotic, accessible and distant. They were performers – trapeze artists, tumblers, jugglers, and entertainers – but they were also grunts doing the hard work behind the scenes. 

The series retains that strong sense of nostalgia that’s always been present in Thiebaud’s work. His paintings have often called up images from childhood and an uncomplicated vision of mid-20th century American life – apple pies and ice cream sundaes, pinball and slot machines. The kind of America conjured by the peaceful prosperity of the 1950s. 

Clowns are no exception. But there’s a poignant sadness and seriousness to this series unlike what’s come before. In addition to his playful clowns juggling desserts, popping out of boxes, or driving cars, Thiebaud’s clowns are also often in peril. Some are on fire, locked behind bars, being rescued from the spotlight, or smothered by a beast. There are cigar smoking clowns, naked clowns, disintegrating clowns, and a sopping wet clown trapped beneath an isolated raincloud. Perhaps the most poignant is a dead clown whose spirit is floating away. 

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“Clown Spirit,” oil on board, 2019

Thiebaud’s clowns connect to his love of whimsical cartoons, and yet they have an edge of somber reflection and a ribbon of loneliness and grief. They are tragic and comedic. Solemn and silly. There’s a shape-shifting quality that leaves the audience a little on edge. 

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“Clown with Two Cigars,” oil on board, 2016/2018/2019

This November, Thiebaud turns 101. “Thank God for history,” he once remarked to KCET’s Robert Pincus. “It’s so clarifying.” He is, after all, an artist who’s witnessed a lot of it. The series reflects Thiebaud’s history, too. Perhaps one of his more autobiographical exhibitions, Clowns is a culmination of Thiebaud’s thematic concerns and psychological curiosities. It showcases his artistic influences (including Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Cézanne, among others), it explores the range of his emotional terrain, and it includes a few self-portraits to ensure the audience understands the artist exists inside his own work. 

Wayne Thiebaud Self Portait

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Self-Portrait

When talking about his inspirations for the series, Thiebaud says he was particularly touched by the 1959 Henry Miller story, “The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder.” The fable chronicles the story of two clowns. Auguste, the story’s protagonist, could make people laugh in the moment but desired the ability to impart lasting joy on his audiences. Could the same be true of Thiebaud? “It addresses a lot of things that I’m fundamentally interested in – about the vulnerability of human beings, and also about celebrity,” Thiebaud told Bishop. 

The story was inspired by the cubist painter Fernand Léger, who created a series of clown and circus drawings that Thiebaud also admired. “Auguste is unique in that he came from the blue,” said Henry Miller. “But what is this blue which surrounds and envelopes us if not reality itself?”

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“One-hundred-year-old Clown,” 2020

Interesting, then, that Thiebaud chose the color blue to surround his own One-hundred-year-old Clown painting. The piece is both an intimate self-portrait and a self-referential homage to many of the tropes and techniques Thiebaud’s paintings have incorporated over the course of his long career. Art historian Julia Friedman has written extensively about the piece. She notes the skullcap that summons Thiebaud’s mountain series (first appearing in his work in the mid-1960s), the dark lines on his coat that conjure city roads he often painted in San Francisco in the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as the curvature of the artist’s ear that echoes his Sacramento landscapes. Of course, the signature red nose is the cherry on top of Thiebaud’s many iconic dessert paintings – cakes, cupcakes, and ice cream sundaes. But it’s the clown’s expression, as well as the heavy burden of his black overcoat, that weighs on the viewer. This is a clown past his prime, still wearing the makeup but having shed the traditional clown attire, who seems to understand his show is over.

Not so for Thiebaud who, at 101, continues to stretch himself into new and unchartered territory. Curator and critic Karen Wilkin had already declared Thiebaud an “American master” in 2015 before the then-nonagenarian opted to tackle new ground by inserting himself into his work. He’s produced 10 covers for The New Yorker magazine, including one as recent as August 2020. 

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“Running Cars,” 2019

“Spending time with Theibaud’s Clowns exhibition has been a personal delight, perhaps only superseded by watching and listening to groups of visitors touring the exhibition,” says Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum. “Whether love, hate, or something in between, visitors react to this body of work often by projecting their own feelings or narratives into it. My favorite exhibition moment so far was to see a young group of visitors, wonderfully outfitted in stripes, suspenders, and other clothing evocative of something a performer might wear. This is the magic of Theibaud, an artist whose painting is of the highest caliber and who has the ability to speak to each of us.” 

This is, indeed, the enduring power of Thiebaud’s clowns. They are both windows out and mirrors in. They are, as the artist observed, both foreign and familiar figures. They are us – frequently joyful and occasionally burdened, sometimes playing in the company of others but more often alone. No surprise the audience is inclined to put themselves into the paintings and see themselves reflected back. After living over a century, and painting for more than 70 years, Thiebaud has had ample time to study human nature and empathy. Who better than this artist and his clowns to teach us something about ourselves?

Clowns will be on display through Sunday, Oct 24 at the Laguna Art Museum located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. 

For more information, go to www.lagunaartmuseum.org.


The Festival of Arts Annual Meeting highlighted the importance of robust and flexible leadership

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, for the first time since 2019, the Festival of Arts (FOA) came together for its annual meeting. A crowd gathered outdoors on the FOA grounds to celebrate a successful 2021 season and acknowledge the myriad obstacles board members, managers, staff and volunteers overcame to stage a prosperous and popular show. 

Shuttering the grounds during the summer of 2020 had a profound economic impact on the organization, perhaps more than the public realized. Through their collective skills, fiscal responsibility, dedication and flexibility, the management team navigated some treacherous financial waters. Forced into several risky and difficult decisions, their prudent strategies paid off. The result is an organization arguably stronger than before.

Here are a few highlights from the evening. 

Farewell to a friend

Before officially opening the meeting, President David Perry announced the passing of FOA board member Bob Moffett on November 3, one day after his 85th birthday. Moffett served on the board since 2009. For more than 50 years, he and his wife Jacquie contributed their time and experience to the Festival of Arts and the larger Laguna Beach community. 

In 1953, after attending UCLA, Moffett began his successful career in the entertainment business in engineering and production at KTLA. Promoted to engineering supervisor, Moffett oversaw many of the video-tape productions. Moffett became chief engineer at KOCE in 1970, and was later promoted to station manager before retiring from KOCE after 26 years.

Fellow board member Wayne Baglin said, “Bob was a gentle soul who was a great listener and saved his comments to observations or opinions that really mattered to him and his friends.” 

His friendship and leadership will be missed.

Navigating tricky financial waters

After introducing the board of directors and management team, Perry acknowledged the many hardships the pandemic wrought on the organization. “We made it through a difficult two years, starting with the cancellation of our summer show in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Perry said. “The Festival was in desperate financial shape. At the time the summer show was canceled, we’d sold about $3,000,000 in tickets and spent the money in preparation.”

The Festival made personal contact with thousands of patrons, most of whom requested refunds. “All of this was made more difficult by the unexpected decision by the Festival’s longtime credit card processor to freeze distributions to the Festival from credit card transactions.” 

As a result, the board made a series of difficult, and often heartbreaking, decisions. They were forced to furlough staff (leaving only a minimal team of managers in place), borrow money, drastically cut all expenditures, liquidate investments to meet nonoperating debt demands and negotiate a reduction in the size of the Pageant’s orchestra. Meanwhile, at the time, the future of the organization remained entirely uncertain.

The Festival pivoted to digital platforms including virtual concerts, virtual art exhibits and even a virtual fundraiser. “Our goal was to raise $100,000 and to our pleasant surprise, we raised over $300,000 because of the generosity of our members, patrons and community supporters,” Perry said. The organization also applied for grants, PPP loans and a government-sponsored loan.

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FOA President David Perry delivered the Board’s report at the 2021 Annual Meeting

The difficult decision arrived on April 15, when the board had to decide whether to move forward with the 2021 summer season. The bet was big, the future uncertain, but it paid off. More than 150,000 people attended this past summer’s show. Many Festival exhibitors reported that art sales soared to all-time highs and “Made in America” (a Pageant theme announced in 2019) took on much broader significance in 2021. 

“Midway through the summer program, the Festival received a Shuttered Venue Operators grant which will allow us to weather the serious operational challenges caused by the loss of an entire year’s worth of revenue,” Perry said. “We appreciate that the governmental agencies understood the difficulties presented by the pandemic and are grateful that they recognized the importance of the arts and stepped up to provide the arts community with such much-needed support.”

Times of uncertainty reveal an organization’s resiliency, Perry said. The challenges posed by the pandemic offered opportunities to reconnect and recognize the power of working together. The year was a reminder to take nothing for granted and remain grateful in the face of adversity. “I believe the worst of it is behind us and I’m confident that I will be attending the Festival’s 100-year anniversary in 2032,” he said.

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Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf delivered the Mayor’s report, congratulating the Festival board and staff for their resolve in putting the organization back on firm footing

Treasurer Report

Treasurer Fred Sattler opened his report with the following poignant quote, “Samuel Johnson said, ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ That, in a nutshell, is what the Festival’s 2021 fiscal year was all about,” Sattler said.

While Perry painted an overall portrait of the Festival’s financial situation, Sattler put dollar amounts to the desperation. “Technically, we realized zero operating revenue for 2020,” Sattler said. “Of the normal preorder ticket sales which we traditionally used to finance the coming summer’s show, 35% ($1.25 million) was refunded, 57% was rolled over into tickets for 2021 and 8% was graciously converted to donations. This was only one of our cash-flow challenges. And as we sat watching our cash position dwindle, we were simultaneously facing an unknown future.”

Sattler reiterated the difficult decision the board made on April 15th when forced to decide if the Festival and Pageant would open in July. “At that point, we had the bare minimum amount of time to put the entire program together for a July 3rd opening and just about enough working capital. We were then faced with the question, ‘If we build it, will they come?’ Or at least come in sufficient numbers to generate enough revenue to cover our cost,” Sattler said. The organization was down to its final dollars.

“It wasn’t our best summer, but it was a good summer,” he said. “We realized about 70% of our normal operating revenue and, due to excellent cost management, kept expenses in check. As a result, we have experienced a $2.2 million increase in net assets from operations. I’m also pleased to say that we are not holding any debt.”

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Board Treasurer Fred Sattler delivered the 2021 fiscal report

The important role of funding educational scholarships

Secretary Pat Kollenda delivered the annual Scholarship Report. “The Festival of Arts awarded a total of $30,900 to 16 returning scholarship recipients for the 2021-2022 academic year,” Kollenda said. “The average GPA of returning students was 3.66.”

Kollenda cited several institutions that students selected including Loyola Marymount University, Brigham Young University, Emerson College, Tulane University, as well as local schools like LCAD, UCI, UCLA, USC, among many others.

“We were so terribly disappointed that we were not able to award scholarships to high school seniors this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and financial restraints,” Kollenda said. “Thankfully, we are back on track and in the process of preparing the applications for next year.”

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Board Secretary Pat Kollenda delivered the 2021 scholarship report

Lifetime membership and service recognition awards

Volunteers who have served on the Pageant’s roster for 15 years are awarded life membership status. This year, seven volunteers from makeup to wardrobe to cast members were honored. Fran Benes (makeup), Ashley Dillabough (makeup), Teresa Dillabough (makeup), Noemi Grabiel (men’s wardrobe), Virginia “Ginny” Preston (makeup), Maria Carmen Smith (women’s wardrobe) and Michelle Pohl (cast member) each received recognition.

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15-year service life membership award recipients 

Recently, the Festival has begun recognizing year-round employees who have served the Festival for 10 years or more. This year, seven individuals were honored: Danny Aguilar (15 years), Monica Daebritz (20 years), Susan Davis (20 years), Gina Pascual (21 years), Gary Fowler (25 years), Butch Hill (35 years), and Diane Challis Davy (41 years).

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Year-round employee recognition awards

Honoring Pat Sparkuhl

For more than 40 years, longtime Laguna Beach resident Pat Sparkuhl has contributed to the arts community in Laguna Beach. The Festival bestowed a lifetime membership award in 2020 to Sparkuhl and delivered it to him at this year’s annual meeting. 

Announcing the award, FOA Vice President Tom Lamb noted that Sparkuhl exhibited his work in the Festival’s annual summer exhibition for 30 years. Sparkuhl led pioneering efforts to grow the Festival’s art education programs and initiated the summer docent program. He also acted as the Interim Exhibits Manager, ensuring an uninterrupted and peaceful transition when Ron Morissette, former Exhibits Manager, departed. Throughout 10 years as the organization’s art collection specialist, Sparkuhl served as an advocate, caretaker and curator of the Festival of Arts Permanent Art Collection. He’s consistently brought extensive knowledge, passion for art and art education, and an ability to bring people together and connect others. 

To quote a former student, “Pat is the most open-hearted, creative, kind, humane, warm and wonderful person most of us could stand to be in the same room with.”

In recognition and appreciation for Sparkuhl’s 40 years of commitment to the Festival of Arts, he was awarded a life membership.

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Vice President and board member Tom Lamb delivers a Life Membership Award to Pat Sparkuhl

Honoring Vice President Tom Lamb 

Vice President Tom Lamb served on the FOA board for 15 years. In recognition of his many contributions Perry said, “Tom is an innovative leader who has done so much for the arts, the artists and this organization. As an award-winning photographer and 30-year Festival exhibitor, Tom brought a unique perspective to the board. He is passionate about the Festival’s history, art education initiatives and the Permanent Art Collection. 

“Tom secured the largest bequest ever for the Festival, a $1,000,000 endowment from Stillman Sawyer along with over 500 of Sawyer’s photographs for the Festival’s collection. He was the driver behind creating foaNorth, the location to house the Festival’s collection and archives, and foaSouth, a gallery to showcase the collection and Festival exhibitors’ work. 

“He was also instrumental in the facade grounds’ renovation process.” 

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Vice President Tom Lamb receives recognition for his 15-year service on the FOA Board

Welcome Ed Hanke 

The Festival Board welcomed its newest member, Ed Hanke, a longtime Pageant of the Masters’ volunteer (who plays the role of Philip in “The Last Supper”). As a 15-year member of the Patriots’ Day Parade, now serving as its president for the past two, and a member of LagunaTunes (he’s a baritone bass), Hanke has devoted endless volunteer hours to our town. 

Continuing on the board are Pat Kollenda and Anita Mangels (each serving new three-year terms), Wayne Baglin, John Connolly, Fred Sattler, Jeff Rovner and David Perry. 

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Ed Hanke (pictured with wife Kathy) joins the FOA Board

Bylaw amendments

For FOA members who may not have been in attendance, Perry announced three proposed changes to the organization’s bylaws, which require member consideration in the coming months.

“Two points have to do with the board of directors election process,” Perry said. “The first will allow for electronic voting as well as mail-in ballots and the second will permit an eligible voting member to sign up to three nomination forms. The third suggested amendment is a simple change in the dates of the membership year. This will not impact members’ priority Pageant ticket ordering.”   

Perry concluded his remarks by noting how important it is that members respond and vote. 

Announcement of the 2022 Pageant of the Masters’ theme: “Wonderful World” 

The moment many may have been waiting for came toward the end, when Pageant of the Masters Director Diane (Dee) Challis Davy announced the theme for the 2022 show – “Wonderful World.” 

While 2021’s show “Made in America” highlighted the history of our nation and the trailblazing American artists that documented it, 2022 will expand the cultural canvas to incorporate the rest of the world. Guests will be guided through 17 countries in 90 minutes, including stops in Japan, France, Sweden, Italy and parts of Africa. “I hope world travel and experiencing life in other countries will become easy again. In the meantime, we are going to celebrate – through living pictures, music and dance – here in the Irvine Bowl,” Challis Davy said.

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Director Diane Challis Davy (serving as Pageant Director for 41 years) announced the 2022 Pageant theme, “Wonderful World” 

Inspired by the 19th century journalist Nellie Bly, Challis Davy used Bly’s intrepid travels as the foundation for next year’s show. “In the 1890s, Bly attempted to travel around the world in fewer than 80 days, the challenge imagined in Jules Verne’s fictional classic Around the World in 80 Days. We’re researching her travel logs, diaries and ephemera related to her ambitious solo journey,” Challis Davy said. “Did she accomplish her mission? You’ll have to see the show.” 

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“Wonderful World” will make its debut in the Irvine Bowl in July 2022

The 2022 Pageant of the Masters’ production “Wonderful World” will be on stage from July 7 through September 3, 2022. Advance tickets go on sale on December 1 starting at $30 per person. To stay up to date on all things related to the Pageant of the Masters and Festival of Arts, follow the Festival on social media at @FestivalPageant and visit www.foapom.com.


Warm up December with Laguna’s JaZz Band and Community Concert Band

By MARRIE STONE

Celebrate the season with three live performances by the Laguna JaZz Band and Community Concert Band this month, all featuring long lists of Christmas favorites. Holiday festivities kick off this Friday, Dec. 3, at Hospitality Night where the Laguna JaZz Band will perform at 6 p.m. on Beach Street. The 18-piece ensemble, featuring vocalist Ginger Hatfield, will play a set of seasonal classics as well as a few jazz surprises including Louis Armstrong’s Zat You Santa Claus.

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

Vocalist Ginger Hatfield will perform with the Laguna JaZz Band at Hospitality Night this Friday, Dec. 3 at 6 p.m.

If you miss them this Friday, catch the JaZz Band again at the front entrance of The Susi Q Center on Thursday, Dec. 9, from 5:30-7 p.m. (where hot chocolate and cookies will be served). This concert features the instrumentalists only. For a little more formality and an indoor venue, the roughly 60-piece Laguna Community Band will perform on Sunday, Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Laguna Beach High School Artists’ Theater. All events are free and open to the public. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Community Concert Band

The Laguna Community Concert Band will play at the Laguna Beach High School Artist Theater on Sunday, Dec. 19 at 2 p.m.

Curious about the bands’ history and the talent that makes up their membership, I sought out the two conductors of the Community Concert Band (Mark Lowery and Peter Fournier), the Director of the JaZz Band (Lynn Olinger) and one of their star vocalists (Lisa Morrice). They shared the origin of this unique organization, what makes these ensembles special and a few extraordinary stories from some past performances. 

Everything these band leaders told me solidified my suspicion that we live in a town rich with culture and talent. Not only are the musicians willing to perform for free after hours of weekly rehearsals, but they’ve built their own strong community bonds from within over the decades. Every story they shared made me again appreciate our unique village vibe and the hidden gems among us that make our town distinct. 

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

With several regular free performances scheduled around town throughout the year, there are several opportunities to hear both the Concert Band and JaZz Band, including at the Festival of Arts during the summer

In the beginning…

Like many homegrown Laguna Beach institutions, the Community Concert Band was born over a few cups of coffee at Zinc Café. In 1999, Theresa Marino (flutist) met with Dr. Bill Nicholls (local conductor) and Carol Reynolds (Laguna Beach Arts Commission member and musician) to make a bold proposal – let’s strike up a band. The original company consisted of only eight members and met at the Laguna Beach Recreational Department. Twenty-two years later, its membership now hovers around 65 instrumentalists and has seeded several spin-off groups including the 18-piece JaZz Band, a flute ensemble, a Dixieland band, a woodwind ensemble and a brass quintet. 

“We welcome people to join us,” said vocalist Lisa Morrice, who’s been with the group for 18 years. “We have some instrumentalists who are fairly rudimentary. Others come from backgrounds in education, some simply do it as a hobby and a few are professionals. Both the Community Concert Band and the JaZz Band really nurture their players.” 

Meet the conductors

Mark Lowery joined the Laguna Community Concert Band five years ago as its third principal conductor after retiring from a 38-year career teaching all levels of music education throughout Southern California. He studied bassoon with Norman Herzberg (an icon of bassoon pedagogy at USC) after getting a degree in music education from California State University Long Beach. He still judges music festivals and plays with bands, orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the area. 

Lowery came to music naturally. His father, Ray Lowery, played French horn with the Laguna Concert Band for years. His sister, Lisa, served as a guest oboist and his brother, Drew, also played the French horn as a guest player. Lowery himself played with the Concert Band a few times as a musician, but it wasn’t until former conductor Ed Peterson contacted him when he decided to retire that Lowery officially joined. 

“Ed was a good friend of mine. A few other members also knew me well from my time teaching high school. I was interviewed by the Board, and they agreed I was the right choice,” Lowery said.

The Southern California music scene is a small, tight-knit community. Lowery attended both high school and college with founding member Marino, whose father was the Loara High School band leader in Anaheim. “It’s a small world,” Lowery said. “I had all the graduates from Loara High School stand up at our last concert and there were six of us.” 

Within that small world, the bonds are tight. “Where else can you find 60 people who get together this often and play together?” Lowery said. “We’ve gotten to know each other, become friends and socialize together. We have lots of fun. That’s the idea.”

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Courtesy of Mark Lowery

Mark Lowery has served as the Laguna Concert Band’s conductor for five years

Lowery is joined by assistant conductor Peter Fournier, who also spent over three decades teaching in the Newport-Mesa and Irvine Unified School Districts. Fournier was selected in 1996 by the LA Times as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” for developing the largest string program in Orange County. His career capstone happened in 2003, his final year of teaching, when he took University High School’s 106-member symphony to Carnegie Hall.

Fournier has served as assistant conductor for nearly 16 years. He earned both his bachelor and master’s degrees in conducting from the University of Pacific and USC. He’s played with several big bands and orchestras, as well as serving as the Music Director of the Irvine Civic Light Opera. For two decades, Fournier has Directed the Tuba Christmas in Downtown Disney, where he conducted more than 500 participants for the Guinness World Record. 

Speaking of small worlds, Lynn Olinger was one of Fournier’s first high school students when he began teaching in 1965. “He was playing saxophone back then in Whittier,” Fourier said. “There are all these different connections that everyone makes with our ensemble, and the wonderful people from different backgrounds – science, medicine, math – you name it and they’re there.”

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Courtesy of Sandie Ward

Peter Fournier acts as assistant conductor, a position he’s held for more than 15 years

Olinger, who has served as the director of the JaZz Band since 2017, has played the sax since he was seven years old. He even played with the famed USC band while still in high school. Olinger studied music education and electronic music at UCI. During the Vietnam War, Olinger played in the army band. “A far preferable place to be, that’s for sure,” he said. Olinger spent his 36-year career teaching in the Capistrano Unified School District. “Once I retired, I was able to get my horn back out,” Olinger said. “And my first stop was Laguna Community Concert Band.” Now Olinger plays in four bands, including two jazz bands. 

“I don’t know if you know this, but we call it the JaZz Band, with a capital “Z” in the middle,” Olinger told me. How did he come up with the idea? “I probably copied it. It was probably on my iPod or at some festival we played where they spelled it like that. Anyway, I thought it looked pretty cool.” Indeed.

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

Lynn Olinger has served as Director of the JaZz Band for almost five years

The bands welcome you and your instrument (especially if it’s a trumpet)

“The Community Concert Band is open for anybody who plays an instrument and wants to come play,” said Lowery. “We don’t have any real restrictions. If you show up for the first rehearsal and the music is either too easy or too hard, you can decide whether you want to come back again.”

Lowery said he’s on the lookout for trumpet players. “We had six trumpets in our last concert, but only four showed up to this prior rehearsal so I’m looking for trumpet players right now,” he said.

The JaZz Band has a few added restrictions because they play across a wide variety of genres including pop, Latin, salsa, swing, big band and other styles. All JaZz Band members must also play in the Community Concert Band and have a high level of proficiency in sight reading music. Spaces are limited, given the smaller ensemble size. 

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

Vocalist Lisa Morrice performs at the Festival of Arts summer concert series with the Laguna JaZz Band

Building a band from the bottom up

What gives our Community Concert Band that uniquely rich and textured sound? The bottom half of the band provides those rich tones. Lowery credits the strong bass of the band and the sizable number of trombones, tubas and low brass. “We have six good flutes and that’s what we need. With the exception of French horns and trumpets, our instrumentation is pretty full. We have three tuba players and seven trombones, which is essential to getting a nice warm, dark sound.” Most community groups are very top oriented, Lowery said, with a lot of flutes and clarinets. 

Lowery and Olinger also point to the importance of their drummer to keep both bands on beat. “Gary Wampler was the director of the Fountain Valley High School band for 30 years,” said Lowery. “He plays a key position. Without a good drummer, the band would be in trouble. He doesn’t let me change tempos or move things too easily.” 

Wampler recently missed a JaZz Band rehearsal, and it sent the evening for a spin. “I almost looked for a professional to substitute,” Olinger said. “He’s such a good drummer.”

Lowery also relies on his solo oboist. “The oboe parts are always very difficult and very soloistic. Ann Steele isn’t a professional player, but she does such a great job. I can’t say enough good things about what she does. The pressure to have to play something well. She’s one of our star soloists.”

A community band also benefits from the diversity of its membership and the varied talents and professions they bring with them. Several members were educators, leading their own high school and college bands. 

“Our average players are not trained musicians, meaning they didn’t go to school for music. They don’t have degrees in music,” said Lowery. Dr. William Langstaff has practiced dentistry in Villa Park for decades. “He comes to rehearsals religiously to play first chair solo clarinet.” 

Dr. James McGaugh, a renowned neurobiologist at UCI and pioneer in the field of learning and memory, played with the band for years – both the clarinet and saxophone – until age-related issues caused him to step down. “He had his own trio on campus with a couple other colleagues,” said Fournier.

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Photo by Peyton Webster

Clarinetist Jennifer Baker (mother of vocalist Katie Baker) at the Playhouse last month

The challenges of conducting a community band

“Choosing music is one of the hardest things we do,” said Lowery. “We have to pick songs that are entertaining to our audience. That’s priority number one. But the pieces also need to be at a level the band play. We’re not going to play music that’s too difficult.” 

That’s the other problem of community bands, said Lowery. “We only meet once a week. High school and college bands meet every day. They can do a lot when they’re meeting 20 times a month. We have limited rehearsal time, so we have to pick music that we can make sound good.” Lowery’s theory in music and in life – accentuate your positives and hide your weaknesses.

A long lifetime of loving music

Lowery’s father, Ray, played the French horn with the band throughout his 80s and into his early 90s. He passed away in 2017 at age 94. 

“I’m sorry to say a trombone player, a clarinet player and a bass player passed away this year,” Lowery said. “All in their 80s.” But, Lowery added, this demonstrates that playing in a band is something people can do well into their elderly years. “You might not be as proficient, or hearing loss might become an issue, but there are no restrictions on how long someone can play an instrument. Major symphony orchestras have members playing into their 70s. It’s one of those jobs where young musicians think they’ll have a chance to audition and then realize a musician who’s 50 years old might be there for another 20 years.” 

Serving our community one concert at a time

“We’ve given this joy we have to the community, and it’s all done for free,” Morrice said. “The reason it’s free, in large part, is thanks to the City of Laguna Beach and their vision to nurture artists of all stripes. This community has theater, dance, visual arts, and several organizations that nurture musicians and singers as well. This environment is especially fertile for a community band.”

In addition, the bands receive grant money from various other local foundations. “Because it’s a community band, we wanted it to be something that everybody could take advantage of,” Morrice said. “We received several grants throughout the year, including the Festival of Arts Foundation Grant. This is how we’re able to provide for our audiences, and it’s something we’re grateful for. It all comes from the community of Laguna Beach, our fans and people who donate to help us operate.” 

Thanks for the Memories 

The past 22 years have led to some wonderful memories for band members and the community alike. Morrice helped the Concert Band celebrate its 20th anniversary milestone with a remake of Bob Hope’s “Thanks for the Memories.” 

“I rewrote the words to fit all the years we played together,” Morrice said. “I sang about all the hours we rehearsed and how we got sunburned while playing on the sand. It was really nostalgic and fun. It was a parody piece, but it really was a tribute to the band.” 

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Photo by Peyton Webster

Vocalist Lisa Morrice performed at the Playhouse last month

Morrice also did a show with the JaZz Band at the Festival of Arts this summer featuring vocalist Rick Evans. “Rick is a friend of mine,” said Olinger. “He’s just a hoot. He’s an old Vegas lounge singer and a Delta Cruises guy. He gets the audience going playing popular ‘60s and ‘70s stuff that everybody knows, like “Elvira.” He got a standing ovation at the August show.”

“It was so good,” said Morrice. “It was the first time we’d done anything substantial in public in over two years. The response from the audience was overwhelming and everyone was so happy to be there. It made it a special evening.”

Last month, the Concert Band did a salute to Broadway musical at the Playhouse. Orange County High School of the Arts vocalist Katie Baker sang. Katie’s mother, Jennifer Baker, plays first chair clarinet in the band.

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Photo by Peyton Webster

OCHSA vocalist Katie Baker sang “Frozen” with the Concert Band at the Laguna Playhouse last month

Lowery remembers that concert for their rendition of “Porgy and Bess.” “It features a trumpet and trombone solo. We had a great time learning and perfecting that song.”

The longer the conductors talked, the more memories came. “Can I give a little pitch for being in a band, especially a high school band?” Olinger said as we wrapped up our talk. “What other activity on a high school campus has 140 kids going in the right direction together? It’s amazing discipline. One hundred and forty people all must be on all the time. They’re not sitting on the bench. They all have to play exactly the right note at exactly the right time – and as close as possible to the right pitch – to make it sound good. These people are used to working totally together every second they’re on that stage.” 

The result, he said, are lifetime friendships and a lot of camaraderie. Seniors mix with freshmen, and those memories last for decades. “It’s just invaluable. It’s like family. These kids are closer than most people after their high school career.” Olinger begins listing off the many connections he’s witnessed throughout his decades teaching high school band. “It’s a small world. That’s just how it works.”

A band for every season 

Aside from their December performances, the public can see the Concert Band and JaZz Band play throughout the year. They perform annually at the Patriots Day Parade, on Main Beach during Memorial Day, at the Fête de la Musique in June, on the Festival of Arts’ stage in the summer and other live performances as they become possible.

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

The Laguna JaZz Band performing at the Fête de la Musique

For a complete schedule and other information, visit their website at https://www.lagunaconcertband.com.


The Second Annual “LPAPA Squared Show” is on display at the Laguna Plein Air Painter Association’s Gallery

Story and Photos by MARRIE STONE

Laguna Plein Air Painter Association’s (LPAPA) current gallery exhibition showcases the power of small art. The 2nd annual “LPAPA Squared” show includes 273 paintings, each one 8” x 8” square, and every one wholly unique. From pastoral landscapes and seascapes to still life scenes and portraiture, the subject matters are as diverse as the artists. 

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The LPAPA Squared Show is currently on display at their Gallery

The works are on display at the LPAPA Gallery through January 3, 2022 and available for viewing and purchase online through their virtual gallery. “The show was inspired by our goal to help support our artists last year,” said Toni Kellenberg, president of LPAPA. Last year’s show was exhibited exclusively online. “We’re delighted to be able to hang so many lovely paintings in our new gallery this year.”

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Kelley Mogilka’s “Opalescence” won 3rd place in the Artist Member category

The all-member juried show gave LPAPA an opportunity to showcase the talents of their Signature Members (an elite group of artists who have been selected by a jury of renowned authorities in the field), Artist Members (emerging plein air artists) and students. The show provided a platform for newer artists and students to participate in a gallery exhibition, which is a rare opportunity.

Awards were presented in three separate categories for Signature, Artist and Student Member levels. Prizes included first, second and third place, as well as an honorable mention. “Although we have several students that are Artist Members, only two Student Members submitted this year. As a result, two larger Honorable Mention Awards were given to both,” said Kellenberg.

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Durre Waseem’s “After They Left” took an Honorable Mention in the Signature Artist category

“Breaking the show into those three categories eliminated the competition between the up-and-coming students and the more established professionals,” said Rosemary Swimm, LPAPA’s executive director. “It was so awesome to see the number of student entries, along with the Artist Members and Signature Members. The range of talent for this show is inspiring. The different subject matters as well as mediums makes for a unique and awe-inspiring exhibition.”

“We had 273 paintings submitted by 126 artists,” said Kellenberg. “So being one of the three jurors for the show was a challenging but rewarding experience.” The gallery was able to accommodate 138 paintings, which currently hang in their three spacious rooms. 

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Kathleen B. Hudson’s piece, “Haze on the Horizon, Laguna Beach” took 2nd Place in the Signature Artist category

“The number of artists and the number of entries were fantastic,” said Swimm. “As a juror, having to review over 270 images was daunting. It was a time-consuming process. As a juror, I devoted a good deal of time to studying the entries to make the best possible judgment.”

The juried exhibition only required that artists submit 8” x 8” framed paintings. There were no limitations on subject matter, and the work could be completed in plein air (outdoors and on location) or in the studio. “I love the variety of subject matters, the different color palettes, mediums and styles,” said Kellenberg.

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Rita Pacheco’s “The Lido at Night” took 1st Place in the Signature Member category

“This is the first gallery show for a number of the artists, which is a very validating experience,” said Kellenberg. “It’s also a great opportunity for a collector to add a small work of art to their collection or start a collection.” 

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Yun Wei’s “Beauty of Seashells” took 1st Place in the Artist Member category

Signature Member Artist Anthony Salvo took third place for his gouache painting, “L.L. Bean’s Village View.” The gouache method uses opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a glue-like substance. This ancient method has been used for at least 12 centuries. 

“I first painted the scene as a plein air piece for the LPAPA Invitational in October,” said Salvo. “It sold at the Annual Gala. I had some photo references and decided to paint the same setting in a gouache medium for the LPAPA Squared exhibition.”

The title of the painting has an interesting backstory. “I originally painted this view from my good friend Lawrence Lee’s terrace,” said Salvo. “He lives in a beautiful home on the hill above Downtown Laguna. He has the cutest dog, a beagle named Bean. So, the title is “L.L. Bean’s Village View, Laguna.” 

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Anthony Salvo’s “L.L. Bean’s Village View, Laguna” took 3rd Place in the Signature Member category

Every painting in the exhibition has its own story and history. Many scenes will look familiar to Laguna residents, such as beach coves and ocean views, as well as several pieces that capture our beautiful greenbelts and canyons. There are also a handful of iconic buildings around Southern California, including the Lido Theater, the historic casino on Catalina Island and a few cottages at Crystal Cove. Some melancholic interiors and intimate portraits round out the exhibition.

The show will be on display at the LPAPA Gallery through Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. The gallery is open Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (open to 9 p.m. on First Thursdays). The gallery will be closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. It will be open until 12 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

To view the interactive art catalog showcasing the artwork on display at the gallery, click here.

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The “LPAPA Squared Show” showcases 273 paintings by 126 artists, of which 138 are on display at the gallery


Ceramicist Mike Tauber joined Kate Cohen for this month’s Artists on Artists conversation at foaSouth

By MARRIE STONE

Festival of Arts exhibitor Mike Tauber describes himself as a “working class artist.” Maybe it’s an apt phrase for someone who first received monetary compensation for his artwork at the age of six, and who’s made a steady living from his designs since college. Still, it sounds a little modest once you understand the breadth of Tauber’s artistic accomplishments. 

His work cuts across genres, from ceramic tiles to paintings to cement reliefs. The size of his pieces ranges from block-long murals to single square tiles. He’s created numerous public installations around the world (many here in our hometown). Laguna credits Tauber for its largest public mural – 120 feet – outside the Neighborhood Congregational Church on Glenneyre Street. He also painted the aquatic-themed mural outside Whole Foods. Tauber teamed with artist Michele Taylor in 2006 to install another mural at the Water Department. At the L.A. Wilshire Grand Center, Tauber oversaw the creation of a 16,000-square-foot mural as its lead painter. He has several other smaller commissions peppered around Laguna.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Tauber in front of his mural at Whole Foods Market in Laguna Beach

In addition to exhibiting at the Festival since 1998, Tauber’s work has hung in several museums, businesses and public spaces, as well as countless private collections. His work is in the Festival of Arts Permanent Collection, and public art collections in Laguna Beach, Fullerton, Tustin, as well as abroad in Australia and Brazil. His pieces are also collected by such corporations as Kaiser Permanente, K. Hovnanian Homes, PIMCO Foundation, Whole Foods Markets and many more. 

Tauber seems equally comfortable creating fine art and functional art. His pieces depict the whimsical as well as the serene. Having proven himself successful in the industry for decades, Tauber’s insights and approach to his career make for fascinating conversations about what it means to be a working artist.

Last week, Tauber joined fellow Festival of Arts exhibitor Kate Cohen for her third installment of the Artists on Artists series at foaSouth. The monthly salon aims to give the public access to a variety of artistic minds across mediums and educate audiences about various approaches to the creative process. 

Cohen’s goal is not only to demystify the hidden lives of artists, but to encourage people to slow down and spend quality time analyzing their art. 

Although the conversations are usually held in person, the duo quickly pivoted to an online discussion in light of the recent surge in COVID cases. Their conversation was recorded and can be viewed in its entirety on the Festival of Arts Facebook page. We captured some of the talk’s highlights.

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Kate Cohen’s Artists on Artists series at foaSouth continued on Thursday, Jan. 6, with ceramic tile artist Mike Tauber

The early signs of an artist

Like Cohen, Tauber seemed born to become an artist, recognizing his interest from an early age. While still in first grade, he won a poster contest hosted by his parents’ bank in Elmhurst, Illinois. Tauber created four images depicting why it’s wise to save money. The effort earned him $50. “That was a big influence on me,” he said. “I was ready to go.”

Soon after, Tauber’s third-grade teacher again validated his talent. “I did a Crayola crayon picture of grapes. I really focused on it,” Tauber said. “At the end of class, Miss Bertolino took my piece, put it up on the wall, and said, ‘This is what art should look like.’” 

Cohen, too, knew she was destined to become an artist. Her mother was a portrait artist and wouldn’t allow Cohen to play with coloring books. “She’d take them away,” Cohen said, “telling us, ‘We don’t do that in this house. We make originals here.’”

A practical education

While Cohen followed a conventional artistic education, gaining her BFA in ceramics, printmaking and sculpture, as well as two masters’ degrees in fine art (painting and sculpture), Tauber majored in environmental design at San Diego State. He took an architectural illustration class in college and worked as an architectural illustrator in his post-graduate years. “I learned how to draft, to render three-dimensional drawings and read blueprints,” Tauber said. “Somehow, I’ve always worked as an artist, which was great practice. It kept me very prolific. I never needed some separate job in an unrelated industry [although he did a little pizza throwing in college].” 

Most of his college jobs related to art. Tauber worked as a newspaper illustrator and in kitchen design centers. “I could read blueprints and do these beautiful renderings,” he said. “They paid $200 a pop, which was good money for a college sophomore.” 

All that education and experience have paid dividends throughout Tauber’s career. Much of his work continues to be architectural, and his tilework benefits from all those years painting and illustrating. “I do architectural work to this day. A lot of my public art projects are for buildings yet to become,” he said. “They’re site specific. I have to talk to architects and builders and create the art to scale, know what the sightlines are, and study these buildings that don’t exist yet.” 

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Tauber appears with designer Krista Schaeffer at The Crab Cooker in Newport Beach where he installed his bathroom tile series

Working on the grid

Because much of Tauber’s work is on tile, he’s comfortable working in grid patterns, unlike Cohen whose work is inspired by circles, squiggles and lines. But within that structured form, the possibilities are endless, particularly when introducing the uncertainty of the kiln. Tauber shared his process. 

“I usually start with a photograph. I sketch it out on paper, some hybrid of drawing and painting,” said Tauber. “At the Festival of Arts, I’m considered a ceramicist, but my aesthetic is painting. I use glaze the same way I use acrylic paint. By mixing pigment with a clear medium, you get those transparent washes. Ceramic glaze is just particles suspended in a water-based medium. If you apply a very thin glaze – which I do – the washes look almost like watercolor. You can see the different layers. It’s a very simple transition from my use of acrylic paints to ceramic glazes.” 

Tauber uses several plein air painting techniques when working with ceramics. Light source and shadow, and everything that goes into creating a successful landscape portrait, are all reflected in his work. But instead of canvas, Tauber draws on bisque – clay that has been fired without a ceramic glaze – and then uses liquid wax. “I use a pinpoint detailer pen and squeeze out the wax. There’s a little pigment in there that creates a brown underglaze. When it dries, it turns into a brown line. Then I start painting in the glazes, going from bright to dark. I often start in the background, like the sky. The last thing I’ll do is work on the focus of the piece – like the trees – and create the highlights and shadows. Sometimes one firing is enough. Occasionally I’ll do a second firing.” 

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Courtesy of Mike Tauber

Tauber’s ceramic tile pieces combine his controlled skill as a painter and the whimsical uncertainty created within the kiln. This forest landscape is representative of his work.

For someone as controlled and measured as Tauber, the uncertainty of what will happen inside the kiln is invigorating. “You have to be open to serendipity,” Tauber said. “Remember, I was a draftsman for many years. Talk about tight. Even the thickness of my line quality was measured. Ceramics helps me loosen up, which is one of the reasons I love the kiln. You go in and hope for the best.”

Tauber loves the unusual burns he gets out of his kiln. “Some of the crystal glazes are exotic,” he said. “They create beautiful special effects on the tile. Although I’m a painter and I’m controlling them, some crystals explode into weird things.”

Cohen’s work, by contrast, is influenced by circular patterns and unconventional shapes. Like Tauber, though, her pieces often convey recurring themes. She showcased a 1999 work called “The Passage,” which is now owned by the FOA Permanent Collection. “The piece is heavily steeped in symbolism,” she said. “The fish represent the circle of life as a woman passes from young adulthood into middle age. The bird she reaches for symbolizes wisdom.” Cohen used fabric dipped in tar and shaped into knots to create a sense of movement.

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Photo by Tom Lamb

Kate Cohen’s 1999 piece “The Passage” is part of the FOA Permanent Collection

The DNA of an artist

For two artists who work across a variety of mediums and have been at work for decades, each piece they produce reflects the inescapable DNA of their creative minds. Cohen points to “The Passage” as a work that’s decades old but still contains hints of her current projects. All those same themes and obsessions are hidden within. “I look at this piece and see the rhythmic groundwork I’m still doing in my work today,” she said. 

“That hypnotic movement in ‘The Passage’ is evident in all your work,” Tauber told her. “To this day, even one of your small earrings has those same lines. And here we go with the birds again.” Tauber points to the dove soaring over the woman’s head, then to Cohen’s magpie sculpture and finally to her ceramic bird installations. “Birds are everywhere,” Tauber said. “Everything is in there, whether it’s a wall installation or a piece of jewelry. To be able to carry a theme from a piece of small metal to an enormous painting to ceramic sculptures to other mixed mediums and into your two-dimensional pieces and realize it’s still readable as the same artist – that’s extremely sophisticated.” 

“You do the same thing,” said Cohen. “Making art is almost like making babies. Our DNA runs through all our work.”

It’s true. There’s something uniquely Tauber-esque across much of his work, whether he’s depicting oceanic life, nature scenes or 1950s classic cars. Once you recognize Tauber’s signature style, you can’t mistake it. 

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Courtesy of Mike Tauber

Tauber’s underwater kelp design in this home shower showcases the broad range of his talent, applying light and shadow at scale

The pragmatic concerns of artistry

The two also discussed practical considerations like pricing their work, knowing when a piece is finished and titling their creations. For Tauber, who works with large-scale public installations, pricing can be both tricky to estimate and imperative to get right. Most artists don’t have to consider issues like scaffolding, insurance and the electric costs associated with running a kiln at the scale Tauber’s work requires. “I can easily get myself into big trouble if I don’t bid the jobs correctly,” he said.

Both artists agreed that titles should convey something to the audience they wouldn’t otherwise deduce from looking at the piece. An ideal title will add another layer of meaning to the work, inviting the viewer to explore further.

What it means to be a “working class artist”

But back to the concept of the “working class artist” and what that’s meant for Tauber’s career. “I worked in the model homes industry for many years,” Tauber said. “That bread-and-butter work paid all my bills. And I cranked out a lot of work as a production artist. I had good toggle skills. Clients would want a landscape, a figure painting, a mural, or other art. I just cranked it out. It kept my brushes wet and I enjoyed it.” 

“But it wasn’t exactly your soul,” said Cohen. 

“It was not my soul, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve survived as a self-employed, working-class guy on my own. But now I feel pretty successful because I’m able to do more adventurous things and my clients trust me.” 

One of the conversation’s many useful takeaways was the wide range of ways to make a living as an artist. Both Cohen and Tauber work across a variety of mediums and are willing to pivot when required. Tauber’s added skills in architecture and design, and his ability to read blueprints and create architectural renderings, opened a variety of commercial projects that financially sustained him and, as he said, “kept his brushes wet.” It enabled Tauber to both follow his passion and sustain a secure lifestyle. A strong message for young, up-and-coming artists.

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Tauber has worked for Geppetto’s Toy Stores (located in 10 storefronts throughout San Diego) for 25 years, once again proving himself a “working class artist”

The entirety of their hour-long conversation can be viewed on the Festival of Art Facebook page. Next month, Cohen will moderate a discussion between FOA artists Paul Bond and Dagmar Chaplin. The event is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m. Follow the Festival of Arts’ website, or their Facebook page, for updates on COVID protocols.

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Kate Cohen’s Artists on Artists series at foaSouth will continue on Thursday, Feb. 3 with Dagmar Chaplin and Paul Bond


“Visual Futurist” Syd Mead’s exhibition debuts at LCAD

By MARRIE STONE 

“There are more people in the world who make things than there are people who think of things to make.”

 –Syd Mead (1933-2019)

Syd Mead might be the most prodigious artist you’ve never heard of. Unless you’re in the film industry, or otherwise well-versed in industrial concept design, his name may not look familiar. His work, however, will. Mead’s imagination dreamed up the worlds portrayed in Blade Runner, TRON, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Aliens, Time Cop, 2010, Short Circuit, Johnny Mnemonic, Mission Impossible-3, Elysium and, most recently, Blade Runner 2049. 

He earned the title “Visual Futurist” for good reason. Trained as an artist and spending the first half of his career creating product and architectural designs for corporate clients, Mead soon became known for his ability to visualize the future and render it in astonishing detail. As Richard Taylor (Effects Supervisor for TRON) once said of Mead, “His illustrations remind you of something you’ve never seen before.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

“Visual Futurist” Syd Mead (July 1933 – December 2019)

Mead’s first loves, since age 3, were art and cars. “My parents left me alone just to draw. I drew from the time I could hold a pencil and, right from the very first, I was fascinated with scenarios. In effect, I was creating my own world,” Mead said in his documentary, Visual Futurist: The Art & Life of Syd Mead. His images were full of cars with people waving out the windows. He kept drawing even while serving in the Army in Okinawa and sent his sketches to John Reinhart, chief designer at Ford Motor Company, who urged Mead to get a degree from the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena). After Mead graduated with great distinction in 1959, he went to work for Ford. 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead “Sentinel” cover (1979)

Mead’s 60-year career saw him working for a string of corporate clients, illustrating books and catalogues, rendering architectural and concept designs and contributing to the redesign of some iconic Japanese toys. When the film industry found him, Mead sunk his mind into science fiction, building entire futuristic worlds with only a paintbrush and his imagination. 

Todd Smith, chair of Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD) Entertainment Design Department, selected Mead’s traveling exhibition “Progressions” for installation at the LCAD Gallery. “Progressions” features roughly 30 works from Mead’s collection and represents the full arc of the artist’s career. The retrospective includes more than 50 years of artwork, from Mead’s academic days to recent works produced before he died.

Visitors are invited to download a free app from Mead’s website (www.sydmead.com) that allows them to interact with the art. Rotate and view Mead’s vehicles in three dimensions, and experience original line drawings and rough color drafts to show the progression of work, from crude pencil sketches to the final product. One piece of original art – “Shoulder of Orion” – was produced exclusively for this exhibition. It’s accompanied by line drawings and color rough art. 

“‘Progressions’ is a title chosen by Mead to acknowledge the progression of his artistic skill level, technique and design sense from his early days at Art Center College of Design right up to January 2012 when he completed “Shoulder of Orion,” a gouache rendering created exclusively for this exhibition,” said Roger Servick, business manager for Syd Mead, Inc. “He personally selected 50 examples to represent his favorite works. Most are here today at the LCAD Gallery, in Laguna Beach, not far from what was once his studio in Capistrano Beach for many years where many of these were created.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

“Hypervan Profile” by Syd Mead (Gouache), 2005

Smith first encountered the exhibition while driving in Glendale in 2012. He saw a sign outside Forest Lawn Cemetery advertising the show and drove straight there. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Smith. “All the work was so good. And seeing it in person, seeing his brush work in person, it’s so different than seeing it in books. It stuck with me.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead appears at the opening reception of “Progressions” at the Forest Lawn Museum in 2012

It took 10 years, but Smith finally has an opportunity to show Mead’s exhibition in his home gallery in Laguna. “It’s a great opportunity for everyone in Laguna to see this work. For high school students interested in the industry, it’s a good educational tool to see what the industry is like, how people used to work and what’s possible. It gives people a chance to see what you can actually do with this medium in industrial design and illustration in general.”

“This medium” is known as gouache, and Mead was a master of it. Gouache is an opaque watercolor that’s been used for at least 12 centuries. It’s heavier, denser and more opaque than traditional watercolor, resulting in a flat wash which gives the painting a matte finish. While the images have a rich depth, it’s incredibly difficult to get a consistent color. Here’s where Mead’s genius lies. 

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Syd Mead’s “Mobilage” (Gouache), 1985

“Learning to paint in gouache helps students improve their digital painting skills. It’s challenging and it can be frustrating to learn. But once they get into it, they start to see the benefits of it,” Smith said.

For non-technicians, there’s still a lot to learn from Mead about creativity and imagination. Fans of Mead’s work might know him best for his inventive and visionary transportation designs. Mead loved vehicles – sleek racecars, opulent yachts, private jumbo jets, futuristic trains, space-age buses and intergalactic ships. You name it, and Mead drew it. Then he dreamed up things no one had ever imagined. The key to Mead’s concept cars was their internal consistency with their surroundings. The world he drew around his vehicles had to support his designs. 

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Syd Mead’s “Megacoach” (Gouache), 2010

“If you create a visual picture of something in an alternate world, it should look that way for a reason,” Mead said. “If it’s consistent, people will like it better than if it’s discordant. A lot of my argument with futurists is they skip the logic of why they’re doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t look like it fits.” You have to be philosophical about it, he said. To reinforce his point, Mead referred to science fiction as “reality ahead of schedule.” 

Over the course of his 86 years, Mead gave creativity a lot of thought. “Here’s the core thing about creativity,” Mead said in an interview. “You have to be three people: (1) the person who’s creating the idea to solve the problem; (2) the technician solving the problem with a technique or format that’s usable; and (3) the person offstage who’s watching those other two people doing what they do. If you can’t detach yourself from what you’re doing – as a sort of surveillance uber-mentality – you’re not going to do good work because you get too fascinated with what you’re doing. That’s the mistake. Hubris kills.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead’s “Disaster at Syntron” (Gouache), 1978

It’s easy to believe some folks are born with wild imaginations. Maybe fantastic scenarios just effortlessly spring to their minds. Mead pushed against that assumption. “Imagination is essentially memory,” Mead said in a 2016 interview for the documentary, Closer Than We Think. “It’s recording and memorizing what you’ve seen so you have experience. Imagination is the creation of putting those elements together in different combinations. That is true whether you’re writing music, mathematical code, or new formulas. It’s a process of arranging knowledge into new formats. That’s imagination.” 

Though Mead passed away in 2019, he left behind some solid advice for students. “The advice I would give to those entering the field of design – remember everything you see. Fill your mind and have your own catalogue of triggers. Everything from natural shapes and forms and colorations to mechanicalness. You have to be able to pay attention to the technical aspect, but inside the boundary of imaginative invention. If you can successfully invent your way around the problem, you’ve won the game.”

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

“Hypervan and Crimson” (Gouache), 2001

Even as Mead watched technology accelerate at exponential rates during the last few decades of his life, and witnessed its impact on society, he remained optimistic about the future. 

“The future is a composite,” Mead said. “It represents what everybody is doing, what they want to do, what they can do and our societal will to do it. The future is all of us going together somewhere. We don’t really know where. But you try to arrange it so when you get there, it’s nice. Who wants a total cesspool of trouble and worry? 

“I’ve been accused of creating a glossy, chrome-plated future. People who have a dim view of society accuse me of stealing their lowered expectations.” 

Mead said he remained an optimist because more smart people are working on solutions to difficult problems than ever before. “What drives the future is the quest of human intellect wanting to investigate its own curiosities and wanting solutions to unanswered questions,” he said. 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead’s vision of a future Bugatti (1957), painted while still a student at the Art Center College of Design

Before passing peacefully in his home on December 30, 2019, Mead’s final words were: “I am done here. They’re coming to take me back.”

Blade Runner, of course, was based on the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Which makes one wonder what Mead dreamed about. “Progressions” provides an opportunity to see for yourself, to peek inside the mind and imagination of one of the 20th century’s great visionaries.

“Progressions” will be on display at the LCAD Gallery, located at 374 Ocean Ave., from Thursday, Feb. 3 through Sunday, March 27. A reception was held on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m., in conjunction with the First Thursdays Art Walk. For more information, visit their website at https://www.lcad.edu/community/lcad-gallery/lcad-gallery or contact the gallery at 949.376.6000, ext. 289.

For more information about Syd Mead and his legacy, visit his website at https://sydmead.com.


Alexis J. Roston brings Ella Fitzgerald to life on the Laguna Playhouse stage

By MARRIE STONE

For more than half a century, Ella Fitzgerald held audiences spellbound as the most popular woman in jazz. She won 14 Grammy Awards and sold more than 40 million albums over her near 60-year career, earning her the title “The First Lady of Song.” 

Although Fitzgerald has been gone for 25 years, there’s one voice that brings her back. Showbiz Chicago says Alexis J. Roston “holds the audience in the palm of her hand” and Time Out Chicago calls her “phenomenal.” The award-winning star has portrayed Billie Holiday in multiple productions of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which won her Chicago’s Jeff Award and Black Theatre Alliance Award. She’s also played Whoopi Goldberg, Dionne Warwick and a variety of acting roles on stage. But when Roston channels her childhood icon, Ella Fitzgerald, she really shines. 

She takes the Laguna Playhouse stage beginning this Wednesday, March 2. The show runs through March 20. Fans will hear favorites like “Summertime,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” 

Roston spent some time with me last week talking about her early musical inspirations, roles that defined her career and how she inhabits these very different women. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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Alexis J. Roston stars in “First Lady of Song: The Songs of Ella Fitzgerald” at the Laguna Playhouse 

Stu News: It’s always fun to hear how stars are born. Talk about your childhood and how music played a role in those early years. 

Alexis Roston: My mother claims I’ve been singing since I got here. She said by the time the doctor picked me up and slapped me on the butt, I was already wailing. 

My parents loved listening to music. I grew up listening to so much music, especially jazz. But they didn’t discriminate. They played blues, jazz, gospel. My mother loved blues and my dad loved jazz, so I didn’t have a choice but to get it into my system. I grew up listening to Billie [Holiday], Ella [Fitzgerald], Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin. These are core memories, listening to the greats. 

From the time I was a baby, weekends were reserved for playing music in my home. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a pipe fitter, so they worked hard all week. But the weekend – music, music, music, music, music. The record player played all weekend. To this day, I will not be without a record player. It’s a sound that I just adore. 

SN: When did music shift from a passion to a career?

AJR: My mom took me to see Mama, I Want to Sing! [a 1983 musical based on the life and times of African American singer Doris Troy] when I was little. I saw a young lady who reflected me on stage, and I thought, That’s it. That’s what I’m doing. I never turned back. 

SN: Your mother sounds so supportive.

AJR:  My mom took me to all the theaters when I was a kid. She took me to Broadway to see shows. We saw everything around Chicago. When we saw that musical, I was smitten. 

SN: You must have been singing in church and school choirs all the way through? 

AJR: Absolutely. I sang in the church choir. Somewhere around grade five, I began singing in the Chicago All-City Youth Chorus, an award-winning choir. I performed with the Kenwood Academy Concert Choir throughout middle school and high school. We traveled and won awards for singing. 

I’ve always been immersed in performing. When my mom saw I was gifted in the arts, she did everything in her power to foster that. I remember standing on the stage at the high school where she taught, singing for a talent showcase. People were throwing money on the stage. I didn’t flinch much while I was performing, but I remember being so excited to count all that money. You can’t forget stuff like that. It will influence your choices going forward.

SN: No kidding! So most of your life and career have been spent in Chicago?

AJR: Pretty much. At 6 years old, I visited Howard University with my aunt. I said that day, “This is where I’m going to school.” It’s the only place I applied. I went to Howard and majored in musical theater, and I got my BFA there. I lived in Baltimore before I came back to Chicago. But once I got home, Chicago was my town. Two weeks after I got back, I already had a gig and I’ve been working in Chicago ever since.

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Alexis J. Roston has performed for more than 20 years 

SN: Talk about how your career path worked. You earned a BFA, and then you found an agent? 

AJR: I had an agent before I got out of school. My mentor brought agents to our senior showcase. I had two agents – in both LA and New York – before I graduated. I had two Broadway auditions before I walked the stage to get my diploma. I was literally booked for two years before I graduated college.

However, somewhere during that time, I had a spiritual awakening and left theater completely. But I wrote plays for my church. My pastor commissioned me to write a play called Redemptive Power and we performed it for an outreach program. I’d never seen this huge church so full of people. They were hanging over the balcony and crowded in the aisles – there were so many people. Built into the play was an altar call. When the altar call happened, people actually came to the altar. Something like 10 people gave their lives to God that day. 

Even though I wasn’t professionally doing theater, I felt fulfilled. God let me know, Girl, I’m still here working with you. It was a surreal and beautiful moment. My knees got weak when I saw the first person walking toward the altar. Then they started coming in droves. I remember somebody catching me because I felt so overwhelmed. God gave me this play to write, so I was using my gift to help people. 

SN: What an experience! So once you made it back to Chicago and immersed yourself in musical theater, talk about some of those highlight roles over the years. 

AJR: I love playing Whoopi Goldberg characters. I’ve twice played Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act. My husband played Curtis in one production. Then I played Oda Mae Brown in Ghost. I’ve done The Color Purple twice, but I’ve never played Celie. Hopefully I won’t age out of the role before it comes around to me. I’m going to give it to the universe and let the universe decide. But it is definitely on my wish list.

SN: Talk about the experience of playing Ella.

AJR: Playing Ella Fitzgerald is surreal to me. Angela and Michael Ingersoll heard about me after I won a Jeff Award for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill. By the time we met, I was doing a show called Don’t Make Me Over, a tribute to Dionne Warwick. They came to see that and proposed this Ella Fitzgerald show. 

I grew up listening to Ella. Her voice is unmatched. There’s not another and I don’t imagine there will ever be another. I’ve heard some amazing artists and they’re great. But there will never be another Ella. 

So, naturally, it seemed like the most daunting thing in the world for me. However, I joined a show that put together three huge personalities – Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Patsy Cline – and we had a show called I Got a Right to Sing the Blues. That was my introduction to singing Ella’s music. It went well, so they asked if I would have my own Ella show. 

It’s been such a blessing to play Ella and sing her songs. I’ve been able to travel. I’ve been able to bless young and old generations, and everyone in between because this music is timeless. Ella was joy personified. It makes me so happy to bridge the gap between the generations with this amazing music.

Fans are over the moon when they walk out the door. It’s 90 minutes of music, but I also introduce people to a side of Ella they may not know. For me, when I admire an artist and discover how wonderful they were in everyday life, it makes me so happy. I hate to hear somebody I love was labeled a troublemaker, or mean, or hard to work with. Ella was a ball of joy. It’s bittersweet because you hear the trials and triumphs in her music. But, overall, her story is one of triumph. 

I’m walking this earth, being able to play these great women. I’m just so grateful. 

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Courtesy of Artists Lounge Live

Roston has inhabited such musical icons as Dionne Warwick, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald

SN: Whoopi Goldberg, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are all so different. Talk about connecting with these women and transforming yourself into such different personas.

AJR: As far as Whoopi is concerned, we know her to be a brilliant actress, but also an iconic comedian. I think I’m funny. Most people who know me and love me think I’m hilarious. So I tapped into my funny bone when it came to Whoopi. I do have some comedy experience. I do improv. I was trained at Second City, so I have some knowledge behind this self-proclaimed funniness. But I’ve always been a ham, and so I draw from the funniness of Whoopi. 

With Billie, you hear accounts from people who were close to her that she had the biggest heart. I love helping people. I love to make people happy. That was a through-line with Billie. She loved to make people happy, probably because she had such a tumultuous life. But she owned all of that so gracefully at a time when people were denying her. I draw from Billie’s strength and love that she gave to others. 

Ella was J-O-Y personified. I’m not a walking ball of joy like Ella may have been, but bringing joy and light, giving love, those things are important to me. I associate Ella with joy, so I try my best to bring it. Let’s say you had a bad day, or you’re going through a bad situation. I’ll let you vent, but then I help you move on because it doesn’t serve you to allow you to stay in that place. I’m generally that person that thrives on bringing the joy out of something. 

I also try to focus on truth – being truthful and honest in my approach to everything. I think that’s allowed me to have such a long career, because I’m real. People think musical theater is fake or phony. But I always try to find the heart and soul – the pulse – of the thing. I’m 45 years old and I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. That authenticity has given me such longevity in my career. 

SN: I think theater is one of the more emotionally truthful mediums. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t connect with it. There’s got to be some deeper truth or audiences won’t show up.

AJR: Exactly.

SN: Are there things about Ella Fitzgerald that people would be surprised to learn?

AJR: Absolutely, but I don’t know if I want to give it away. As I’m telling her stories, people audibly respond. They’re always shocked to know some of the things Ella went through because, again, people associate her with always being so happy. They only saw joy. To know where she came from and to know where she ended up – it’s a humongous rags-to-riches story and it’s a huge inspiration.

SN: I wonder if that’s what makes her music endure. She experienced the full range of human emotions and went through these extreme experiences. It came through in her music, which speaks from living a full life. 

AJR: Absolutely. Ella’s escape was music. Singing allowed her to thrive at a time when she was being stepped on. She escaped and she took us with her. I can’t hear her and still be concerned with the cares of this world. When you listen to her, you go to a different place altogether. That speaks volumes to the power that Ella had within her. Aside from how amazing her voice sounds, the power inside her and the love for what she did shines through.

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Roston brings both integrity and authenticity to every role she plays. She also channels the personality traits and spirit of the women she inhabits.

SN: Do you have advice for young women going into this industry? 

AJR: Be sure you want it. Research the industry. Research the area you’re drawn to and find out who excelled in it. Find out who didn’t. Read stories, because it looks glamorous and wonderful, but there’s a lot that goes into performing. 

Eight shows a week is grueling. It’s not an easy feat. A prime example is Fantasia [Barrino], one of my favorite singers. She played Celie in The Color Purple, but she doesn’t come from a theater background. She comes from the music industry. So when she got the role, she missed a lot of shows because she didn’t have the stamina. It’s one thing to do a tour, play a weekend here or a week there. But eight shows a week is a whole other beast. You have to endure and sustain every single night, twice a day sometimes. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’m accustomed to it now, but it’s hard. 

I would tell young people to research the business aspect of it. When I went to Howard, they didn’t call it “show business,” they called it “business show” because business had to come first. 

SN: What personality trait do you feel made you so successful, aside from your talent?

AJR: The Golden Rule. Treat people how you want to be treated. My relationships in this business come from just that. I put the effort forward to care about my audience members. We’re in a rough world right now, and people have stopped caring about each other. Because I care about my audience and their experience, I’ll turn down work that’s not suitable for me. I consider myself to be a good steward over my gift because I’m dedicated to producing great work. There are people who take roles that swallow them alive because they didn’t consider the costs. They only saw it as a resume builder. But if you’re not fit for it, it will ultimately make you look bad. So I make good choices and won’t take every role. 

SN: What’s an example of a role you might turn down. 

AJR: I was recently offered an ensemble part. It’s not that I’m above an ensemble part, but I stand up for myself in this business which is also very important. I’ve been in theater at least 23 years. At this juncture, I respectfully declined it and I told them why. Their response was, “We’d love to find a way to feature you. What roles would you like to play?” That’s a testament to the talent and to my dedication to the craft. 

SN: With everything the world is going through – and our country is going through – is there anything you can say about the importance of live music and this style of joyful music at this particular time? 

AJR: It’s very important right now that we do everything in our power to bring some life back to our dying world. This show is one of those vehicles by which I can do that. 

This show is all about happiness, joy, peace and love. That’s what I want people to get these days. This pandemic has caused us to be separated. And in our separation, ugly, nasty, evil things have come up in the world. We didn’t see this ugliness as pronounced prior to the pandemic, but we see it now. I want to use this show as a vessel to bring us back to being one. We need to get back to fellowshipping and connecting with one another. My hope is we start finding the common thread between us. We’re all in this together. It’s up to us to make life great, not only for ourselves, but for our future and the people coming behind us. I’m praying we find our way back together again. 

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Alexis J. Roston stars in “First Lady of Song: The Songs of Ella Fitzgerald” at the Laguna Playhouse from March 2 through March 20. 

The First Lady of Song: Alexis J. Roston Sings Ella Fitzgerald runs from March 2 through March 20. For tickets and information about the show, visit the Laguna Playhouse website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com.


Scott Moore’s wonderful, whimsical world

By MARRIE STONE

Picture an iconic surfer catching the perfect wave. He’s bare-chested, buff and bald, wearing board shorts and a serious expression. Surf sprays behind him and sand stretches ahead. But instead of a surfboard, our man is riding…an iron. The vintage appliance is plugged into a wall socket with the outlet superimposed over the ocean, making us understand our surfer is only an image within an image, painted on a laundry room wall. But is he just a painting? Look again. The iron and its cord seem to sail off the canvas in a trompe-l’œil effect. 

In the foreground, a little blonde boy stands atop a pile of laundered shirts stacked on the shore (or is it a countertop?) holding a pail and shovel, transfixed by the scene. Behind him, a Pyrex measuring cup brims with powered detergent that looks like white sand. What else but a beach umbrella could be planted inside? 

Looming large – much larger than the little boy and even bigger than the man riding his iron – are two boxes of detergent. Of course, one brand is “Surf” and the other “Tide.” 

Welcome to the creative mind of watercolorist and oil painter Scott Moore, who views the world through a lens of both childlike innocence and astounding sophistication. Moore painted The Ironman in 2018. If you’re tired of trying to picture it, you can see the image by clicking here. It contains several elements associated with Moore’s signature style – mid-century nostalgia, trompe-l’œil effects, a clever play with visual puns and a proclivity to over-emphasize ordinary objects. In Moore’s eyes, mundane things (like boxes of detergent) make a big difference. 

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Photo by Nancy Villere, Crush Photo Studios

Watercolorist and oil painter Scott Moore has shown his work in Laguna Beach since the late 1970s. Moore has been a steadfast supporter of LOCA for more than 20 years.

“That’s the point in probably 90% of my paintings,” said Moore. “I try to take objects that are overlooked – whether they be toys or just everyday objects – and bring them up to an importance that is equal to what we consider the most important things in our lives.” 

This month, Moore is the honoree at LOCA’s virtual Birthday Bash. An autographed copy of Moore Than Meets the Eye: The Life and Times, Art and Wit of California Painter Scott Moore is available as an auction item. The 200-page hardback contains reproductions of many of Moore’s iconic paintings, as well as a detailed description of his process in producing The Ironman. It’s also filled with photos and anecdotes from Moore’s early life, like picking out hair color hues for his mother at the drugstore (and thereby honing his eye for color theory). The book brims with tales like these.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

An autographed copy of “Moore Than Meets the Eye” is offered at the LOCA Birthday Bash auction opening on March 24

Moore graciously agreed to talk with me about his near 50-year career in the arts, his inspirations and techniques, his ability to maintain an innocent awe about the world around him and the wonderful way he renders that gift to his audience. He also shared his thoughts on LOCA and why he’s been a steadfast supporter of the organization for more than 20 years. 

Much like Moore’s Ironman, I invite you to hang on and enjoy the ride.

A childhood worth rendering

Born in 1949 in Westchester, a suburb of Los Angeles near LAX, Moore describes an idyllic boyhood. His mother was an avid storyteller, telling her son she picked him out of a pig farm to be a companion for his older sister. He assumed she was kidding, but nonetheless recounted some hours spent in the front of the bathroom mirror searching for signs of a snout.

Moore’s father was a creative director for an advertising agency. “He brought home all his new supplies,” he said. “Whenever he got markers or new innovative art supplies, he handed me the stuff. He never showed me how to do things, he just gave me stuff and let me draw.” Moore’s father encouraged his art, but also cautioned his son against a career in fine art. “Stick with graphic design,” he told his boy (born the second of five children). “You can’t make a living as a fine artist.” 

That parental combination of artistic talent and a comical instinct for vivid storytelling ignited a taste for whimsy in Moore. “I always had a sense of humor and an imagination. I believed I could move objects and tried really hard,” said Moore. “I also tried to fly. I remember flying for the first time when I was five years old in a dream. I’d wake up and work hard on trying to make that come true. I kept most of it to myself, but I was close with my brother and I’d share stuff with him. He believed everything I said, so we’d try together, putting capes around our necks and jumping off all kinds of stuff. We always had sprained ankles.” 

It’s a desire that never faded for Moore, who said his dreams were – and still are – vividly weird. “If I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, I either design a painting or I lie there, thinking about stepping off the deck and floating out over Bluebird Canyon, looking down. I don’t know if it could ever happen, but I’m still working on it,” he said.

Maybe it’s not so surprising Moore immersed himself in ventriloquism as a kid. In addition to making the impossible happen, it combined his love of old toys, his active sense of humor and imagination and his instinct for artistic misdirection. 

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Photo by Nancy Villere, Crush Photo Studios

Moore poses with Dino, the 60-year-old puppet he received on his 13th birthday

“My mom wrote all my skits. I got good at it and traveled all around Southern California doing nonprofit stuff – hospitals, college football awards, scholarship nights and corporate events. I’d come home and my mom would grill me about where people laughed and when the jokes fell flat.” His act gained so much notoriety that Moore’s parents began screening his calls.

Dino’s still around. For years, Moore kept the dummy with his daughter’s doll collection. “It really creeped her out,” he said. “It creeped out my wife, too. I pulled him out last year for our 5-year-old grandson when he showed interest in it, but it scared him to death.” 

Moore’s genius is finding hidden magic in discarded things others might dismiss. “So,” he said. “I took Dino apart, cut his head open, went inside and rebuilt the entire thing. I carved him into a brand-new person with a cool hairdo and dressed him in my grandson’s clothes.” 

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Photo by Nancy Villere, Crush Photo Studios

Dino recently received a new look after scaring three generations of Moore’s family members

The art of war

Despite working toward a degree in art from Cerritos Junior College, Moore couldn’t escape the escalating war in Vietnam. The year was 1970 and tensions ran high. The college cut one of his courses, dipping him below the credits required to retain his deferment. Moore soon received his draft notice and decided to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps. 

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Laguna Beach Music Festival returns – concerts, discussions and live music are back, mandolinist Chris Thile creates vibrant event

By THERESA KEEGAN

Expect some contrasts to arise when mandolinist Chris Thile brings his talent as artistic director to the harmonious Laguna Beach Music Festival starting March 30. The MacArthur Fellow and Grammy-winning artist is so thrilled at the collaborative opportunities he can barely contain himself. 

“I’m a contrast junkie. I love hearing the width and breadth of what music has to offer,” Thile said. “This is a weekend that really runs the gamut of textural possibilities and perspectives.” 

Although he’s curated many performances, and his experiences on live radio (he hosted Prairie Home Companion when Garrison Keillor retired in 2016) have allowed him to control content, this is Thile’s first time curating an entire festival. 

“Bringing it into its present shape is quite a process – and a rewarding one,” he said. “It takes time to figure out the fun collection of people who can all do it. Ultimately, this festival is full of people who make music for an engaged audience.”

Thile will be joined at various times by vocalist and flutist Nathalie Joachim, whose interdisciplinary skills navigate from classical to indie-rock; the group yMusic, whose chamber music breaks boundaries and violinist Tessa Lark and bassist Michael Thurber who fuse classical and American music to critical acclaim. 

Laguna Beach Chris Thile

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Photo by Josh Goleman

Chris Thile, recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Grammy, is the artistic director for the 20th Laguna Beach Music Festival 

“I have a voracious appetite for musical exploration and this (festival) gives us a safe place to think about what we can do with our contributions,” he said. 

The collaborations play off Thile’s eclectic love of all kinds of music –including a bluegrass background that was nurtured while growing up in Oceanside, CA (and matured when he started living in Kentucky) as well as classical, rock and jazz. 

His far-reaching talents brought him to the attention of the LBMF coordinators – Laguna Beach Live! and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County – when they were planning a special 20th anniversary festival in a pre-COVID era. Thile’s exploratory musical ways seemed a perfect fit as the multi-day festival includes not only traditional concerts, but also presentations at schools and the Susi Q Center.

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Courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County 

yMusic, a chamber group that doesn’t fit in the traditional chamber group mold, will speak with Laguna’s middle and high school students, as well as perform with Thile at the Laguna Playhouse on April 2 

“It feels luxurious to get some time to prepare in a traditional festival environment,” Thile said from his home in Brooklyn. “They (festival organizers) have been so accommodating. They haven’t been busy saying ‘no’ a bunch.”

That’s the same attitude Thile experienced when he was 5 years old and saw someone playing a mandolin in Carlsbad. 

“I fell more in love with that guy than the instrument. If he’d been playing the kazoo I’d now be a kazoo player,” he recalls. “I don’t think we really choose our instrument…I have as little control over the mandolin being my instrument as the fact that my voice is a little bit reedier and higher than I wish it were. In a way, I think it’s as random as that.” 

That mandolin player not only inspired Thile to pick up the instrument, he became his teacher for six years. Thile thrived being a Californian playing bluegrass, had a record label contract and ultimately earned a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category with his band Nickel Creek.

Laguna Beach Lark and Thurber

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Courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County 

Violinist Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber on bass will perform April 3 with Thile at the Laguna Playhouse 

But when his family moved to Kentucky, where bluegrass was the norm, he realized the limits of his musical knowledge. “What I found was that I needed to listen to my parents’ entire record collection,” he said. 

John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Yo-Yo Ma and Bach’s cello suites revealed a world of new wonder.

“My parents were encouraging, but not overly encouraging. When I said I wanted to be in some contest or something it was my own doing,” Thiles said. Their low-key manner allowed him to develop a joyful, exploratory, love of music. 

Laguna Beach Joachim

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Courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County 

Nathalie Joachim, a Brooklyn born Haitian-American flutist, composer and vocalist will join Thile at the Laguna Playhouse on April 3

And he expects that adventurous music will be on full display during the festival. “There’s a kind of music that smacks people in the head – and there is nothing wrong with that. But this (festival) is music that wants participation. It’s not yelling at you through a bullhorn about itself – it’s inviting you to have a seat with it at the bar.”

The musicians performing and the venues of the 20th Laguna Beach Music Festival are diverse: 

–Thile will open the festival with a solo performance at a private home in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, March 30 at 6 p.m. 

–yMusic presents a lecture demonstration at both Thurston Middle and Laguna Beach High schools on March 31 in the morning. 

–Thile performs April 1 at the Susi Q at 10 a.m. and the opening night concert will be held at Laguna Playhouse at 8 p.m. 

–A seminar on entrepreneurship in music will be held at Chamber Music OC on April 2 at 9:30 a.m. 

–Thile and yMusic perform at Laguna Playhouse on April 2 at 8 p.m. 

–Thile and Friends including Joachim, Lark and Thurber, perform at the Laguna Playhouse at 3 p.m. 

This year’s festival has an added amount of excitement because it will be performed live – something everyone has missed since COVID. “I’ve been really excited to get back to it with an audience,” said Thile. “By experiencing it, they’re impacting the art. When a person’s ears hear music, they change the music forever. It’s not that art just changes you, you change the art.” 

And he feels extra lucky that he’s able to perform in Southern California, where he grew up. 

“To have all of this and in a setting as beautiful as Laguna Beach – wow. This is the dream. This is what we do and we’ll never take it for granted.”

For tickets and more information on Laguna Beach Music Festival, visit www.lagunabeachlive.org/musicfestival.


Mebergs’ all-around support for community’s art program to be recognized at Art Star Awards 

By THERESA KEEGAN

If passion and enthusiasm were qualifiers for recognition at the upcoming Art Star awards, it’s easy to understand why Carla and Jeff Meberg would be recipients of this year’s Individual Arts Patron award. Add into that mix their generous support and all-around involvement in all things Laguna and it’s obvious why the committee selected them.

“Art is about expression,” said Carla. “It’s for everybody – it’s not just for artists.” And making sure everybody has access to the arts defines her, and her husband’s, life in Laguna Beach.

Their personal involvements, board positions and support read like a guide to Laguna institutions: Laguna Art Museum, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, LOCA Arts Education, Glennwood House, Friends of the Arts and Laguna Playhouse.

“Every night people in Laguna have the ability to gather with people who are enjoying art and we get to learn from each other because of that art,” Carla said. “It’s like an art oasis. There are so many valuable places and the people, oh my word!, Laguna has great people here who are always thinking and have great ideas.” 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Jeff and Carla Meberg 

And that environment creates an engaged community, for everyone from the youngest to the oldest of residents, regardless of their artistic abilities.

“Art helps us to explore ourselves, it helps us all to grow,” Carla said. “We’re better – and more than what we would be – because of art.”

Educational programs critical

Carla is thrilled that, through LOCA outreach, so many people have a chance to create and experience their own art in a setting where they’re comfortable. The diverse programs are offered at The Suzi Q Center, the Boys & Girls Club, the Marine Mammal Center, the outdoor parks and schools. In fact, the Glennwood House is one of Carla’s favorite teaching environments.

“I just love going to Glennwood. It’s my favorite place to be,” she said. “They are the most loving, giving, kind individuals and their art is always so different. You go home from teaching there and you’re just so happy.” 

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Photo by Eric Stoner, LAM

Jeff and Carla Meberg with LAM Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee

And bringing art to the schools is another of her favorite activities.

“I just love teaching kids,” she says effusively. “I learn so much. They are fun and so inappropriate – you see in their faces so much joy.” When she arrives at a lesson often the students already have a concept in their head about what they’ll create. Initially she’d often think the program just wouldn’t work out. But inevitably it always does.

“It’s not about your expectations, it’s their expectations,” she said. “They love it and that’s when it’s a success. You’re teaching them to see. To feel.” 

Learning creatively

Carla personally knows how important it is to nurture creativity for all people. In college she fell under the influence of teachers who quashed her creativity. The impact was so strong she switched majors from art to communications.

“I was turned off (from art) for a large part of my life because I could not find a teacher to help me get where I needed to be as an artist.” A sketch class at Saddleback Community College a few years ago changed her perspective, literally.

“I could not believe how that one drawing class changed me so much…it made me stop, look at an object and draw it.” And then she went back again, and again and again, to get the details right. It’s a skill she says anyone can develop, and it has long-lasting implications well beyond the actual art that’s created.

“If you want to see your world differently, take a drawing class,” she said. “Art takes you beyond the ordinary.” 

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Photo by Eric Stoner, LAM

Jeff and Carla Meberg at the Laguna Art Museum’s art auction. Carla is on the board of LAM. 

Her own art evolved and she now pursues printmaking, and even recently spent time with ateliers in the industry in Paris. She experienced a new appreciation for the process – even liking her work upon completion.

“Usually, when I make a piece and finish it, I hate it. Then a year later I like it and the second year later it’s on the wall.”

Her personal knowledge of the creative process may be why she is such an advocate for artists being recognized and rewarded financially for their work – especially the artists who offer art education programs. 

Valuing art for what it’s worth? Priceless

“Artists need to be paid a fair wage. You think about how much time and energy goes into a painting that sells for $1,000 – they’re really getting less than minimum wage,” she said. In her dream scenario, artists wouldn’t have to leave a studio to go work at some convenience store in order to pay rent.

“In order to be good at your craft you need to do it all the time,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if they can just continue with it?” Meberg is proud LOCA’s payments to their art teachers reflect the value of their knowledge, as well as prep time. 

“Artists aren’t paid like other industries in a fair way,” she said. “They deserve what anybody who is good in their craft deserve. Part of our mission is to keep the artists going after the festivals are over. This is why I love Laguna Beach.”

Valuing the impact of art to people, and to a community, is a mission for the Mebergs. They believe the universality of art transcends boundaries.

“Art takes you beyond the ordinary,” said Carla. “Art teaches you to see and it strengthens your thinking. I think art makes us better at anything we do.”

“This award means a lot to me,” said Jeff. “I have been very involved with many organizations in Laguna Beach. I see how powerful art is to the community and I love being a part of it – the plays and music at the Playhouse, teaching art at Glennwood House with LOCA and participating with art instruction at Pacific Marine Mammal Center. All of these organizations are so worthy to our community and the individuals that are involved. This is a tremendous honor to be chosen for this award.”

The Art Star Awards hosted by the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance (LBAA) will be held on Sunday, April 24. For tickets and more information, go here.


Festival of Arts photographer Ron Azevedo reflects on a decade of work in Ukraine

Story by MARRIE STONE

Ron Azevedo first visited Ukraine mostly by happenstance in 2012. As a new exhibitor at the Festival of Arts that year, he was motivated to find unique and interesting sources of artistic inspiration. Abandonment photography always appealed to him and Southern California didn’t contain much compelling subject matter. In those days, flights to Russia were relatively inexpensive and Azevedo figured the country would be rich with visual opportunities. “I didn’t know anyone showing work from that part of the world, or anywhere in Eastern Europe,” Azevedo said. 

He started scouting out photo-rich locations and, around this time, stumbled upon the 2012 film Chernobyl Diaries. “It’s a cheesy horror movie,” Azevedo said, “full of zombies and mutants.” But its setting ignited his imagination. He began googling Chernobyl and discovered, with the right connections, it was possible to get inside. The flight between Moscow and Kyiv was less than two hours. Despite his wife’s reservations about the risks involved, Azevedo would make his first of three visits into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – and the iconic ghost town of Pripyat – that same year. 

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Photo by Charley Akers

 “Ghost of Priyat,” (2013)

Still, he never planned to show these images to anyone. Chernobyl was solely a personal quest. “Look around the Festival,” Azevedo said. “Everybody shows bright, cheery, happy, fun art. It’s not dark and depressing.” In other words, he doubted Chernobyl would sell. 

But when he brought the images home, fellow FOA exhibitor Murray Kruger told him otherwise. Kruger had taken Azevedo under his artistic wing and helped him print and frame his photographs. “He practically threw the Russian pictures back at me and said, ‘You’re not showing these. You have to show Chernobyl. You’ve got something great here. Forget sales. This is art. This is something the world needs to see and I’m not printing anything else.’”

Turned out, Kruger was mostly right. The photographs were fine art and needed to be seen. But they also sold like crazy. And while they’re certainly full of melancholy and abandonment, “dark and depressing” aren’t entirely accurate descriptors of these images. Azevedo aimed for “hauntingly beautiful,” and he accomplished that goal in specific and intentional ways. 

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Lessons Learned” (2013). Azevedo’s images, and their resonant titles, hold poignant relevance in light of Russia’s current attack on Ukraine.

“I tried not to use too many black and white images because they looked documentary and almost scarier,” he said. “Color makes for a more pleasing subject that people can accept. It brings out the beauty.” Azevedo also used textured overlays to add warmth and depth. It gave a golden quality to the images.

“I’m always looking for interesting objects,” Azevedo said. “They can be dark and depressing and sad, but they can also be nostalgic. I want to bring back people’s memories of childhood, of Ferris wheels and bumper cars, playgrounds and toys. But I don’t want to lose the reality of what happened there. I still need to keep that other feeling alive in the photos. What happened to the people who owned that building? What happened to the kids who rode this Ferris wheel? Are they alive? Are they sick? I want to bring their stories back to life.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Awakened Spirit” (2013)

Azevedo was a young man when the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986. Like most American youth at the time, his memories were little more than flickers of old headlines about a distant place disconnected from his daily life. 

“I had to show people what happened, why it happened and why we shouldn’t be messing with nuclear energy,” he said. “This wasn’t just a spill or a simple accident that only affected the workers at the plant. This displaced hundreds of thousands of people. It killed and affected so many families throughout Russia. There’s a story behind every picture. Maybe I can’t tell the whole story, but it makes people want to know more. They want to learn and understand what they’re seeing, and why and how it happened.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Frailty” (2017)

When Azevedo first visited Chernobyl in 2012, only a few visitors entered the Exclusion Zone. No matter how long or far he wandered, he’d never see another human being. By his final visit in 2017, a couple busloads of brave tourists arrived each day. “I saw a big difference in those five years, going from probably six people a day to around 100.” This was still before the popular Netflix miniseries, Chernobyl, aired in 2019, which nearly tripled the number of annual visitors from the prior two years. 

Azevedo’s final 2017 visit afforded him the opportunity to spend the night inside. The fog rolled in that morning. Within 100 feet of Azevedo’s dorm stood the skeletal Monument of the Third Angel blowing its wooden horn. “I took that photo in the early morning hours. I’d never get a shot like that if I had to sleep outside the zone.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Trumpeting Angel of Chernobyl” (2017)

What struck him most about being there? “The silence,” he said. “When I stopped and just listened, I realized I was looking at a city double the size of Laguna Beach. Imagine that whole city is gone. You’re the only one there. You don’t see anyone or hear anything except a couple of birds. You’re looking at building after building after building – from a police station to a market, there’s a cinema and an Arts Center and several schools. They’re just hollow buildings. It’s eerie.

“At first, I thought I’d be scared to death, but photographically I was in a zone. I had this adrenaline. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was this euphoric rush. This was the Holy Grail of abandonment. For a photographer, you can’t get any better than this. 

“Imagine a place completely untouched since 1986. Most abandoned buildings have had some form of human touch, whether they’ve been burned or had their windows broken out or other vandalism. Not here. This place shows what happens when nature takes over. This is nature saying, ‘You can build things. But I own it. I’m taking it back.’ To see how it’s been overtaken and understand it’s going to be nothing in another century, it’s going to be dust. I just kept looking, looking, looking and finding shots and getting angles. But I also stopped, took a breath and absorbed it. I tried to feel what life was like, what people were doing when they had to leave like this.”

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A lifetime of achievement: Bree Burgess Rosen honored at this year’s Art Star Awards

By MARRIE STONE

Many Laguna locals know Bree Burgess Rosen’s work well. She’s the witty mastermind behind the annual satirical production Lagunatics. Our town’s favorite musical spoof celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, not missing a beat even during the pandemic when it went online. She’s also the co-founder of No Square Theatre, Laguna’s only community theater, which has given amateur actors and talented youth the opportunity to act, sing and dance on stage since 1997. These two credits alone are enough to earn anyone a place in the pantheon of Laguna lore. 

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Bree Burgess Rosen 

But there are several other things about Burgess Rosen, and her contributions not only to our town but the community at large, that are equally impressive. A talented patriot whose rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner opened many game nights, boxing matches and sporting events. A steadfast supporter of many in the entertainment industry who suffered from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s. A champion of the arts and music education for our youth. A philanthropist whose time and talent have helped raise more than $1 million for local causes. And a dedicated producer, director and thespian who manages just the right joke at just the right time. 

While the past several years have continued to test our communal bonds, Burgess Rosen consistently finds the fitting humorous note to break the tension. The value of that role in a town our size cannot be overestimated.

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Ella Wyatt and Bree Burgess Rosen star in “The Elephant in the Room,” a 2020 Lagunatics show held entirely online

No surprise the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance selected Burgess Rosen to receive the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her many accomplishments and contributions to the Laguna Beach arts community. She will be honored at the annual Art Star Awards ceremony held on Sunday, April 24, at [seven-degrees] (following a two-year postponement due to the pandemic).

In case you’re not familiar with this “Art Star” and her important role in our town, we took this occasion to hear her backstory, including favorite roles over the years, standout memories, proud moments and the many ways she’s applied her talents and skills to make Laguna a more bonded – and humorous – place to live.

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Bree Burgess Rosen stars in a 2001 production of Lagunatics

Born to perform: a childhood brush with Bob Hope

As Burgess family lore tells it, the doctor slapped a newborn Bree on the butt and she instantly hit a high C. Burgess Rosen was singing and dancing on the tops of tables from the beginning. Significantly younger than her three siblings, she benefited by being the baby. Her parents doted on their sunset child and indulged her whims. In other words, she said, her repertoire of songs for a child her age was “ridiculous.” By the age of two, she was performing in public “comfortably and confidently.”

But unlike her siblings, Burgess Rosen was raised primarily in Okinawa during the 1960s and ‘70s. She was the daughter of an Army man, so it was natural that she would learn to sing The Star-Spangled Banner from the start. “Fort Buckner, where we lived, had a large theater. When professional tours came through, they needed a girl in the cast,” she said. “Instead of bringing young cast members, they’d pick up local kids. So, I started doing professional shows to entertain the expats.” 

Bob Hope arrived in town when Burgess Rosen (age 11) was in the hospital, recovering from knee surgery. “This sounds so much more dramatic than it really was, me in the hospital, pulling myself up from my deathbed. It wasn’t like that,” she said. Still, it makes a good story. “Bob Hope invited me to sing the National Anthem at an outdoor USO show on the Army base. There were probably 100,000 people. Of course, it was thrilling.” 

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Burgess Rosen began performing publicly at the age of 2. Asked by Bob Hope to sing the National Anthem in Okinawa at age 11, she’s been singing, dancing and performing steadily ever since.

Events like these paved the way for Burgess Rosen to become the designated singer of the National Anthem for ESPN, and to travel around the country singing at numerous baseball games, boxing matches and other professional sporting events.

Today, Burgess Rosen passes the torch to her voice students, giving them opportunities to sing at Angel Stadium, the Orange County Fair and Lakers games. “It’s a wonderful give-back for any performer,” she said. “It’s great to have that opportunity and it’s been a wild ride for me – the places I’ve gotten to sing.”

Her most memorable National Anthem moments? Maybe it was singing at the George Foreman comeback fight. Or perhaps the time she and her dear friend, Sammy Davis Jr., attended a Lakers game and watched as another singer began in the wrong key. (Davis would later call Burgess Rosen on her way to an event, telling her to not – ahem – screw it up.) 

“We’ve always had a tradition of someone singing the National Anthem at every No Square performance,” she said. “Which is now fitting since we’re in the American Legion.”

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Burgess Rosen performing in 2007

Building the Golden Rainbow

As a young adult, Las Vegas proved the perfect fit for Burgess Rosen. She worked for MGM Grand for eight years and traveled around the country for other shows.

But this was the 1980s, and her fellow entertainers were hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. “I had so many friends and coworkers who died of AIDS,” she said. “My house was like a hospice. So many friends could no longer perform because of their health. They didn’t have a place to live. I was doing 12 shows a week in the Ziegfeld Showroom, but afterwards I'd perform in local bars and we'd literally pass the hat. 

“It soon was very clear that wouldn’t solve the problem. This thing was growing exponentially. The government, of course, was doing nothing. So I got together with my friend Peter Todd and we started this charity called Golden Rainbow, which is still in Las Vegas. Initially we had a food bank, and we would network to get clothes, cars fixed, things like that for our friends. Of course, this is pre-Internet, so it was about the network of shows on the Strip. I created little flyers advertising what we needed and dropped them off at all the shows. They’d hang them backstage and, within a matter of hours, we would have exactly what we asked for. After a year, we raised enough money to buy an apartment building that provided housing. Golden Rainbow did that for a very long time.”

Burgess Rosen would dedicate that first Lagunatics show held at the Playhouse in 1992 to raise funds for World AIDS Day. 

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Lisa Mansour and Bree Burgess Rosen in Lagunatics’ 2014 show, “Gagtime”

Life before Lagunatics

Throughout the 1980s, when Burgess Rosen wasn’t throwing herself into this critical cause, she was working triple time doing shows, studio work and corporate events (known as “industrials”). When she met Wayne Wright, founder of Incentive Creations, he asked her to not only perform in these high budget corporate shows, but to produce them. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve certainly earned the skills,’” she said. “That was a great ride. For probably 15 years I wrote and produced a lot of big shows.”

For all her many roles over the years, could she possibly call out any favorites? “Oliver! Twisted,” she said. The authorized parody of the popular musical had lots of gay overtones. Burgess Rosen played the female lead. “My lover in that show remains a great friend. We still refer to each other as our first lesbian lovers. But the material was hilarious, and the cast had a lot of Broadway credits, so I got to work with some amazing people. The ‘Who’s Who of Hollywood’ all came to see it. It was enchanting how fun that was.”

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Burgess Rosen performs “Songs for the Dumped” in 2020

An emphasis on education

Burgess Rosen also wrote and directed for the Pacific Symphony for more than a dozen years. In addition, she directed the educational outreach program for youth. 

“We worked with 38 elementary schools around Orange County, doing a couple shows for each grade with a musician from the Symphony,” she said. “At the end of the year, we’d bus tens of thousands of Orange County elementary kids to Segerstrom Hall and put on these big shows with the full Symphony.”

Burgess Rosen is acutely aware of the critical role music plays in learning. “Unfortunately, Laguna Beach doesn’t prioritize music education in the elementary schools,” she said. “It’s so good for kids’ brain development. At No Square, even with our kids’ camp in the summer and LagunaTots (which is the children’s version of Lagunatics), the kids don’t just see the lyrics – they get sheet music. Believe me, it’s way more expensive than just printing out lyrics. But they need to see the language of music because that’s where the brain development comes from. Looking at the music, hearing the melody, seeing how the words move is math and language combined. It’s just so good for them.” 

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Burgess Rosen heads up the Girl Scouts in a 2012 “Schlock and Awe” Lagunatics show. As well as producing, directing and acting, she also has taught and been actively involved in musical education throughout her career.

A born Lagunatic

For all these philanthropic causes and important contributions to our larger community, it’s Burgess Rosen’s gift of wit and humor that our town most associates with her talents. Lagunatics was born in 1992 and has been going strong and funny, since. 

The satirical musical (affectionately termed “The Roast of the Coast”) tackles community squabbles, local politics, national legislation and everything in between. From parking headaches to toilet paper shortages, Design Review Board disputes to controversial pepper trees, every musical number is set to a familiar tune and comically honed to maximize the laughs. 

Ever wondered about all those empty police cars stationed around town? “Police, Maybe Not” (set to the tune of “Feliz Navidad”) answered our questions. That dead pepper tree in front of City Hall? Channeling its inner Gloria Gaynor, it tells us, “I Am Alive.” 

“Thirty years of poking fun has become a social studies spectacular on 92651,” Burgess Rosen said.

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Ella Wyatt, Kristen Matson and Bree Burgess Rosen play the Booster Girls in 2021’s “Lagunatics Remaskered”

Comedy for a cause

That very first show dedicated to World AIDS Day was a prescient foreshadowing of causes to come. 

“Over the years, it’s been a fundraiser for many groups, including the Laguna Playhouse, Shanti, Ballet Pacifica, the community clinic, the Laguna Beach High School Artists’ Theatre and we have a room at the Laguna Beach Senior Center, the Susi Q, with our name on the wall. In 1995, we raised $20,000 for No Square and gave an additional $25,000 to the Susi Q from ‘Lagunatics’ Senior Prom,’” Burgess Rosen told the OC Register in 2010.

Then along came the Laguna Canyon landslide the very next year. No Square Theatre was scheduled to perform Mame, a 1960s musical set in New York. When the landslide happened, Burgess Rosen quickly pivoted and the show became Maimed: A Benefit for the Wet and Muddy

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Burgess Rosen stars in “Maimed: A Benefit for the Wet and Muddy” in 2011

“We did a fundraiser for the artists who lost their workplaces and their homes,” she said. “Everybody came together. People were handing me $100 bills. At the end of the night, my bra was stuffed with money. Clearly, they trusted I wouldn’t just go to Fiji with this money. But everybody was just so generous. That’s what I love about this town. I know right now there’s a lot of bitterness and anger. But I’d rather be bitter and angry at the beach than anywhere else.”

Our town’s most talented essential workers

Since its inception, Lagunatics and No Square Theatre have raised well over $1 million for locals in need and nonprofits around town. “We helped two boys, whose dad died, with their college fund, and for upgrades to the Artists Theatre at Laguna Beach High School and the Woman’s Club,” said Burgess Rosen.

“No Square Theatre also provides free entertainment for other charities, including the Board of REALTORS® fund, the Historical Society, Laguna Art Museum, the Leukemia Foundation, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and countless others. They also host events for touring college vocal performers, as well as providing free rehearsal space to local performers, the Pacific Symphony, and students recording applications for scholarships and universities. We also share costumes, audio equipment, and props with other theaters and schools. I’m very proud of how much our tiny theatre does in and around town.”

Not to mention, the past two years of shows have been entirely free online. “That’s our public service to the community while the world suffered,” Burgess Rosen said. “Laughter is the best medicine and all that.”

A prescription for success

Burgess Rosen aptly describes Laguna as “passionate.” “This town feels its politics very deeply,” she said. “Having fun with things people have strong opinions about gets them to sit next to each other and laugh. That’s a very healing thing.”

A global pandemic, a three-year frightening battle with lung cancer (thank you, Vegas, for all those second-hand smoky bars), an escalation in political tensions in town – nothing has stood in Burgess Rosen’s way. She embodies the motto, “The show must go on.” And the more laughs while you’re doing it, the better.

“If I’d known Lagunatics would last 30 years, I would have picked a better font for our logo,” she joked. “But that’s what I had on my Macintosh at the time.” 

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Honoring retiring Chief of Police James Spreine in 2005

What’s ahead for No Square? “We’re doing a tribute concert to Stephen Sondheim, my absolute favorite composer and lyricist,” said Burgess Rosen. “And we’re producing my favorite musical, Into the Woods. Life is good.” 

The key to enduring success is being willing to hold life’s door open to new opportunities, Burgess Rosen told me. “Sometimes you’ve got to hold it open with your foot. And sometimes your foot’s bleeding, but whatever.” 

Classic Bree. Always finding humor in the difficult, and always happy to share it.

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Courtesy of Bree Burgess Rosen

Ella Wyatt and Bree Burgess Rosen appear with Broadway Producer Adam Epstein

To learn more about the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance Star Awards, and to purchase tickets to the event on Sunday, April 24, visit their website at https://lagunabeacharts.org/about-us/art-star-awards/

For more information on No Square Theatre and their upcoming shows, visit www.nosquare.org.


This Doobie Brothers tribute band will be “Takin’ It to the Playhouse” this weekend 

By Theresa Keegan 

Leave it to Mom to have all the right answers. In early 2020, life-long musician Peter Tentindo of Massachusetts was thinking about creating a tribute band. However, the options were endless – until his mom suggested one of her favorite bands: The Doobie Brothers.   

“They have such a wide variety of hits…It kind of covers the gambit of different styles of music,” he said. “There’s a harder rock, and then a smooth jazz era. We’re able to tackle an array of things.”

With numerous songs that have topped the charts in the 1970s, including the toe-tapping “Black Water,” “Listen to the Music,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “Minute By Minute,” this new tribute band certainly had more than enough material. But the reality of performing in a tribute band was different than Tentindo’s prior musical experiences. 

This Doobie Sean singing

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Photo by Michael Yorkell

Sean Byrne, lead vocalist for “What a Fool Believes” enjoys the vocal range found in the Doobie Brothers music 

“You’re taking your talents and shifting them to pay homage to those people,” he said. “You’re just bringing yourself into it.” 

Exploring vocal opportunities 

That hasn’t been a tough transition for Sean Byrne, who is the lead vocalist for the What A Fool Believes show, which will be at the Laguna Playhouse this weekend. He’s also been in tribute bands for Foreigner and Bad Company. 

“This has given me an opportunity to explore with the other registers of my voice,” he said. “Back then (when the Doobie Brothers were topping the charts) it was all about Michael McDonald and that voice – you can’t deny that sound.”

It also helps that Byrne has done theater, since a tribute concert is both about the music and becoming the featured musicians in various stages of their careers. 

“I do my best to respect the writer and the vocalist for what they’ve done,” said Byrne. “I’m more concerned with how I’m being perceived by the audience. I’m not going to just be Michael McDonald or Steve Perry – otherwise that’s just a karaoke concert. I try to hit on all those nuances that make Michael McDonald Michael McDonald.”

And, the band members also wear the outfits from the era – clothes that reflected a suave coolness 50 years ago.

“It’s not anything I’d wear out in the street openly – unless I were in Greenwich Village,” said Byrne. “It’s like dressing up for Halloween. You do feel different and it makes it fun. Everybody’s on board.” 

This Doobie full band

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Photo by Michael Yorkell

The full cast, who all live in the northeast, includes (L-R) Eric Bertone, Sean Fitzgerald, Peter Tentindo, Sean Byrne, Mike Fretwell and Bob Whitlinger

The popularity of tribute bands in theaters and playhouses reflects the growing trend of expanding what is defined as entertainment. 

“Our audience loves both theater and music,” said Ellen Richard, executive producing director of the Laguna Playhouse. “We have found over the past few years that the demand for music acts has really grown and is attracting a new audience to the Playhouse.” She felt the Doobie Brothers band which originated in California was a perfect fit for the Playhouse’s spring season.

Audience is key to show’s success

Performing the songs of a band that’s not only been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are themselves still touring, could be intimidating. But both Tentindo and Byrne thrive on the joy these classical rock songs bring to their audiences. 

“People are just having a great time,” said Tentindo. “With tributes, I find they’re there to come back, reminisce and just enjoy the music they grew up with.” It helps that the Doobie Brothers music was on the radio during his formative years as well. “I love this music, so I can get into it even more.” 

And when the crowd starts moving, it impacts vocalist Byrne. 

“I feed off the crowd and we’ve gotten some great reactions – it’s been very energizing.” 

This Doobie Peter Tendindo

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Photo by Michael Yorkell

Peter Tentindo, left, who grew up on the music of the Doobie Brothers, finds connecting with the audience is a highlight of this show. Bob Whitlinger, on bass looks on.

Often a tribute crowd tends to be older. But last year, when the group performed in the northeast for summer concert audiences that varied between 250-10,000 people, an inter-generational crowd was frequently in attendance. Most credit it to the diverse, but classic rock music of the Doobie Brothers.

“We’ve tweaked some stuff since we’ve started this,” said Byrne. When they performed eight shows in 10 days in Florida this winter, they not only learned which lineups worked best, they also learned how to gel as a band. 

“We experienced, in that short course of time, what most bands experience over the full course of a tour. We got past all the personality issues and are really focused on the music,” he said. “These musicians are so seasoned and so good at what they do, we can get some warm-up time and we’re ready for the show. Once you’re up and running, it’s power steering.”

Tentindo loves tweaking their sets in response to the audience reactions. 

“We have our set list, and some nights we might veer a bit. We can throw in a few surprises here and there. Like they say in the song ‘It Keeps You Running.’”

What a Fool Believes will be performed May 13 at 7:30 p.m., May 14 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and May 15 at 1 p.m. 

The Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

For more information, go to www.lagunaplayhouse.com.


Cultural Arts Center celebrates weekend of music with Saturday’s ukulele workshop and concert followed by some toe-tapping bluegrass on Sunday

By THERESA KEEGAN

When acclaimed musician Andrew Molina arrives in Laguna Beach to present a ukulele workshop and concert this weekend, he’ll encounter something he doesn’t find in his native Hawaii – a deep passion and excitement for the four-stringed instrument.

“Ukulele clubs are everywhere, but not here in Hawaii,” he said, appreciating the irony that an instrument so affiliated with this island paradise has gone mainstream worldwide. “The community has just risen everywhere – there are ‘uke’ clubs all over the world and they meet and all play music together.” 

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Photo by Jay Molina

Andrew Molina, known world-wide for his impressive ukulele playing and teaching, will offer a workshop and a concert on Saturday, May 21 at the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center

That soaring popularity is why Molina has created a two-prong touring approach, combining a workshop, as well as a concert, when he’s on the road. That’s the program he’ll be bringing to the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center this Saturday. 

“It’s really cool to see the ukulele being appreciated,” he said. “It’s a very serious instrument and it’s finally getting noticed for what it is.”

Worldwide popularity expands musical repertoire

And with that global appreciation comes an expanded approach to the music played on this very portable instrument. Gone are the days of strumming Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” Today’s uke players embrace multiple music genres, even tackling such classics as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” as well as classic Irish tunes. 

“People are playing anything on the ukulele – jazz, pop rock, really iconic songs,” he said. “It’s not limited to Hawaiian anymore.” In fact Molina’s three albums, which explore the boundaries of the instrument, have all been nominated for “Ukulele Album of the Year” in a prestigious awards program in Hawaii. 

And, the fanaticism for this stringed instrument, which was originally brought to Hawaii in the 1800s by the Portuguese, just continues to grow throughout the world. (The word ukulele translates into jumping flea, as the Hawaiians thought that’s what the musicians’ fingers resembled as they played the instrument.)  The pandemic saw a huge surge in ukulele sales, but Molina says the trend has been growing since 2010. He’s traveled and played throughout the world and is thrilled at the different approaches he’s seen toward people playing the ukulele. Some just casually strum along, others focus on intense finger playing and in Ireland, he was amazed that it was the instrument of choice in a long night of music. 

“These people play for hours – they played from eight at night until three in the morning.” Molina credits the worldwide enthusiasm and interpretations to the ukulele itself. 

“It’s such an inviting instrument – it’s not intimidating and that happy sound, that island music sound, is why it’s so popular.” 

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Photo by Jay Molina 

Andrew Molina’s ukulele playing complements his father, Jay Molina’s bass playing. The two have been known to expand the boundaries of traditional ukulele playing. 

An instrument of the community

In Hawaii, where Molina grew up, the ukulele is so prevalent that it’s found in everyone’s homes and is taught as an elective at school. In fact, it was only after signing up for the school class that Molina, then 13, received his first ukulele. It was from his grandmother’s closet and he’d been coveting it for years. She jokes that if she’d known how far he would advance, she would have given it to him sooner. Once he became proficient on the ukulele, Molina and his father Jay, who plays bass, expanded their musical repertoire to include classic rock and other musical genres.

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Courtesy of Rick Conkey

The intimate venue of the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center will host two very diverse and exciting concerts this weekend with a ukulele player on Saturday and bluegrass music on Sunday 

During his workshop at the Cultural Arts Center, Molina anticipates meeting attendees where they are in their musical journey playing the ukulele.

“I connect the dots when it comes to learning,” he said. “It’s hard to capture the attention of all people, but they reach the next level.” Topics he covers includes music theory, strumming and utilizing chord options. And despite the differing levels of musical accomplishments, Molina finds ukulele musicians have their own universal vibe.

“The community is very positive and uplifting,” he says. “There’s a lot of love – not egos.” And that aura emanates into the audience as well.

“Whenever people play together, you see everyone’s problems just drop. It brings everyone together – they focus on the positivity of the music.” 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner 

In addition to concerts, the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center is also home to a variety of arts-related exhibits and panels, such as this discussion that was held in February 

A full weekend of music

The music continues at the Cultural Arts Center on Sunday, when the Salty Suites take to the stage, with featured musician Scott Gates enjoying a homecoming of sorts. 

“Laguna Beach has always been a second home to me,” said the mandolin-and guitar-playing vocalist. Although he is now on the road touring with another band, the opportunity to re-gather with the Salty Suites in Laguna was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. 

“To be able to get back together with the Suites is really something,” said Gates. 

The concert, will feature “gypsy jazz” music which includes bluegrass, swing and classical original and traditional songs. 

“Through this music we’ve become very close to the people of Laguna,” said the mandolin-virtuoso Gates. “It’s a family reunion type-thing.” 

The opportunity to have back-to-back concerts at the cultural center makes director Rick Conkey very happy. 

“These musicians are so very talented,” he said. “The fact they’ll be performing here in Laguna is just thrilling.” 

Andrew Molina’s ukulele workshop runs Saturday, May 21 from 6-7 p.m. and his concert starts at 7:30 p.m.

The Salty Suites perform Sunday, May 22 from 5-7 p.m. 

For tickets, click here

The intimate venue is located upstairs at Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach.


A glimpse behind the scenes of Laguna’s public art program

By MARRIE STONE

Last Saturday evening, the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) hosted a panel aimed at educating the community about Laguna’s public art program, from its more than 100 pieces of permanently installed art to its many temporary exhibits, installations, performances and experiences. Some works are well known – Heisler Park alone boasts 17 pieces – but there are dozens of hidden gems tucked around town. And the backstories behind some work might surprise you. 

I moderated the discussion between the Chair of the Arts Commission Adam Schwerner, Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl and sculptors Gerard Basil Stripling and Casey Parlette. In the process I, along with the roughly two dozen members of the audience, learned how the public art in our town is chosen and funded, and the various arts programs and municipal requirements that bring art to Laguna Beach. Panelists also shared the difficult balancing act they navigate to bring art that’s aesthetically pleasing, culturally interesting and enduring. They also shared a few of their favorite pieces and how one controversial installation won over the crowd.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

(L-R) Sculpture artists Gerard Basil Stripling and Casey Parlette, Moderator Marrie Stone, Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl and Chair of the Arts Commission Adam Schwerner

Art is one of those seemingly benign topics that can sneak up and surprise you. If you wonder what could be controversial about a topic like art, you haven’t spent much time in Laguna Beach. Who arbitrates art? Whose voices get amplified? What considerations go into these difficult decisions? Removing some of the mystery behind the process is important and may give the community an even deeper appreciation for the art that surrounds them every day. 

Public arts programming and funding

The Laguna Beach Arts Commission is comprised of seven members (all some form of artists themselves) who meet twice a month. The commission is responsible for making recommendations to the Planning Commission and City Council on public art. Those recommendations can arise from several different channels: “Public Art and Murals,” “Art in Public Places,” temporary art exhibitions, city improvements and private donations or commissions. 

“‘Art in Public Places’ is a program written into our municipal code,” Poeschl explained. “Developers are required to install public artwork to the value of 1% of their construction valuation to ensure we add to the diversity of our public art collection. Developers select the work themselves and come before the Arts Commission – and eventually the City Council – to satisfy the Art in Public Places ordinance.” 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl explains the process and funding behind the various public arts programs in Laguna Beach. Poeschl has served in her role since 1997. 

The ordinance, adopted in 1986, applies to commercial, industrial or residential developments exceeding $225,000 and requires developers to allocate at least 1% of total building construction valuation. The artwork must be visible to the public from the street. All artworks are privately owned and intended to enhance property values. 

City-owned art relies on a different funding source – the Transient Occupancy Tax (commonly known as the “bed tax”). That tax is levied on local motels and hotels and passed along to their guests. The tax has incrementally increased over the years, resulting in a nice windfall to our city’s arts programming. Of course, the pandemic had a severe impact on those funds, but finances have slowly turned around. A portion of these proceeds fund public art installations as well as many temporary art exhibits. 

“During the pandemic, our budget went from $245,000 to $103,000,” Poeschl said. “We looked at programming during COVID that people could experience in a safe manner.” 

One of those programs is still going on through the end of June. Composer Ellen Reid’s Soundwalk in Heisler Park allows visitors to download an app (click here) on their phone and experience Reid’s acoustic vision. The GPS-guided tour changes the music as the visitor explores different paths in the park. “We spent our funds ensuring artists were able to work, but also ensuring the community still had opportunities to experience art,” said Poeschl.

Temporary exhibits can last one afternoon or two years. “Most exhibits commonly appear for a few months at various public places – most often Heisler Park or outside City Hall,” said Poeschl. “The hotel tax allows us to diversify the public art collection with temporary pieces. We don’t own them. We rent them and then return them to the artist.”

Temporary art also includes musical performances (like concerts in the park), children’s shows (like the upcoming Luce Puppet Show and Circus Bella) and short-term interactive art demonstrations (like chalk artist David Zinn). 

The Arts Commission sometimes uses funds to collaborate on new city improvements. “The most recent example would be the beautiful tile mural at the restrooms at Main Beach Park,” said Poeschl. “There was an opportunity to add an art piece to that improvement. We had an artist from Chicago coming during COVID and Gerard [Stripling] assisted with the installation.” 

Finally, private citizens sometimes donate or fund public art, but that process still goes through the city for approvals. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Sculptor Casey Parlette’s 2017 piece “Tidepool Kraken” (located near Diver’s Cove in Heisler Park) was funded by a private donor

“The important thing to remember is the public art is accessible to everybody all the time,” said Poeschl. “There isn’t a choice for certain people but to walk past a piece. When a piece comes before the Arts Commission for consideration, they have to think about the aesthetics as well as public safety.”

The selection process

In addition to the seven members of the Arts Commission (“who are not at all scary,” added Poeschl), there are five members on the Planning Commission and five members on City Council. The public is invited to attend the Arts Commission meetings, ask questions and express their views. “That’s probably one of the hardest parts for the artists when it comes to those meetings,” said Poeschl. “Hearing from the public.”

Stripling, who has four pieces of permanent public art installed in town and created two temporary installations, said, “For the most part, the process hasn’t been too bad for me. I’ve received some important questions, mostly ensuring the piece I’m building doesn’t become a deathtrap for the public.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling has four permanent pieces installed in Laguna Beach (the latter two in collaboration with the late Michele Taylor). “Repose” (2003), “Memento” (2004), “Moving Forward” (2009) and “Eternal Legacy” (2014). He’s also shown two temporary exhibits in front of City Hall (“Anastasis” and “Loveseat Conversation”).   

One member of the Arts Commission, Donna Ballard, is an architect. “Having an architect is important because she understands the building materials,” said Schwerner. “We’ve had permanent collection pieces that were built in ways that, in the long term, didn’t sustain. So having an architect is very helpful. You also have to understand how to work in an environment like Laguna. The harsh salt air creates tough conditions. That’s another thing we’re thinking about.”

As for choices of aesthetics, the panelists all agreed – it’s impossible to please everyone and, ultimately, decisions must be made. “Art speaks to everybody in different ways,” Stripling said. “Different pieces connect with different people. You’ll never have 100% agreement on your work. Instead, it’s about getting the work out there and allowing a story to be told.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling’s “Repose” (2003) is located in Treasure Island Park at the Montage Hotel.

The fringe benefits of temporary art

Temporary art exhibits allow much wider latitude when it comes to selecting art that’s challenging, controversial or educational. “Having a piece of work permanently installed can be more complicated if it’s work that engenders strong opinions,” said Poeschl, adding that social commentary or reactionary art is best left in the domain of temporary installations.

“From my point of view and experience, it’s all about pacing,” said Poeschl. “If you constantly shock the community, then the element of shock goes away. If you give your audience time to breathe, you can build up to what comes next. You need that balance when you really want to shock. No one will know it’s coming.” 

One memorable example was “The Caretakers,” a 2019 temporary installation by Mark Jenkins. Five life-sized men wearing grey hoodies stood on the lawn in front of City Hall. One vacuumed the grass while another played a game of horseshoes and a third took aim at another’s head with a toilet plunger acting as an arrow. “People actually called the cops,” said Schwerner. “Initially, people were sort of angst-ridden about it, but by the end – around Halloween – people were dressing up in hoods as costumes. That was a salute to the fact that art can be transformative as people become used to it or engage in conversation with it.”

Schwerner also pointed to a 2020 installation by Spanish artist Isaac Cordal entitled, “Waiting for Climate Change.” Ten miniature sculptures, including a man wearing a pink bathrobe and another in a rubber ducky floatie stood atop 10 pedestals. Nothing came across as overtly didactic. “Did you know he was making a comment about climate change?” Schwerner asked. “It was lovely and charming, and we were able to bring his message without being heavy-handed. People can either accept that message or not.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Chair of the Arts Commission (and horticulture artist), Adam Schwerner, reflects on the many successful pieces of public art he’s overseen – both permanent and temporary.

Artists shared their favorite art

I asked each panelist to highlight one piece of art in town that’s either their favorite, or perhaps doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. Here are their responses, edited for brevity and clarity:

Schwerner: There is a piece called “Lunar Tides,” created by Scott and Naomi Schoenherr, that is on the stage floor of the amphitheater in Heisler Park. I like the fact that it is integrated into that very large space. We were able to support the artists and add to the beauty of that stage with their work. 

More generally, though, there are very few cities in America that have a public collection like this one. The entirety of the collection – and being able to see the degree to which this city cares about art – that’s my favorite thing.

Poeschl: For me, it’s meaningful to have worked with the police, fire and marine safety departments in creating and working with the artists who created those memorials that speak to larger events. 

But someone whose spirit will not be forgotten is Cheryl Ekstrom and her “Deer Warrior” statue in Jahraus Park. Originally, there were 16 or 18 warriors on display in this beautiful setting in a county park. What people might not know is that Cheryl’s brother was murdered. When she came out of having heard the news, there was a deer in her garden. His horns had been broken off, but she felt she could stand there with this deer and feel like she was being protected. So she created an army of them so people could stand and face their fears. Eventually, Cheryl offered to donate “Deer Warrior” to the city’s collection. So that piece is special, as was Cheryl as an artist. 

Parlette: When I was lifeguarding, from Lifeguard Headquarters, I could see Terry Thornsley’s piece (“Grace”) right out the window. He passed away, but Terry was generous with his advice when I was starting out. “Grace” is a modified relief sculpture on the wall near Lifeguard Headquarters (and near the restrooms). It’s hiding in plain sight, but the details he incorporated and the techniques he used to pull off a piece like that – I respected Terry and what went into creating that piece. 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Sculptor Casey Parlette’s third piece of public art will be installed this summer at Dornin Investments on PCH. In addition, Parlette has created pieces for Mission Hospital, a large installation for a Marriott Garden resort in Anaheim and a number of other commissioned pieces for other businesses outside Laguna.

Stripling: When Siân mentioned “Deer Warrior,” I realized that was the first public sculpture I saw when I moved here in 2000. Then it was in front of Bank of America. And I always felt that was such a powerful figure in the way that it was sculpted. That’s my favorite, too. Cheryl was a unique powerhouse. She was probably only 5’1”, but she carried so much spirit that she walked like she was six feet tall. And she was such a great artist, and some of her other pieces are wonderful as well. She’s definitely missed. 

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

In attendance was local artist Jorg Dubin, who has numerous works of public art in town, including “Semper Memento” (2011), a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001

For those wishing a written catalog detailing all the public art in town, a digital brochure is available by clicking here. The catalog is in the process of being updated, and the city is considering making tours available as a downloadable app. Catalogs are also available at the Community and Senior Center, or at Visit Laguna Beach downtown.


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

By MARRIE STONE

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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The Festival of Arts – Laguna’s “Intellectual Carnival” – celebrates 90 years of creativity 

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When the Festival of Arts began in 1932, its creators envisioned an “Intellectual Carnival.” They proposed a week-long festival to attract tourists and counter the severe economic impacts of the Great Depression. That August, roughly two dozen artists hung their paintings on trees, buildings and fences in a vacant lot behind the old Sandwich Mill on the corner of Coast Boulevard and Forest Avenue. The next year, more artists exhibited on El Paseo Street, a once bucolic tree-lined block behind Hotel Laguna. Other artists opened their home studios to the public. Music, banners, parades and entertainment set the stage for what would become the annual “Festival of Arts,” one of the top art festivals in the nation. Annual visitors grew from 2,200 that first year to roughly 225,000 today. The Festival of Arts (FOA) has been named one of the Top Five Art Fairs in the West and Top 5 Art Festivals in the nation by USA Today. The Orange County Register named it the Best Place to Buy Original Art. 

This week, the FOA welcomed guests back to celebrate their 90th anniversary. One hundred and twenty artists, including 14 newcomers, opened their booths to visitors on Tuesday (July 5) showing work across 16 mediums. 

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Guests once again crowd the grounds to celebrate the opening of the Festival and its 90th anniversary

“Avid art collectors and festivalgoers will have an outstanding variety of fine art to browse and purchase as they walk among the artists’ displays,” said Marketing and Public Relations Director Sharbie Higuchi. 

Though the tagline “Intellectual Carnival” fell by the wayside long ago, it remains an interesting description for what goes on behind the scenes in the artists’ studios. I caught up with six of this year’s exhibitors to get a peek inside their minds and their process, learning about their inspirations and influences, and getting some artistic advice. 

Painting with light: photographer Christopher Allwine 

“I’ve always had a thing for urban exploration,” said photographer Christopher Allwine. “Something about the atmosphere of wandering around abandoned sites fuels my drive to create.”

Allwine, a five-time FOA exhibitor, centered this year’s theme around remote wrecking yards in the middle of the desert. “Daylight hours were spent scouting vehicles and envisioning how I was going to tell their stories, all the while factoring in the very surreal context of the environment,” he said. “Even though the vehicles depicted are barely intact, I feel like they are inherently evocative enough to be effective ‘models’ for this group of photographs.”

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Christopher Allwine’s photographs can be found in booth 48

Born into a family of creatives that goes back generations, both of Allwine’s parents worked in the film and television industry. “Having that kind of endorsement at a young age played a big role in my development as an artist,” he said. “I’m also a very curious and inquisitive person by nature. I love classic cars and that passion carried over into this series.”

Darkness is Allwine’s canvas. He uses light as a paintbrush to create “light paintings” with his camera. The effect, drawing perhaps from those parental influences, is wholly cinematic. “I think the best art needs to showcase the artist’s technique along with provoking a visceral response,” he said. “In this particular series, the dynamic mixture of night photography and light painting at a remote scrapyard in the middle of the desert fulfilled that for me.”

Allwine’s advice to new artists? “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” he said. “Especially in a field as oversaturated as photography, it’s imperative to stand out from the crowd. Modern advances in camera technology have expanded the boundaries of the art form by leaps and bounds, which is great for anyone who is just starting out. Also, don’t hesitate to put yourself out there when it comes to applying to art shows. The experience of showcasing at FOA has done wonders for my career and confidence. It continues to serve as motivation to keep on creating.”

Coloring the world with wonder: watercolorist Kirsten Whalen 

“Books are wonderful windows into other worlds,” said watercolor artist Kirsten Whalen, who’s shown in the FOA since 2008. “It has been fun to create these little tableaus about the dreams, struggles and surprises that books contain. The possibilities are endless.”

Whalen began her book series last year. Her highly detailed and whimsical watercolors often incorporate antiquarian books, historic maps, space exploration and all manner of transportation (both metaphoric and literal). Whalen fills her worlds with boats and spaceships, hot air balloons and wheelbarrows. Inspired by other artists working across every medium, her popular map series incorporated several road trip songs. “The titles of these pieces are often lyrics from music I love,” she said. “I enjoy creating my little tableaus because, like a piece of poetry or a song, they are pieces of some larger story that the viewer can complete.”

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Kirsten Whalen’s watercolors can be found in booth 97

Whalen’s favorite piece from last year’s exhibition – Some Time Ago – was selected as the welcome banner at the front entrance to this year’s Festival. “It was a fun piece to compose and paint,” she said. “My COVID meditation piece.” And in the context of the Festival’s 90th anniversary, an appropriate piece to reflect on the passage of time. 

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Suzie’s ARTiculation

The 2018 Pageant of the Masters, “Under the Sun,” delivers an endless summer of Laguna-style fun

By SUZIE HARRISON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Everything “Under the Sun” in Laguna has been considered for this year’s Pageant, with the theme a tribute to our town’s creative heritage as an artists’ colony as well as a recognition of its contributions to the surf culture – and the show features the quintessential origins of the Missions in addition to some of the most iconic works throughout time. 

It doesn’t get any better than this. Now celebrating its 85th anniversary of masterfully bringing works of art to life, the Pageant of the Masters is a true treasure. 

Laguna’s history as an artist colony will take center stage, illustrated in works by some of the founders, including creative masters William Griffith, Edgar Payne, Anna Althea Hills and Joseph Kleitsch, to mention a few, spanning to a work by current Festival exhibitor, Jorge Fernandez, a 2010 bronze piece, “From the Beginning,” which aptly opens Act I.

I can’t count how many years I’ve been to the press preview event of the Pageant of the Masters and Festival of Arts, but it’s truly magical, unique, and awe inspiring. 

To experience the behind-the-scenes action, see the inner workings of each specific department and all the different facets and detail that go into each recreated artwork and each Pageant – it’s fascinating beyond belief. 

the 2018 Flag Festival

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A recreation of “Flag Raising Over Irvine,” kicked off the evening a 1946 Pageant tableaux, which symbolized this year’s return of the American flag at the Festival

Technical Director Butch Hill in his 34th year puts it all together with his choreography of lights and movement – a major challenge, as all moving pieces must be synchronized just right.

“We have some beautiful colorful pieces this year and a lot of landscapes, very impressionistic local work,” Hill said. “The whole story that we’re going to tell in the first act is awesome. Just the history of Laguna and art. It’s super colorful.” 

The Pageant is featuring a lot of paintings this year. 

“So the lights are tied into the set design. When I am thinking of the set design I have to think of how it’s going to work within the set,” Hill said.

To get the lighting down for all the pieces Hill said it takes about two rehearsals for each piece; which is what they’ve been doing since February.

Reagan Foy, Costume Director, explained that the costumes are all made out of muslin, a finely-woven cotton fabric, introduced to Europe from the Middle East in the 17th century. The costumes are all painted using a textile paint to look like the pieces, and fit both sets of cast members.

the 2018 cool orange crates

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Seeing the cast in the living pictures up close is always exciting, “The Orange Crate Labels” are deliciously fantastic, a sure crowd pleaser

“With the ‘Under the Sun’ theme, we have a lot of sunbathers, and people at the beach,” Foy said. “One of the most challenging pieces we did this year for costumes was ‘Surfriders’ because we had to manipulate the body shapes to be a little bit different than the average person. So it’s a lot of foam pieces that we cut and created those extreme shapes on the bodies.”

Each costume is about a week’s worth of work between cutting the patterns, building the costumes, fitting a cast member, making alterations, and bringing a cast member back in for a second fitting.

 “It’s a challenge in and of itself. It becomes a lot of manipulating and draping on our cast members and once they’re in the set, figuring out where we need to manipulate the fabric either by putting in darts or putting Velcro in pieces to something on the set or other pieces of the costume so we really get that movement,” Foy explained. “Plus in addition to that our painters really help us out with all of those paintbrush strokes in there to really get that movement as well.”

Director extraordinaire Dee Challis Davy said her favorite works this year are, “Pleasures of the Beach-Mosaic by Millard Sheets. Public Mural art in Santa Monica. A very challenging piece to reproduce. The music to accompany is “Surf’s Up” by Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks.”

She enjoys some of the short vignettes in this year’s show, and “a very fun and rousing end of Act 1.”

Watching the sculptors work, I can tell the completed Serra Chapel Retablo is going to be sensational.

“We have recreated it twice in the past,” Challis Davy said. “This time it is presented on our turntable stage and is preceded by a procession of Father Serra on the “Camino Real.”

the 2018 rymar scenic

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David Rymar (pictured) and David Cooke are just remarkable at recreating the original works into sets

Scriptwriter Dan Duling is also masterful at his work.

“Themes make the research just that much more fun because even if we were to select a piece we’d done before, we’d be looking at presenting it in a different context, perhaps from a completely different angle, and always with a vision of its place within the entire production,” Duling said. 

He explained that much must be taken into account since every second of the Pageant involves so much work by every department. 

“It’s a daunting task that’s still fun after all these years (this is the 38th Pageant script I’ve written) because of my pride in what we’ve managed to accomplish and the thrill of being part of such a unique production,” Duling said. “Dee and I remain united in our commitment to making the show as theatrically exciting and fresh as possible for both our returning audiences and a new generation of audiences we hope will want to come back again.”

the 2018 builder POM

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Showing how the works are put together with the cast, and how it’s assembled, is called “the builder” and is a definite fan favorite

He added, “But, as always, the Pageant remains a win-win, because by being able to celebrate their works and in many cases introduce them to audiences who may not have known about them before, we’re adding to their creative legacies.”

Creative indeed.

Not only was the sun shining on the Irvine Bowl, the evening also threw a spotlight on the new Terra restaurant, which is phenomenal. 

“I saw this hidden treasure and I fell in love with it and I said I have to do something to show this magnificent piece of art in the City. [We looked around for historic items only] to find we had this beautiful, magnificent artwork just sitting and hidden [right here]. And I am so happy to bring it out and show it,” said Mo Honarkar. “And that’s my gift to the city.”

the 2018 terra

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The extraordinary new Terra restaurant is a phenomenal feast for the senses 

“Dora [Wexell Orgill] is part of the team, so is my daughter Hasty, so is Mark [Orgill], and you know I couldn’t be successful without a good team. I am very appreciative of them,” Honarkar added.

The juried Festival of Arts features 140 artists who work in a spectrum of art mediums. Plus guests enjoy a chockfull menu of art workshops, classes, concerts, and special events at the Festival.

The Pageant of the Masters runs nightly at 8:30 p.m. from July 7 to September 1. Advance tickets are $15 to $260. Tickets sell fast so it’s best to get them early.

The Pageant is located on the Festival of Arts grounds, 650 Laguna Canyon Road. For information and tickets visit www.LagunaFestivalofArts.org or call (949) 494-1145 or (800) 487-3378.


A cultural cornucopia: Laguna’s local festivals attract a broad spectrum of international artists

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeffrey Rovner

Although art speaks a universal language, it reflects personal experiences. Art exposes cultural customs, political norms, and religious practices. It can communicate private passions and individual fears. Often, and ironically, the more intimate the artistic expression, the more unifying it can feel. Even if artists’ backgrounds appear wholly different from our own, we might still find ourselves reflected in their imagery. Art knits us together through our shared human experience, evoking collective emotions – humor and whimsy, pleasure and beauty, sadness and despair. The more diverse the artistic voices, the richer the emotional encounters.

While the Festival of Arts requires its exhibitors to live in Orange County, many of them come from countries across the world. Almost 25 percent of the artists were born (and often raised) outside the United States. Twenty-nine of the 120 artists represent 21 countries located on six continents. There’s a South African glass artist and a South Korean oil painter. Photographers from Chile and Australia. Printmakers from Japan and India, and sculptors from Bulgaria and Germany. Two Taiwanese oil painters and jewelers from five different countries. 

The Sawdust Festival, which restricts exhibitor residency to Laguna Beach itself, includes artists from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, and Sweden. The Laguna Art-A-Fair, not having any residency requirements, draws roughly 15 artists born and raised in countries like Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Georgia, Belarus, Korea, France, and Cambodia. 

What these artists offer stretches beyond their talents. They bring cultural traditions, but they also bring unique upbringings, diverse perspectives, and rich educational backgrounds. Some grew up in nations that demanded conformity. Many received a rigorous and competitive education. Others enjoyed an uncommonly open childhood. A few endured wars and oppressive regimes. Several were saturated in European art, architecture, and literature. Some were isolated and oppressed while many were given free rein to explore the distant boundaries of their passions. They all contribute to the grand mixture of art on display at this year’s festivals. 

Here are a mere three of those many diverse stories.

India’s academic rigor allowed Vinita Voogd’s artistry to thrive

Born and raised in New Delhi to progressive parents who supported her artistic obsessions, Vinita Voogd studied in India’s finest institutions. By the age of three, she was enrolled in a competitive private school intended to educate the nation’s future leaders. Modeled after Britain’s prestigious Eton College and Harrow School, instruction took place ten hours a day, six days a week to students who were studying calculus and trigonometry by middle school. 

A cultural Vinita

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Vinita Voogd’s prints are on display at the Festival of Arts, Booth #72, through September 3

But rigorous study also meant monumental freedoms to follow individual passions. The school supported and indulged every whim. “From 2 to 5 p.m. every afternoon, students could study whatever they wanted,” Voogd says. “If you wanted to build remote control cars or make a plane, the school would hire an engineer to teach you. You could spend the afternoon in the sculpture studio. We had students doing drama, music, singing, anything you can think of.” 

It prepared Voogd well for her education at the University of Delhi, India’s equivalent of Harvard, where she received her BFA. Of the thousands of applicants to the College of Art, they accepted only 24 students. “You can imagine the education we got,” Voogd says. “The professors were all the highest in their fields. The best in India. Many of them had studios in Europe, so we were getting all the information and techniques from Paris, Berlin, and London.”

Though neither of Voogd’s parents were artists – her mother was an attorney and her father a businessman who came from a long lineage of bankers – they embraced her passions. At the age of 6, she announced her intent to become an artist. At the age of 20, she fell in love with an American man. “Some Indian men married European or American girls, but I was one of the first Indian girls to marry an American man.” 

Voogd followed her new husband back to Orange County, where she discovered her passion for printmaking. Though all her printmaking education was done in the United States, under the initial instruction of John Paul Jones at UCI – one of America’s foremost printmakers in the 1950s and 60s – Voogd brought a body of both discipline and deep knowledge of art with her from India. 

Today Voogd incorporates pieces of India into her prints. The vivid colors and saturated tones call out to India’s rich and vibrant culture. “Sometimes I’ll finish a piece, not knowing why I was putting those colors together. I’ll hang it in my studio and realize my mom had a sari in those colors, or my grandmother had something like that. The women wear really colorful clothes and a lot of my colors definitely come from that imagery.” 

Likewise, many of the papers she uses for printmaking reflect a diversity of cultures, particularly Korea, Thailand, Tibet and Nepal, as well as India. Some papers are embossed and other embroidered, a traditional Indian technique that goes back centuries. The papers are then mounted on a western rag paper. “In a subtle way, it’s a combination of eastern and western traditions in the print,” Voogd says. 

A cultural Voogd print

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Voogd’s prints reflect her cultural heritage through color choices, handmade papers, and her eye for composition and design

The prints contain flora and fauna, hints of nature that Voogd didn’t experience growing up in the crowded city of Delhi. “I started doing landscapes when I came to the U.S. because the landscape was so different here. The plants, the mustard growing on the hills in the summer. I’d never seen a Joshua tree. All that was so different.” But there are also elephants, camels, and other Indian iconography, reminiscent of home and reflecting a true melding of Voogd’s childhood traditions with her adult life in the United States.

“You have no choice but to draw from your experiences,” Voogd says. When she interrogates some of her young undergrad students about their artistic choices, they often confide they don’t know where their inspirations originate. “That’s fine,” she tells them. “But 20 years from now, you’ll know where it came from. Every decision comes from somewhere. It’s something subconscious. Even if you can’t articulate or understand it, hopefully one day you’ll know.” 

Yuri Kuznetsov’s charmed Russian childhood led to a life of artistic whimsy

“My childhood was a big time,” says mixed media artist Yuri Kuznetsov. “I feel like I was a child for 20 years. Thirty years. Maybe still. Now, every day, I’m playing, playing, playing.” 

Born and raised in Almet’evsk – the center of Russia’s oil industry where his father worked as an engineer – Kuznetsov’s childhood was fueled by folktales and physical and artistic freedoms. At age 9, after expressing an interest in art, his mother whitewashed his bedroom walls, armed him with colorful cans of paint, and allowed her son to spend his days expressing his imagination. He painted bright animals, animated people, cars, and creative creatures. When he ran out of room, she whitewashed over the old and Kuznetsov started anew.

Bedtime stories fed his creativity. Russian folklore and Egyptian iconography remain recurring themes in his work. “When mother said time for bed, I told her I like it so much, read me more,” he remembers.

A cultural Yuri

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Yuri Kuznetsov showcases one of his favorite acrylic oil paintings entitled “Funny Company”

Alongside the childhood tales, his mother read Pushkin and Dostoevsky. There were only two television channels that played an hour each day, so screen time was limited to 30 minutes. Kuznetsov spent his free time painting his walls, reading, or wandering the outdoors. “I could walk the streets without parents,” he says. “It was very safe, with big blocks of buildings that had playgrounds, parks, and yards. We knew everyone. We’d stay out until our parents called us home through the window.”

Although Kuznetsov was inspired by the work of Pieter Bruegel, Mikhail Vrubel, Magritte, Van Gogh, and Chagall, an academy teacher gave him some important artistic advice early in his career. “He told me, ‘You can study all these famous artists. But if you want to learn, you must go outside the building, lay face-down in the grass, and watch everything going on there. Look at all the creatures, listen to all the sounds. When you start to love nature and learn by experience, you can become great. Once you can imagine it, you can translate it into art.” 

Despite these whimsical freedoms, Kuznetsov’s education and artistic instruction were strict. In addition to the rigors of Russia’s traditional coursework in literature, history, mathematics, and science, training in the arts was regimented and controlled. By 14, Kuznetsov was sent to the bigger city of Kazan for his studies, and then to St. Petersburg where he attended the highly acclaimed Mukhina Art Academy. 

There, his training was methodical and disciplined. Students weren’t allowed to study certain artists – or even borrow books from the library – until they demonstrated certain proficiencies. “We were practicing all the time, all day long, making sketches, paintings, drawings,” says Kuznetsov. “We drew animals in a realistic way, practicing and gaining a lot of experience. Because once you know how to draw it realistically from experience, then your imagination can create something new.”

While working in Sochi from 1990 to 1998 with a group of artists and poets who called themselves the “Guild of the Beautiful,” his talents were spotted. He was recruited to the United States through the “People to People International Art Ambassador Program.” 

The rest, as they say, is history. Kuznetsov has been creating mixed media acrylic oil paintings ever since, showing his work in galleries, museums, and art shows across the United States, Germany, and Russia. His 24-foot public mural entitled Adventure – which depicts various fantastical creatures riding in a white limousine – has been on display at the corner of Ocean and Forest Avenue since 2002.

A cultural Yuri wall

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Yuri Kuznetsov’s work is on display at the Festival of Arts, Booth #17, and the Laguna Art-A-Fair, Booth B8 through September

“Of all the evils in the world, I choose none,” says Kuznetsov. “I prefer not to show dark sides. My only goal is to make people happy and smile.”

Pegah Samaie’s work responds to Iran’s cultural misogyny and oppression 

In contrast to her colleagues, Pegah Samaie’s upbringing in Tehran neither cultivated her creativity nor fostered her ambitions. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the country embraced a patriarchal system, severely restricting the rights of women. In 2017, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranked the nation 140th out of 144 countries for gender parity. From voting restrictions to mandatory dress codes, women also have no legal protections against domestic violence or sexual harassment. Men dictate their movements, their careers, their clothing, and other personal decisions. 

A cultural Samaie

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Pegah Samaie’s oil paintings are on display at the Festival of Arts, Booth #28, through September 3

“I felt that in my family,” Samaie says. “Household and society are together. When society wants something, that’s how families behave. My father had two girls and we lived in an apartment, so he wanted to be more in control of the family.” 

Beyond her personal freedoms and the onerous rules and restrictions during childhood, her father also wanted Samaie to study engineering. “Because I wanted to study art, I had a lot of difficulties in my family,” she says. “My father controlled me and didn’t want me to be an artist. He pushed me to study engineering. I studied two years and then got married. My husband pushed me to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Samaie lived in Tehran for thirty years. When she immigrated to the United States with her Iranian husband ten years ago, a psychological window opened for her. Free from her father’s career expectations, Samaie pursued an education in the arts, receiving both her BFA and MFA at the Laguna College of Art and Design. 

Now her work explores the contrast between her upbringing and her new life – and freedom – in the United States. The paintings represent the oppressions she experienced in Iran and the opportunities she’s enjoyed since leaving. “I eventually learned to use my past experiences consciously and subconsciously to express the reconciliation I am making with all the storms of my life,” she says. “In rising from the wreckage and painting politics and issues related to women’s rights, I am recovering, reclaiming, and redesigning what it means to be a woman.” 

Her paintings depict a lot of lace, which is worn during wedding ceremonies and represents marriage. In one of the more disturbing pieces entitled Am I Homemaker?, Samaie paints a five-year-old naked girl holding a doll. She’s surrounded by her childhood drawings but draped in the traditional red lace wedding attire. Child marriage in Iran remains a common phenomenon. Girls as young as nine can be married against their will, with over 40,000 girls under the age of 14 married in the past five years. The image explores the tension between a little girl’s childhood fantasy to playact motherhood with her doll, and an Iranian patriarchal culture that strips her of innocence at an early age. 

A cultural Samaie Wall

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“Am I Homemaker?” lays bare Iran’s cultural tolerance for child brides and the oppression of girls from a young age

“Women behind lace reflect my observation and experience as a woman in Iran,” Samaie says. “Lace is like a wall that separates women from the outside world. It shows them being pushed into darkness and into being second class.” 

Influenced by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, Samaie’s paintings are filled with iconography and symbolism. Birds represent freedom. Cups are the symbol of women, representing their inner strength and ability to bloom. Mars, a planet we’re only beginning to understand and explore, represents the aspiration of a new frontier for women. Fire signifies Iranian wars, protests, and revolution, while the sky holds hope for freedom and limitless possibility. Samaie’s women exist inside both spaces. 

Although Farsi is Samaie’s primary language, art is her voice. Her paintings provide the purest expression of her experiences and aspirations. They allow her to directly communicate both her past pain and the joy she’s now found in motherhood. Leaving Iran lifted Samaie’s veil, but art gave her the language to talk about it.


Honoring tradition in the 21st century: How the Sawdust Festival has kept its bohemian roots alive for 55 years

By MARRIE STONE

If you want to understand a place and its people, look to its artists. They are the makers, the creators of culture, and the keepers of a town’s traditions. 

Laguna is lucky in its art. Luckier still to have three distinct festivals that reflect our town’s diverse tastes, values, and personalities. And while Laguna and its demographics have dramatically changed since the mid-1960s, many of its bohemian roots endure. 

This year, as the Sawdust Festival celebrates its 55th anniversary, we look back to its beginnings and how those early hippie values – handmade craftsmanship laced with a healthy dose of peace, love, cooperation, and community – paved the way for its modern-day success. 

Honoring tradition entrance

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

The entrance to the Sawdust Festival, circa early 1980s

In the beginning…

Since the town’s inception in the early 20th century, it’s been a mecca for the arts. Back in the 1930s, the Festival of Arts drew painters from around the region to show their work on easels and along fences a few weeks each summer. Plein air, watercolor, and oil paintings dominated the scene. 

But a beatnik vibe accelerated in the canyon in the 1960s. Young artists wanted to experiment and break away from the landscape and ocean scenes that took hold in the 1920s. When the Festival of Arts implemented a jury system in the mid-1960s, many experimental artists and craftsmen found themselves on the outs. They took their avant-garde spirit across Laguna Canyon Road and created their own carefree environment in contrast to the traditionalists. Originally dubbed the “Rejects Festival,” they embraced the outcast identity and traded on their countercultural strengths.

“Born in the late 1960s, the Sawdust was a child of the times,” writes jeweler Mike Heintz in Volume 1 of The Sawdust Festival: The Early Years (1965-1979). “It was much more than a place for artists to show and sell their artwork. It was a happening, a beautiful, colorful collage of people creating a unique environment where nothing of its kind had existed.” Art was as much performance as product, Heintz says. “Costumes were very important, and people dressed with flair, especially the ladies.” You also needed as much hair as possible. “I can still see those flowing tresses, fat mustaches, and long beards,” he says. The line between artist as person and performer blurred as Sawdust exhibitors carved out their own identities. Heintz recounts names like Nebula, Luna, the Rainbow Kids, Crazy Horse, Anna Banana, Rodeo, Critter, Dulcimer, Tiny Tapper, and Star. 

Jay Grant, former Sawdust president and spouse of longtime exhibitor Nikki, walked into the Sawdust Festival for the first time in 1973. “The festival was electric,” he writes in The Early Years. “Huge crowds milled shoulder to shoulder. Music, lights, and colors vibrated everywhere you looked. It’s funny what sticks in your mind. Old barn doors. Peasant dresses. Boots. Macrame. Creeping Charlies. Folk rock. Towering sculptures. Quaint booths. Beautiful women. The show still alive and pulsating at midnight. Long beards and longer hair. Pungent smells. Excitement and creative energy everywhere you looked. Right away something grabbed my heart. Rustic, funky, charming, and brimming with the oddest collection of individuals you would find anywhere.”

The Sawdust became a gathering place for Laguna’s eclectic personalities. The Hare Krishnas frequently stopped by, necessitating a 1973 board ruling that allowed them to only chant once while on the grounds. Jugglers, mimes, strolling musicians and magicians, and a band of belly dancers were just a few of the spontaneous pop-up performance artists. “The belly dancers were a fixture here for 20 years,” says mixed media artist Tom Belloni, who’s shown at the Sawdust since 1971. “But the dancers got bigger bellies and a little ‘old in the tooth’ as they say.”

Honoring tradition Belloni

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Mixed media artist Tom Belloni, who began at the Sawdust in 1971, shown at his booth today

Streaking was a fad around 1975, and the Sawdust was the perfect venue. “It was scary but freeing as we ran quickly around the grounds that afternoon without a stitch on,” remembers Marla Burns, also in The Early Years. “I remember rounding a corner and having to jump a baby carriage that was in the way. And one whole aisle was filled with cameras as word got out and people were waiting for us.” 

“The Sawdust only had three rules,” says Tracey Moscaritolo, one of the women instrumental to the Festival’s founding and earliest exhibitors. “Live here, do your own work, and be kind to each other.” 

Moscaritolo remembers frequent electrical outages that required artists to store candles and flashlights in their booths. She kept a bucket hidden behind her iconic windmill because the portable restrooms couldn’t keep up with the number of attendees on the grounds. “We couldn’t even get a food truck out there because we didn’t have enough people,” she says. “So we brought our own lunches, and we did our own security detail.” 

This atmosphere of experimental fun also sparked a lot of innovation. “We were really ahead of our time back then,” says Star Shields, who first showed in the Sawdust in 1973, but didn’t return until 1985. “We had one of the first lasers ever seen. No one knew what it was. We’d drag this bulky penlight and power cord up onto the hill and point the laser beam down on the ground. Back then, there were dogs and cats and kids running around. They’d go crazy. No one knew where this thing was coming from.” 

The grounds also featured one of the first solar houses, experimenting with alternative power back in the 1970s. Kinetic sculptures, life-sized risqué statues, and a colorfully intense atmosphere were all part of the early Sawdust scene.

When Eiler Larsen, Laguna’s official town greeter, lay on his deathbed in the mid-1970s, he requested one last trip through the Sawdust Festival to say goodbye. An ambulance picked him up and carried him by gurney through the grounds. “I’ll never forget that,” says Belloni. “That was kind of a moment.” 

The great booth race was on

In the late 1960s, while Americans raced for the moon, Sawdust artists used their own creative powers to construct booths that were out of this world. Castles, pagodas, boats, planes, bird houses, log cabins, and country stores all decorated the grounds. “In the early years, you could do anything you wanted with the booths,” says Belloni. “Artists would display dolls and figurines up in the trees. We had two, three, and four-story booths. The upper stories were for playing games and the ground floor was for business. The booths up against the hillside had secret rooms in the back. Artists had their party situations going in the back while the front was used for the hard work of selling pottery or whatever. A lot of activities were going on behind the scenes.” 

In 1973, instead of using wood and nails, Star Shields built a spaceship. “I wanted to do something different from the usual wooden barn look. So in the middle of this funky western-style village, we decided to create a spaceship beside the mountain.” The UFO was made from chicken wire and a wooden frame. Jewelry cases were displayed on the lips of the windows. Customers could look through the portals at airbrushed shirts that hung from the ceiling. “Then this guy came in wearing a jumpsuit with a big tank on his back. He sprayed foam all over the inside and outside. We sanded it down and painted it. There it was.”

Honoring tradition spaceship

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Star Shields (far right) poses with the Rainbow Kids in front of his spaceship in 1973

Moscaritolo owned another iconic structure on the Sawdust grounds. “We created this windmill out of Japanese shoji screens,” says Moscaritolo. “We asked a painter to paint some things on it. It turned out great. It looked like stained glass. But the first time we turned the motor on, the blades flew off. I thought we were going to behead someone.” Moscaritolo soon found a smaller motor in a Santa Ana junkyard and the windmill became a Sawdust staple for several years. 

Honoring tradition windmill

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Tracey Moscaritolo’s iconic windmill debuted in the early 1970s

Then there was the music 

Music is important to every era, but the 1960s had a special hold on its audience. War, counterculture, and social unrest were all reflected by some still renowned musicians. “In the early days, we had an open-door policy for musicians,” says Belloni. “We had a harp lady who would come with her dog and her purple flower collections and play her harp. We had a couple coming in from Louisiana with a tambourine, a guitar, and a top hat. They would play folk music for collections.” 

Eventually, Belloni says, the Sawdust realized they needed to control the entertainment. “As far as the amount of it and the quality, they didn’t want musicians and artists competing for attention and disturbing business. So they started hiring acts and designated places to play.” The roving musicians gave way to three separate stages on the grounds where music can now be heard all day every day.

Then there was the debate over amplified music. “Were we going to have loud, amplified music or keep it in the genre of folk songs?” Belloni says. “So it evolved, like everything else on the grounds.” 

The Sawdust still exudes that 1960s vibe. “The music recreates the ambience of the 1960s,” says Hedy Buzan, who has shown her paintings in the Festival since the late 1980s. “The artists are booked for that reason. Whether they’re reinterpreting The Beatles or doing a 1960s take on jazz, there are a lot of young people today who connect with that.”

“The music really creates the show,” says Belloni. “It’s become a huge part of our budget. A lot of people come just to enjoy the music.”

The Sawdust Festival grows up

But let’s go back to how – and when – that evolution happened.

Five years after the Sawdust began, the artists were forced to purchase the three acres of land they once leased. No one had any money, and the landlords threatened to sell. 

From its financially humble roots in 1968 – with only $600 in startup money, $3 membership dues, and a puppet show that had already accrued a $1,000 loss – the Sawdust managed to purchase the property in 1973. “We didn’t have any money. None of us had money. But we scraped it together,” Moscaritolo says.

To cover some basic costs and begin accruing funds to purchase the property, the Sawdust began charging 25 cents for admission. Fees were antithetical to their values. “We were so afraid to charge admission. It was only a quarter, but everything was supposed to be communal and free,” Moscaritolo says. “We agreed if people didn’t want to pay, we’d just give their quarter back.”

“As we matured, the show matured with us,” says Belloni. “It got a little less volatile. The craziest artists burned out or aren’t with us anymore. It settled down into a staple of talented people. That was the core of the art group. And we always bring in new talent every year.” 

By the late 1970s, some Festivalgoers could feel the 1960s magic slipping. Claude Kurtz wrote a letter to the Sawdust board in 1979. “What we need is to offer to the public an ‘adventure.’ When I was first in the Sawdust, the public could come and feel that maybe something really strange might happen to them, like being sent on a weird drug trip. They would see so many unusual things. This appeals to them, the sense of the different and things strange.” Kurtz proposed mud pit wrestling, dog acts, fire dances, nude races, making the grounds dark and scary. “Let’s just dare to be different,” he wrote. 

But time had moved on. “It changed gradually,” Moscaritolo says. “Mostly because of rules regarding the structures and building codes, and the 1993 fire. That started to mold us because we had to comply with the city and fire department. Which, of course, is not a bad thing.” 

Moscaritolo says the introduction of harder drugs into the community also contributed to the evolving culture. “I think psychedelics changed everything,” she says. “People that smoked pot were nice and easy to get along with. The speed element in the hard drugs changed everything.” 

By the 1980s, the town and those original Sawdust exhibitors had both grown up. As the Festival slipped into its second decade, building and fire codes continued taking some of the electric sizzle out of those early years. Bigger crowds created bigger needs for plumbing, electricity, and parking. The City imposed code restrictions, bringing those behemoth booths into compliance. “We were learning as we went along,” Moscaritolo says. “We didn’t have a game plan. We just kept making it happen.” 

The essence of the Sawdust’s roots remains

While some of the colorful 1960s spirit may have faded a bit, much of the Sawdust’s original soul survives. It remains entirely run, owned, and operated by artists, eliminating outside demands and influences. “When I first started, I thought the Sawdust was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Belloni.  “Because the artists own the show, run the rules, and make the decisions for the grounds, we have control. We control our booth space, we make our own work, and we’re able to promote ourselves. That’s really unusual in today’s world.”

That autonomy and lack of corporate influence also appeals to the visitors. These days, many of us are screen-weary and hungering for human connection. There’s a voracious appetite for authenticity and artisanship. 

“The artist, craftsman, and entrepreneurial individuals make everything they sell and manage to economically survive in today’s world. That’s definitely a throw-back,” says Buzan. “Now we have Etsy rethinking that sort of craft business online. That’s a reaction to the virtual world, and people are responding to it. It has its roots in the 1960s.” 

Silversmith David Nelson, who started in the Sawdust in 1969 when he was 17, still embodies those bohemian roots. He’s bartered his jewelry for clothing, dental work, and even tires for his truck. “If I could trade in the old-world way, I would trade,” he says. 

honoring tradition old Nelson booth

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Silversmith David Nelson’s original country store booth circa 1971

Honoring tradition new Nelson booth

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Silversmith David Nelson’s booth today. Nelson, who began in the Sawdust in 1969, had been collecting 100-year-old wood from old barns and historic buildings in town. All his wood burned in the 1993 fire, so he was forced to begin anew.

Location, location, location

Some of the Sawdust’s enduring enchantment, several artists say, lies in its unique location. “Sometimes I go out there early in the morning, and it’s just a magical place,” says Moscaritolo. “The hills, the waterfall. It’s a special gift we have there.” 

Honoring tradition waterfall

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Photo by Marrie Stone

The Sawdust’s waterfall and windmill have been part of the grounds since its beginnings

“There’s a sense of nostalgia when you walk in,” says Belloni. “I think it’s the physical space as much as the personalities of the artists. There’s a certain ambience – the eucalyptus trees, the smell of the grounds, the proximity to the ocean, and the unique mini-climate of the canyon. Then you add the booths and the artists themselves, who are like decorations on the grounds, and it’s all consistent.”

Nelson has maintained the waterwheel for so long, the place has become known as “Nelson’s Landing.” Silversmith Greg Thorne, who’s shown in the Sawdust since 1969, keeps the magic of the wishing well spirit alive. The waterfall, the old trees, the sawdust on the ground – they’re all of an old-world piece.

A new generation embraces the bohemian vibe

Now a new generation of artists are taking their cues from the Sawdust’s established old guard. 

Three years ago, in the summer of 2018, Kate Cleaves and her fiancé Nick Flores, vacationed in Laguna for the first time. “I had no idea how amazing the town was,” she says. “But then we walked into the Sawdust. All the hair stood up on my arms. I turned to Nick and said, ‘I think we just found our home.’” 

Cleaves and Flores uprooted their Bay area lives and moved to Laguna. They first showed in the Sawdust’s Winter Fantasy festival in 2019 and finally met the residency requirements to show this summer. “Everything that’s happened since has reaffirmed that first impression,” Cleaves says.

Remarkably, Cleaves (who specializes in fantasy and fairy art) took over the iconic fairy booth run by Melissa (“Missy”) Belland, who elected to take this year off. Cleaves keeps Missy’s fairy-spirit going by providing colorful wings for folks to wear around the grounds, as well as the fairy dust returning customers have come to expect from the booth. 

Thorne, who sits a few booths down from Cleaves, has become something of a Sawdust mentor to her. “Greg keeps the whole vibe going from the early Sawdust days,” Cleaves says. “We both do things to keep the magic alive for the kids. I have a basket of fairy wings that I let people wear around the Festival. Greg does the wishing well with pennies for the kids.”

Cleaves immediately embraced the old booth-building spirit of the Sawdust. Even if those early-day structures have been downsized by city codes, artists still build their booths out of old wood and salvaged supplies. “My booth is built from scraps of wood we had laying in the carport for over a year,” she says. “Nick was literally dumpster diving for building material. People are sharing things, trading wood. It’s a whole community, a bohemian culture that’s helping each other.”

Honoring tradition Cleaves

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Photo by Nick Flores

First-time summer exhibitor Kate Cleaves poses in her fairy booth (in the space traditionally occupied by fairy artist Melissa Belland)

Like the old wood making room for the new, so too are new generations rising from the old. “What’s remarkable are the generations of exhibitors in the show,” says Buzan. “Some are children of artists who have become artists themselves with their own children. It’s really like family that way.” 

Shields noticed something similar about his clientele. “Some of the women were girls that I painted when they were kids. Now they’ve grown up and bring their own kids,” he says. “Every day, I get someone saying, ‘You painted my face when I was six-years old. Now here’s my daughter.’”

Honoring tradition Star

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Star Shields originated airbrush face painting and body art back in 1979. His airbrushed clothing has been worn by Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, the Moody Blues, and other musicians.

Our sleek 21st century world – with all its gadgets and screens and interpersonal disconnections – craves the authenticity of true artisanship and a slower pace of life. That’s the Sawdust’s secret. As we’re discovering, a good dose of the 1960s is exactly what the 2020s need.

David Nelson agrees. “You ask what keeps the Sawdust’s spirit alive? It’s the heart and soul of us original guys,” he says. “There’s a lot of us who’ve been around here for a long time trying to keep that feeling alive.” Nelson talks while sizing a ring for a waiting client. “You wouldn’t have this country without George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin,” he says. “You wouldn’t have the Sawdust without us.” 

Honoring tradition young Nelson

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Photo from the Sawdust Festival Archives

Silversmith David Nelson, who started at the Sawdust in 1969 when he was 17, posing in his booth

Honoring tradition old Nelson

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Silversmith David Nelson working in his booth today, 52 years later

For more information about the Sawdust Festival, go to www.sawdustartfestival.org.


An industrial revolutionary: Chakaia Booker’s radical sculptures reshape history 

By MARRIE STONE

Embedded in the treads of every tire are bits of evidence. Rubber absorbs the history of places a car has traveled. Dirt, glass, rock, and other accumulated debris become part of its story. When the sidewalls wear thin and the tread grows bald, the tire is tossed. If lucky, it lands in the hands of abstract sculpture artist Chakaia Booker. 

An industrial tripych

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Chakaia Booker’s sculptures, created from recycled tires, are on display in Heisler Park through the beginning of October

Booker began collecting tires in the early 1980s, feeling an affinity for the raw material a tire represents. Growing up in the industrialized grit of 1950s New Jersey, she witnessed the waste left in the wake of a commercialized nation. Her urban surroundings made an impact on her psyche. Old tires lay strewn on the city’s streets, ripe for Booker’s imagination. She began salvaging scraps of rubber from alleys, auto body shops, and dumpsites. Eventually her work became well enough known that Michelin knew where to take its retired products, sending her old tires from motorcycles and racecars. Her sculptures earned her the moniker “Queen of Rubber Soul.”

“When you use any discarded material, it always comes with its own history,” Booker said in a 2003 interview for State of the Arts. “It has the history of the manufacturers that actually produced the product. It has the history of the person who utilized it, and what happened to it along the way through its travels. It could be collecting paint or dirt or stones or glass or anything. Once I utilize the material, all of this is information that’s in the actual piece.”

Three of Booker’s works – Gridlock, Pass the Buck, and What’s Not – have been on display in Heisler Park since last fall. Constructed in 2008 and 2009, the works have traveled from Westchester, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., to Chicago’s Navy Pier. They’ve spent the past year in Laguna Beach. With every public installation, history continues to etch itself into their skins. Look closely and notice where people have carved themselves into the work. “Tracy” and “Ryan” and “Nacho” all left their mark. “DLXL” visited on May 7, 2017, when the exhibit was still in Chicago. The temporary installation will be removed from Heisler Park next month, where its story will continue to unfold and be told in a new environ. 

An industrial group

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Gridlock” appears in the foreground, “Pass the Buck” in the center, and “What’s Not” in the background

Perhaps you’ve studied these sculptures several times, or maybe you’ve passed by them without thought. It’s possible you’ve missed them altogether. Regardless of your familiarity with the pieces or reactions to the art, there are things you should know about these works – and their industrious creator – before they leave. 

A sociological artist of international acclaim

Although Booker received a Master of Fine Arts degree from City College of New York in 1993, she first studied sociology at Rutgers University in the mid-1970s. Perhaps it’s that training that informs her art, inspiring her to examine cultural and political issues over matters of mere aesthetics. Implications about race, gender, class, and environmental concerns are all embedded in her pieces. 

As a result, Booker’s sculptures resonate with an international audience. Her exhibits have been installed across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although she began working in the 1980s (with her first group exhibition taking place in 1984 and her first solo show in 1991), Booker’s work gained extensive notoriety when she was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She received an American Arts and Letters Award the following year, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005.

Now her work resides as part of the permanent collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Akron Art Museum, Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art, and several others. 

Sculpting the sculptress

Chakaia Booker begins each day by first sculpting herself. Shrouded in layers of colorful fabrics and ornate textiles, Booker recreates her image each day. Born in Newark, N.J., in 1953, Booker grew up in a family that sewed. Her grandmother, aunt, and sister were all seamstresses, and her mother had a keen interest in fashion. “I grew up seeing these people create works of art,” Booker told State of the Arts in 2003. “I get up in the morning and I begin to sculpt myself. Those things that I do are the things that you see in the work.” 

An industrial portrait

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Courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach

Chakaia Booker begins each day by sculpting herself in fabrics and textiles

For Booker, every act can be a form of art. Cooking, sewing, dressing, and other daily rituals are each a form of artistic expression. Booker draws energy from the experience of sculpting herself into her garments. 

While the materials she uses in her sculptures are industrial, and the labor required is physical and intensive, her techniques are drawn from years working with textiles and fabrics. The edges of each piece of rubber appear stitched and sewn to reinforce their edges. She cuts, twists, bends, and weaves the rubber into textured layers resembling swatches of fabric, secured with screws and bolts instead of thread. Much of her work is meant to weather the harsh elements of the outdoors for years at a time, so she relies on fabricated steel frames and the durability of thick rubber.

Rubber as metaphor for the body

As issues of race, class, and gender continue to escalate in our national discourse, Booker’s work stokes important conversations. Consider the metaphor of the material itself. Like human skin, the color palette of the tires is never uniform. Booker points to the color contrast in her sculptures between carbon black, ebony, and grey that mirror the African American experience. “Colorism” is a charged discussion both within the black community and the nation at large. 

“When you think about a person who’s a painter, their color is their palette,” Booker said in that same 2003 interview. “In my palette, I have the patterns from the tires. There’s a very charcoal black. You can also have a very light sort of steel grey. Initially, looking at the tires, I thought they looked like the textiles and African art. The sculptures better created the sort of ‘scarification’ that happens in Africa.”

An industrial closeup

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

The rubber bears the marks of its history. Not all pieces are uniform in color, and many have been scarred by time, wear, and human markings

Scarification, a somewhat common practice in Africa, is the process of burning, etching, branding, or cutting the skin into designs and textures that permanently modify the body. Wounds can take six to twelve months to heal into scars. Often considered a cultural sign of beauty, the marks are more visible on darker skin than tattoos. Scarification, otherwise known as human branding, was also common during slavery as a method of marking slaves. 

Booker makes no effort to conceal the scars in her material. “Michelin” and “tubeless” and “radial” are readily visible in the work. Model and serial numbers imprinted in the rubber remain as archeological artifacts in its skin, never letting the viewer forget the long history of the repurposed object. Much of Booker’s work alludes to the toll time and life events take on us all. Our bodies all bear the marks of the many roads we’ve traveled. Most of us have remade ourselves in countless ways. Her sculptures bear witness to that process.

An industrial Gridlock

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Gridlock” symbolizes a human’s life and journey. The concave and convex spaces suggest the strands of a DNA double helix. 

The masculinization of femininity

One of the more striking things about Booker’s work is the sheer physicality required to produce these sculptures. While the patterning, sewing, and weaving suggests traditionally feminine arts, rubber and steel require a great deal of strength. 

Booker’s pieces can weigh up to one ton, requiring cranes and other heavy equipment to lift them into place. Consider that an average tire weighs 20 pounds and is roughly 1/4 inch thick. Cutting each piece demands effort. Rather than needles and thread, Booker uses band saws, saber saws, miter saws, reciprocating saws, and drills to shape the rubber, molding it into loops and knots.

“If you’re trying to put [the rubber] into a particular position, you must hold on for dear life and get your elbows, knees and body into it. The tire can snap back and knock you out,” Booker told Victor M. Cassidy for his 2011 book, Sculptures at Work. Tai Chi, yoga, and weightlifting help keep her up to the task. 

Booker challenges gender roles as she happily gets her hands dirty amidst the grit of rubber and steel, immersing herself into the industrial space. 

She also embraces the feminist ancestors who came before her. Pass the Buck is a specific homage to Madam C. J. Walker, the first Black female millionaire in America. Born in 1867 to parents who once served as slaves, Walker made her millions by developing hair products for Black women (like herself) who had lost their hair. The “Walker System” catapulted her to financial success, much of which she donated back to Black communities and colleges. Inspired by Walker’s philanthropy, Booker sculped Pass the Buck to celebrate Walker’s success and her willingness to give back to society. The swatches in the piece resemble the shape of American bills, layered atop one another.

An Industrial Pass the Buck

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Pass the Buck,” constructed in 2008, is an homage to Madam C. J. Walker

From certain angles, Pass the Buck looks like a roaming animal, giving rise to consideration of tires as symbols of mobility and transit. By implication, flat tires (as several of these presumably were at one time) trap their owners – like Walker’s enslaved parents – in stasis.

The environmental impact of Booker’s work

As climate change edges into our daily lives, Booker’s recycled tires provide a stark reminder of the impact industrialization has wrought on our planet. Given their durability – and how well they’ve weathered the elements – it’s difficult to look at one of Booker’s pieces without considering where these billions of used tires end up. 

“My intention is to translate materials into imagery that will stimulate people to consider themselves as part of their environment as one piece of a larger whole,” Booker said in a 2003 edition of Sculpture Magazine

What’s Not – a piece that suggests a window, or maybe a mirror – literally frames its audience in industrial waste. As people pose for photos inside the frame, can they help but subconsciously contemplate being surrounded by objects that typically end their short lives in landfills?

Still, What’s Not is beautiful with its wisps of Medusa-like “hair” and loops that look like leather. The striking sculpture frames the Pacific Ocean beyond, beckoning folks to stop and peer through. 

An industrial What's Not

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“What’s Not” frames the Pacific Ocean, inviting viewers to step inside and consider themselves as part of the planet’s environmental picture

The Laguna Beach Arts Commission pays homage to Booker

The City of Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Department and the Arts Commission worked for two years to bring Booker’s sculptures to our town. The exhibit was installed in October of 2020 and will leave next month.

“The conversation which led to this exhibit was initiated by Nathan Mason, Curator of Exhibits and Public Art at the Cultural Affairs Department for the City of Chicago,” says Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Manager Sian Poeschl. “We really appreciate Nathan introducing the City of Laguna Beach to Chakaia, and the opportunity to share her work with the community. We hope the collaboration with Chicago continues and that artists of the international renown of Chakaia will consider our city a destination for their work.”

“I have loved Ms. Booker’s sculptures since I saw an installation of her work in Millennium Park in Chicago,” says Adam Schwerner, Chair of the City of Laguna Beach Arts Commission. “Since then, I have met with her in Laguna Beach as the Arts Commission worked to find the perfect place for the long-term loan of a trio of her pieces in Heisler Park. Meeting her and, then, hosting her work here in Laguna has been a pleasure. I love seeing how visitors to Heisler Park have been interacting with her pieces; they use them as places to take photographs of one another and sit in their shade. I have seen kids using them as a home base during chase games. Thank you, Chakaia Booker, for your artistry.”

While the exhibit leaves Laguna next month, hopefully the conversations it inspires will continue. Perhaps our town – like Booker’s tires – absorbed a bit of the sculptures’ presence, their time here becoming part of Laguna’s long story. History leaving its mark.


How discovering the doodle saved Kate Cohen

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

When mixed media artist Kate Cohen was studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art, working toward a BFA in ceramics, her instructor imparted an invaluable lesson. For their first critique of the semester, the professor walked the room, asking each student to select their favorite creation. Then he smashed it. The purpose? To teach young artists that nothing is precious. “If you think your work is precious, you’re not going to grow,” he told them. 

Intermittently, throughout the semester, the class threw bowling parties in the hallways. They lined up their favorite pieces and destroyed them. More than four decades later, the message stuck. Cohen freely lets things go if they aren’t working. “I’ll invest hundreds of hours in some pieces, and I’ll think, ‘Can I fix this?’ I realize that, in some cases, I can’t,” said Cohen. 

In addition to this being a visceral moment for artists-in-the-making, the experience became a powerful metaphor for a later life trauma for Cohen. In 2011, after suffering for five years with debilitating pain (but with no insurance to investigate its source), an oncologist diagnosed Cohen with stage IV head and neck cancer. Her first reaction – Good. Cut it out of there and let me move on. It wasn’t that simple. Cohen discovered months of chemotherapy and radiation lay ahead of her. She turned to her husband and said, “Can I make art now?”

Cohen hadn’t worked for a few years, too mired in pain to focus. But when she found her life upended and her health hanging in the balance, she took the opportunity to create something new. 

Now her one-woman exhibition, Explanation of the Doodle, is on display at foaSouth Gallery (located in Active Culture at 1006 S. Coast Highway). More than a dozen pieces showcase Cohen’s use of acrylics, inks, oils and oil pastel on either paper or raw linen. The pieces brim with whimsy and joy. A flying saucer soars over a strongman, whose barbell has floated away. There are blimps and clouds, birds and dogs, naked female torsos and the man in the moon. It’s Cohen’s mind making sense of a senseless world in the aftermath of trauma, and it conveys a kind of innocence grafted onto hard-earned wisdom. 

How discovering exterior

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“Explanation of the Doodle” is on display at foaSouth Gallery through January 30, 2022

The process of Cohen’s discovery – how her creative mind works and how she’s learned to trust it – is nearly as interesting as the artistic outcome. She invited Stu News into the foaSouth Gallery as she hung her exhibition, grappling over wall compositions, color and balance as she anticipated the audience’s experience. We watched her process in action and heard her incredible backstory. 

How discovering Cohen 1

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“Big Mama’s Party Dress Yay” opens Cohen’s exhibition on the doodle

Growing up under the easel

Nature and nurture both played a role in cultivating Cohen’s talent. Her mother was a portrait artist who painted live subjects. When Cohen was small, she sat beneath her mother’s easel, watching the people watch her mother work. She was also watching, absorbing her mother’s process.

“From two years old, my first recollection was, ‘I’m going to be an artist,’” Cohen says. “I knew it in my bones, in my DNA. I drew on walls, I got in trouble. I carved into the furniture, I got in trouble.” None of this punishment deterred Cohen, who remembers her father ordering her to remain at the dinner table until she finished her vegetables while her mother sneaked in art supplies – wonderful papers and pastels from her attic studio – to keep Cohen company.

How discovering portrait

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Kate Cohen exhibits her mixed media work at the Festival of Arts summer show

Cohen’s brother (now deceased) was also an artist. All three family members attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was the most talented, Cohen says. An intaglio printmaker, he went on to own and operate a custom picture framing shop that specialized in old, hand-carved gilded frames. He framed the Irvine Museum Collection. “These were beautiful frames. Absolutely stunning,” Cohen said. “It’s a lost art.”

Her own five-year program at the Cleveland Institute (where she received her BFA) and her time studying at Washington State University (where she acquired two master’s degrees in both sculpture and painting) gave Cohen a solid foundation in artistic rules. “The first two years taught heavy-duty color theory, life drawing and creative drawing,” she said. Cohen even studied art through the lens of medical drawings, working with cadavers at Case Western Reserve Medical School. “I would pass out every time,” Cohen laughs. “There was no future for me in medical illustrations.” 

Since mastering the form, Cohen’s style has been pure play. You can see evidence of all this rigorous training in her work – including hints of these medical drawings – but now it’s in doodle form.

Learning to trust “the flash”

Cohen describes many of her artistic inspirations as “flashes.” They come anytime, day or night. “I can be sound asleep, dreaming about something else, and this flash will come forward and wake me up,” she said. They usually begin at the periphery of her vision and don’t last long. “Then I have to figure out how to make them. What materials would be best suited for them? I become like a scientist in my studio, experimenting with different materials.” 

Cohen has had these flashes for as long as she can remember. “I’ve learned to trust them and follow them. Sometimes I’ll be looking at an older piece of mine, and I’ll look at maybe just a little segment of it, and a flash will come forward and that will lead to another body of work.”

Those flashes have led to some of her favorite pieces. “I have this one piece that I love. It’s a mysterious sculpture called ‘Magpie.’ It’s colored concrete. I had never worked with concrete before, so it was challenging,” she said. “I had to keep a recipe book of different colors, and how much concrete, how much acrylic to put in so it wouldn’t fall apart. Now, over time, because I’ve worked with so many different mediums because of these flashes, I have a full vocabulary of materials I can use.”

The flashes eventually led Cohen to the doodle. She attempted to make quick sketches of the flashes before they disappeared from her memory. “At first, I was using my doodles as a sketch, as opposed to actual art. I wasn’t showing my doodles because I wasn’t confident they would be taken seriously. Then I decided I could tell my story: ‘This is what happened – I got cancer and the doodle basically saved my life.’”

How discovering strongman

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“Strongman” is mixed media oil on linen

Compartmentalizing cancer

“When you’re really ill, you have to be the leader,” said Cohen. “Meaning if I fell apart, then my husband would fall apart, and my friends would fall apart. I knew that. I knew I had to get – and stay – in joy. The only way to do that was to compartmentalize the cancer. I said to the doctors, ‘You take my body. Please give it back to me if you can. I’m going to stay over here in joy because I need to protect my essence.’”

In some ways, Cohen recalled, cancer allowed her to become a braver artist. “Cancer freed me. I didn’t care anymore because I didn’t know if I was going to be here much longer. I thought, “Is this going to be the last piece of art I make? If so, then screw it. I’m going to make it fearlessly. Like I’d never done before.” 

Not only did cancer give Cohen the mental freedom to surrender to art, but it also gave her the time. “I sat in this infusion room, every day for four- and five-hour stretches, for four months. So, I started doodling,” she said. Although Cohen is dyslexic, her mind has an amazing ability to transcribe rhythms and sounds into shapes and lines. “Everything is mathematical. Music is math. Visual arts are math. Everything has a rhythm. I was listening to the people in this infusion room – they were laughing or crying, or there were footsteps. The sounds around me became a rhythm. I started doodling those rhythms because they were so abstract.”

The move into abstraction

There’s a common thread that runs throughout Cohen’s work. “No matter what body of work it is, no matter what medium, you can tell it’s made by me,” said Cohen. “At first I was more illustrative. My paintings, prints and sculptures were all illustrative. I slowly moved away from that style and into abstracts. Now I’ve gone full abstract. Except for my birds and balls a go-go. You must have birds and balls a go-go.” 

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Soaring birds, symbols of freedom and eternity, appear throughout Cohen’s work

Today, the first thing Cohen tells her students is, “Don’t be afraid to make ugly.” She’s watched generations of art teachers destroy children’s innate creativity with arbitrary rules and restrictions on their artistic freedoms. “I love to experiment,” said Cohen. “Once you’ve made a lot of ugly, that’s when the beauty arrives. It frees you and it makes you fearless.” 

Cohen’s works feels fearless. Her canvases contain entire universes of possibility. Outer space meets the mind’s inner world. Many of her pieces use labels to call out specific objects (much like those anatomical illustrations in her past). “Crow,” “hand,” “blimp” and “dog” appear alongside clear images of a crow, hand, blimp and dog. It’s as if Cohen, after her diagnosis, had to start with first principles. Perhaps she’s saying to the viewer, “I don’t know how life works and it may feel chaotic, but I do know this…” 

How discovering Crow

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“Follow the crow” exemplifies Cohen’s hallmark of labeling her doodles (an influence that may also have come from studying medical illustrations)

Her pieces appear like a children’s picture book of words juxtaposed against something profoundly rich and mysterious. An airplane’s wing slices through the back of a man’s head. A dog falls, headfirst, out of his house. A clothesline looks ready to catch falling objects. They are the doodles of an artist’s mind who’s working life out – fearlessly, joyfully and with nothing left to lose. 

“The Explanation of the Doodle” will be on display at foaSouth through January 30, 2022. Cohen will also host a monthly series at the exhibition called “Artists on Artists” – one-on-one conversations with artists across mediums. The first event will take place on Thursday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. with mixed media artist Bruce Burr. 

Learn more about Cohen and her process by watching Rick Graves’ video production here: 

Cohen credits photographer and filmmaker Rick Graves for his sensitive interviewing style and video production skills in allowing her to talk about cancer’s impact on her art.


Lessons from the masters: Last week’s 23rd Annual LPAPA Invitational flooded our town with talent…and a lot of insightful wisdom

By MARRIE STONE

“I remember exactly when I painted this picture,” said plein air master Donald Demers, holding “Green on Green,” an oil piece he painted in 2005. “We were traveling around Tahoe and there was no particular subject. There wasn’t a barn or lake. There was just this interaction between these organic objects.” 

Lessons from Demers

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Signature Member Donald Demers holding his 2005 oil painting, “Green on Green,” at the Strotkamp residence

“Green on Green” gives the eye a lot to take in. It also offers it space to rest. Demers created a quiet scene of pine trees and scrub brush, rocks and grass. But he also produced a place for the mind to meditate on the natural world. “This is what poets do too,” Demers said. “They see a spot of nothingness and find something in it.” 

Last week, 35 plein air masters came from around the country to participate in the 23rd annual Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPAPA) Invitational. They brought not only their skills and talent, but their artistic secrets and inspirations, their backstories and philosophies, even their vulnerabilities and moments of pride. 

Demers, who lives and works in Maine, regularly judges plein air shows. His paintings appear in numerous prestigious art publications across the nation and have garnered awards in the LPAPA Invitational in 2001, 2002 and 2020 (when he won Best in Show for his oil painting “Laguna Breakers”). This year, he took home the Fine Art Connoisseur Award for “Autumn Tones.” 

When Mary Linda Strotkamp (former board member of LPAPA) and her husband Jay (also a longtime supporter of the association) purchased “Green on Green” in 2006, they closed the conversational loop Demers had initiated. “I was so grateful there was reception at the other end, because otherwise I’m yelling down a well,” Demers says. “Art is a dialogue, after all. It’s a form of communion. Once Jay and Mary Linda saw the painting, I was no longer yelling down a well.” 

Lessons from Strotkamp

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

(L-R) Mary Linda Strotkamp, Donald Demers and Jay Strotkamp in the Strotkamp residence with their painting, “Green on Green”

Insights like these kept coming this past week. We followed several artists and learned not only about their artistic processes, but how they view the world. While their paintings are intricate, their mental landscapes are equally rich and complex. They shared some of their wisdom. 

Plein air painting 101: Chasing the light 

The French term “plein air” simply means “out of doors.” Plein air paintings are generally produced on location within a matter of hours, usually in natural settings that take advantage of the ocean or landscapes. Light is one of the most critical components to the process – the way it glistens off water, filters through trees, streams among clouds, dapples the grass, or creeps across the mountains. Most plein air artists say light is the true subject of their work. 

This past week – with its unpredictable and rapidly changing weather – presented several challenges for the artists. Not to mention the oil spill, which closed our local beaches (a prime location for many plein air artists to paint). They were resilient and quick to adapt, which may have played a role in the philosophical discussions they willingly shared. 

“This story is a little out there,” said Gil Dellinger, whose painting “One Simple Sycamore” won this year’s Revelite/Lyn Burke Memorial Award. “How deep do you want to go with this?” The answer – all the way. 

“To begin with, light is everything,” he said. To Dellinger, it’s the subject of the painting itself and represents the spiritual. “I had an almost mystical experience with the light this week.” 

Dellinger had settled on a scene in Irvine Regional Park to paint “One Simple Sycamore,” but the weather didn’t cooperate. “I tried painting in the greys, but it wasn’t working. The next day I went out again, feeling determined, and said a little prayer: Can I just have some sunlight?” 

Dellinger arrived back at the scene, set up his paints and sat down. The light suddenly split open. “It came down for only 15 minutes,” he said. “I was able to photograph it so I’d have a reference for later. The rest of the day was socked in grey. Not one speck of sun. The timing was perfect.” 

Dellinger describes the experience as feeling “profoundly taken care of.” He says, “I felt that what I was doing was important enough that this kind of event could happen. It was such a privilege.” 

Lessons from Dellinger

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Gil Dellinger with “One Simple Sycamore,” winner of the Revelite/Lyn Burke Memorial Award

The important synergy of an artists’ colony 

Artists are generally solitary souls. Plein air painters, in particular, often work in isolation. They draw their inspirations from the natural world instead of other people. So, there’s a unique synergy when they come together.

Lessons from Group

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Photo by Mitch Ridder

The 23rd Annual LPAPA Invitational artists

Superficially, these nearly three dozen invitational artists appear wholly different, representing a range of ages and ethnicities, genders and geographies. They come from 13 states – stretching from Washington to Florida, Maine to Hawaii. Some grew up abroad, in China or Australia. They’ve worked in diverse fields, from architecture and interior design to publishing and teaching. This year’s Best in Show winner, Carl Bretzke, holds a medical degree from the University of Minnesota and practiced as a radiologist. While they all share an essential skill in common, they come to that skill from a variety of viewpoints. 

Whenever all these people get together, the parts are greater than the whole,” said Ludo Leideritz, owner of Forest & Ocean Gallery and moderator of Monday evening’s Talk with the Artist event. “When they paint together, something else happens. There’s a bit of magic. It’s not a competition. Actually, it’s the opposite. There’s this love and respect they have for each other, and what they do, that acts as a catalyst.”

That catalyst sparked dialogue between them as they fed off each other’s creative energy. They were both artist and audience, seeking out approval from the painters they admired most – each other. 

“The thing that matters most to me, especially at these kinds of invitationals, are the other artists,” said Mark Shasha. “These artists are incredible. I don’t know if I’ll sell anything here, but I know when I put my paintings on the wall, if Don Demers shrugs, I’m doomed.”

Shasha says the highpoint of his career was having his painting win the Artist Choice Award at the 2018 Plein Air Easton Art Festival in Maryland. “I was so thunderstruck that these artists whom I so admire had chosen my painting. When my fellow artists say, ‘That’s awesome,’ there’s nothing better.”

Building that community of artists is critical. But where – and how – does that happen? One answer is art school.

The value of an arts education 

There’s plenty of discussion these days on the value of higher education. College costs keep rising while the practical skills they impart can feel dubious. Several of these master artists had something to say about the value of an artistic education. 

Lessons from Education

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Photo by Mitch Ridder

LPAPA Mentor Erich Neubert leads local students in a plein air painting course at Heisler Park during last week’s invitational

“I was the only person I knew who went to art college,” said Shasha, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design. “My buddies were studying science and engineering. When we got together, I wanted to crawl under a table. How could I explain to them that this had value? But I still get goosebumps remembering how we learned to think like artists. We didn’t graduate art school as artists. We graduated art school thinking like artists.” That training not only informs how Shasha executes his paintings, but how he views the world. 

Hope Railey, chair of the Drawing and Painting Department at LCAD, told attendees at Wednesday evening’s Plein Art Talk with Experts: “I tell students they’re not students. They are professionals in training.” 

Railey’s own educational experience bears out that insight. Before joining the faculty at LCAD, Railey taught at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the same school where she received her MFA. “I had no idea that once I was with my people, and built a community around myself, those would be the people I worked with. My professors became my colleagues,” she said. “The amount of support artists give one another is amazing. I tell students, ‘We’re our own support group. We need one another. We create our careers through one another.’”

Railey has witnessed a recent shift in parental attitudes as students are now supported in their artistic pursuits. “Twenty years ago, there weren’t a lot of parents encouraging their children to go to art school,” she said. “But today, I’m shocked. There are these amazing parents pushing their kids toward a Fine Arts education. Times are changing. I’m really excited about these changes.”

Apart from collegiate degrees, more than one artist stressed the importance – regardless of the chosen medium – of learning how to draw. That fundamental skill pays dividends across every genre, they say. It’s essential to know the basic rules if you intend to play, bend, or break them.
“If you’re wanting to learn to paint, but you don’t have the structure of drawing, you’re going to self-select out of choosing things because they intimidate you, or they feel complex, or your painting contains people,” said Suzie Baker, who won this year’s OutdoorPainter.com Award for her piece, “Sycamore Sun & Shadow.” “Draw a lot. Then whatever you want to do is no longer off limits.”

Lessons from Baker

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Suzie Baker capturing the sunset at Main Beach last week 

Watercolor artist Daniel Marshall, who came to plein air painting after a three-decade career as a tattoo artist, stresses the importance of knowing how to draw as a foundational skill for plein air. “I’ve been professionally painting for seven years, but I’ve got 30 years of drawing experience behind it from the tattoo industry. Although I only draw enough information that I need for the painting – I don’t over-render my paintings in drawings – the information is there. It contains proportion and composition.”

Lessons from Marshall Portrait

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Daniel Marshall had a 30-year career as a tattoo artist before turning his artistic lens to plein air

Bringing the whole self to the canvas

Marshall’s prior experience as a tattoo artist raises another interesting intersection between plein air painters, many of whom bring more to their work than artistic training and skill. They also bring their own histories, life experiences and outside passions. Developing the artistic eye depends on incorporating these differing influences, life stories and personal experiences into an artistic filter to view the world. Those outside elements give each artist a distinct voice.

“I always bring influences from other mediums into my fine art. So much of my work as a tattoo artist influences how I look at value and tones,” Marshall says. “Even if you come to painting from a different background, there’s always something that informs what you’re doing. Don’t discount the experiences you’ve had. We all become a creation of differing influences. They dictate how art will come out of us when we paint.” 

Kathleen Hudson, who’s been part of the LPAPA Invitational since 2019, never attended art school. Instead, she learned by copying masterworks, starting at age 12. Hudson majored in medieval history and literature at Harvard University and brings those collegiate studies to bear on her paintings. “My thesis project was on pilgrimages,” she said. “I studied people who sought out difficult terrain as a metaphor for the spiritual journey they were undertaking. They would simulate spiritual battles by traveling through mountainous terrain or going somewhere very remote. I’ve spent lots of time diving into texts where people engaged the landscape in ways that had strong spiritual significance to them. Now, when I engage the landscape in my work, it transports me too.” Hudson won this year’s Greg Larock Legacy Award (“Evening from Recreation Point”), the Artists’ Choice Award and the Collectors’ Choice Award for her body of work.

Carl Bretzke, a former interventional radiologist who specialized in detecting abnormalities in images and carefully correcting them, told PleinAir Magazine in 2015: “I think I was drawn to radiology because it is so visual. In my work, I am constantly looking at images to determine if something is anatomically right or wrong, or if the shape is unusual. I’m looking at shapes and paying attention. It’s a lot of eye-hand type of work. Plus, I’m standing for several hours and have to persevere, just as in painting. I think I have fairly good stamina as a painter for just that reason.” 

Lessons from Bretzke downtown

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Carl Bretzke working downtown last week

Several LPAPA Invitational Members are former architects and designers. Their time studying structure, form and balance heavily influences their approaches to painting. “Maybe it’s the architect in me, but I look for patterns,” said Mark Fehlman at Monday evening’s Talk with Artists. “A lot of artists look for the light, but I’m more shape-oriented. I like to arrange shapes, almost like cutting colored construction paper out and creating a pattern.” 

Fehlman also says architecture trained him to seek out solutions within the project itself. “You have to dig to find answers,” he said. “In architecture, I didn’t just come up with some magic idea and create it. I worked with the community, I worked with owners and the site itself to solve problems. I worked my way through to find the solution that fits.” Oil painting is that way too, he said. It requires you to excavate the work. “The thing I like about oil is that it takes a while to set up. You can do things with it over the next 24-48 hours that make it more interesting.” Fehlman won this year’s Award of Excellence for his piece, “Let’s Take a Walk.”

Lessons from Fehlman

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mark Fehlman at his booth at the LPAPA Invitational

  Barbara Tapp, who also participated in Monday’s talk, says she approaches her paintings like a storyteller and often chooses a theme. “Today was ‘meet at 2 on the bench,’” she said. “When I saw these two benches, I painted the story around them. Yesterday was ‘Sunday at the beach,’ and it was based around a family down at the beach. I really do see a title.” 

Demers does something similar. He names his paintings even before he begins. “I heard him say he’ll name a painting before he paints it,” said Baker. “If he’s going to paint a wave painting, and the name of that painting is ‘Crescendo,’ that painting better crescendo at the end as well as it did at the beginning. This is a good idea for plein air painters because things change so fast.”

Tapp also had a former career as an architectural renderer. “I’ve seen so many properties, and so many ways people live, that’s what fascinates me. I want to talk about life in my paintings – what I see of how we live, and how we inhabit this earth. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I don’t. But every time I paint, I’m experimenting.”

Lessons from Tapp

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Australian artist Barbara Tapp

Other life lessons from plein air painters

Much of the wisdom the artists imparted last week has as much application in everyday life as on the canvas. There are endless ways to live a creative and meaningful life, even if you don’t identify as an artist. Training yourself to see the natural world – and the people inhabiting it – through eyes of wonder, curiosity and exploration pays dividends no matter your vocation or pastime. Here are a few insights they shared on both art and life. 

Set your intention. Most painters reported a preference for having a plan before they set out for a day of painting. They say that method also proves useful in daily life.

“Always have an intention,” said Marshall. “Don’t expect things to randomly happen. Set a focus on what it is you’re there to paint. Everything should be pre-decided. That’s a good life skill, in general.”

Lessons from Marshall

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Daniel Marshall at work on a nocturne scene in downtown Laguna last week

Baker says she can’t go to bed without a plan for the morning, or she’ll have stress dreams. “If I have a plan, I hold that plan with an open hand. If I see something else, I’ll stop and do that.”

Local master Michael Obermeyer is the only artist in the invitational who has participated all 23 years. The only drawback to that distinction is his difficulty in finding new scenes around town to paint. “Sometimes I will find a nice view for a painting in the months leading up to the invitational and hold off on painting it, saving it for this week,” he said. “That doesn’t always work, as sometimes the view just doesn’t inspire me like it initially did. But I will make a list of possible morning, mid-day, afternoon, and evening painting ideas and locations. I keep that list with me through the week, sometimes blocking out time for those possible paintings and sometimes spontaneously finding a spot while driving or walking around. Those unplanned paintings are usually the fresher, more soulful paintings for me.”

Pay attention to what catches your eye. Every person will be drawn to a different scene. What captures their attention is a function of who they are, how they see the world, and what images inspire them. Capturing that inspiration, churning it through their unique artistic filter and presenting it back to the world is what creates that artistic connection with the audience.

“If something stops me in my tracks, I ask myself, ‘What was it that stopped me? What’s the idea here? Is it about light? Is about busyness? Is it about the sky? What made me pay attention?’” said Baker.

“When something is catching my eye, I trust the scene,” said Shasha. “I start painting to find out what it is, to immerse myself in the beauty. To explore it.”

Balance confidence with humility. The phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” came up more than once in our discussions with artists.

“Artistry requires irrational self-esteem combined with humility,” said Baker. “Irrational self-esteem is the thing that keeps you showing up at your canvas because it’s hard. There must be enough self-confidence to keep you showing up in the face of uncertainty. And I think that’s where the humility comes from. You’ll have times of elation and times of disappointment. Give yourself permission to fail. But if you keep showing up, you’ll get better and better.”

Fehlman recognizes it’s easy to be intimidated by other artists. He had a propensity to turn his contemporaries into mythic figures and felt intimidated by them. “I made a point of really getting to know these people, talking to them about what they do and feeling like I could be a part of them. It helped develop my confidence as an artist. Confidence is extremely important. You don’t have to be egotistical but painting with confidence is critical. Be willing to put yourself out there.”

Commit to the unpredictable. Becoming an artist, more than most careers, requires a leap of faith. That plunge into the unknown wasn’t lost on most of the artists. 

“I never looked at my career as a career. It’s just living the life of an artist,” said Shasha. “Every day, I shoot off a firework and it’s either a dud or it’s a big one. I can’t plan it, and I can’t plan my career. I finally realized I have to commit to the unpredictable. I have to commit to the unexpected, because every canvas begins blank. Every painting is a potential lightning bolt of wonder, or a total dud. And I won’t know which. I put just as much work into the duds as the ones that work out. There are no short cuts.”

Lessons from Shasha

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mark Shasha at his booth at the 23rd annual LPAPA Invitational Gala

Resist the temptation to critique yourself. Much like life itself, it’s difficult to judge your own work objectively. LPAPA artists all seem to rely on others to assess the quality of their pieces. Some painters install mirrors in their studios to get a different perspective on their paintings. Others put their pieces away for periods of time and come back to them with fresh eyes. But most rely on spouses, children and other outside critics to give them honest opinions. 

Remain adaptable and resilient. Despite the many challenges these artists faced – from inclement and dramatic weather to the tragic oil spill that closed the beaches – they continuously adapted to the changing surroundings. 

“This week was quite a challenge,” said Obermeyer. “Each day seemed to be completely different from the others. We had hot sunny days with no wind, to thunder and lightning and humid skies, to overcast fog.” Obermeyer relies on sunlight and how it falls on a scene. “When it’s cloudy, I might paint a dusk scene or a nocturne.”

Overcome resistance. Baker says she still has paintings that intimidate her and lead to procrastination. It’s still a learning process, she said. Baker recommends two books to artists (and everyone else) that helped her push through resistance: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. “They are three-hour audiobooks that helped me break through some of that procrastination stuff,” she said. 

A return to art

At its core, last week’s LPAPA Invitational was a celebration of the arts, artists and their collectors. While these painters were open to exploring the philosophical questions behind the importance of art and the creative questions behind the process, they all simply enjoyed delighting in the pieces themselves and marveling at each other’s talent. As Demers tells us from the beginning, art gives the eye a place to rest.

Lessons from Bretzke

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Photo by Ludo Leideritz

Carl Bretzke’s oil painting, “Valley Below,” won this year’s Best in Show

“I don’t think of paintings as being static images. I think of them as being resting points of the human experience,” said Demers. “They’re not decorative objects. They are moments we capture because we live linear, kinetic lives. We all want to catch our breath. Paintings allow us to catch our breath. That’s what art does.” 

The LPAPA Gallery is located at 414 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach (between Myrtle and Jasmine streets). The gallery is hosting an exhibition of the LPAPA Invitational pieces through Monday, Nov. 1. In addition to works produced by the invitational artists, the LPAPA Gallery is showcasing student works representing LCAD, the five local Laguna Beach public schools and the Anneliese School. Proceeds from all student works will be donated to their respective schools. Gallery hours are Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Contact the gallery at 949.376.3635 for all purchase inquiries, or visit the LPAPA website atwww.lpapa.org to view the Invitational Catalog and other details.


A centennial celebration revived: The Laguna Playhouse stages 10 readings to honor 10 decades of live theater in town

By MARRIE STONE

Like many of Laguna’s beloved institutions, its beginnings were humble. On October 22, 1920, at the suggestion of Annie Gayne Peake and Isabel Frost, 17 local thespians gathered in a living room, hatching an idea that would endure for over a century (and counting). Their goal was simple, though hardly easy to achieve: Create a nonprofit community theater dedicated to producing high-quality performances downtown.

In those days, Laguna’s population numbered only around 300. In a village that size, this level of theatrical interest was significant. With the country still roiling from its own devastating pandemic – not to mention a world war – folks were primed for some light-hearted fun. Laguna proved the perfect place. Its artist community was already burgeoning with the founding of the Laguna Beach Art Association two years before, and an influential group of plein air artists working in the area. Community theater was a natural addition.

The strength of live theater is its ability to reflect culture, people and the times. Both the country and our town have come a long way in those intervening 101 years. Many plays have definitively not stood the test of time. And yet, in some surprising ways, other themes continue to resonate. 

A centennial milestone gives our community much to reflect upon and celebrate, particularly when the Playhouse was born alongside the town (although founded in 1887, Laguna Beach wasn’t officially incorporated until 1927). Since its inception in 1920, the theater has staged nearly 700 productions. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating, nonprofit playhouses on the West Coast.

a centennial Playhouse 1

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

The volunteer organization known as “The Label Ladies” gather to send out the Playhouse’s monthly newsletter 

To honor its longstanding roots, Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham and Executive Director Ellen Richard plan to present 10 readings over roughly the next year to honor each of the Playhouse’s 10 decades. The series – which began on Zoom this past June – will continue live and in-person on Monday, Nov. 8, with the 1950 Broadway play Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten. 

While we watch the decades unfold, we look back at this longstanding organization, and the unique influences that have allowed it to survive and thrive for more than a century. 

a centennial Playhouse 2

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Laguna Playhouse has always loved its furry artists. Paws up for Champion Blackwillow, the principal in 1984’s “On Borrowed Time,” seen with Yolanda Molnar and Peter Kreder

In the beginning…

Originally known as the Laguna Beach Community Dramatic Club, the organization staged their first play in someone’s home. Appropriately, they chose George Kelly’s The Torchbearers, a comedic satire about the pretensions of the Little Theater Movement which began proliferating around the United States in 1912 (when the new medium of cinema threatened to usurp the stage). Reflective of the times, when women rarely held jobs outside the home, a housewife becomes an actress while her husband travels on business. 

It wasn’t until 1922 when the Playhouse could claim its first official production, this time performed in a tire shop on Ocean Avenue. Suppressed Desires, a one-act comedy by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Glaspell and her husband, George Cram Cook, explores what happens when a happy marriage collides with some introspective psychoanalysis. Freud had only been on the scene for 30 years in those days, and the 19th Amendment (codifying women’s right to vote) had been ratified by Congress only two years before. Glaspell’s feminist sensibilities spoke to the era. And Laguna Beach, with its progressive artistic vibe, became the right town to appreciate the message. 

Wareham and Richard selected Suppressed Desires to kick off the Centennial Celebration last June on Zoom. It was a natural past-meets-present choice. The virtual reading provided an appropriate homage to the Playhouse’s beginnings during its own pandemic, this time with a modern-day technological assist. “It took a bit to put Suppressed Desires together,” said Wareham. “We were planning to do a live performance, but COVID protocols didn’t permit it. We missed our opportunity to do it live and chose to go online. But it worked well. It just took some creative thinking on the part of the director, Andrew Barnicle, to make it pop off the screen.”

The production also afforded the opportunity to welcome some favored actors back to the stage. “It starred French Stewart, Vanessa Stewart and Jennifer Shelton,” said Richard. “French is well-known to television audiences [for his role as Harry Solomon on NBC’s Third Rock from the Sun] and well-known to our Playhouse audiences for his performance of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey.

a centennial Playhouse 3

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Charles Nelson Reilly directed Charles Durning (left) and Dick Van Patten in the 2003 production of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Harvey,” about a man and his invisible rabbit friend

Finding its way

For the first few decades, before the Playhouse found its permanent home, it was run by a group of dedicated but unprofessional volunteers. Longtime Artistic Director Barnicle affectionately referred to them as “enlightened amateurs.” These forward-looking thespians reflected the vibrant arts colony, putting on shows not only for their entertainment value, but to explore some meaningful themes. 

a centennial Playhouse 4

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Julie Harris stars in the “Belle of Amherst,” her one-woman show about poet Emily Dickenson. Laguna Playhouse produced the national tour of this play in 2000, which visited more than 40 cities.

Of course, not everything about the early 20th century was enlightened. Asked for an example of a play they wouldn’t produce today Richard said, “Well, in the very early days of the Playhouse, they did minstrel shows. That’s not something we’re proud of, but it’s hard to change what happened 90 years ago. It’s certainly nothing we would recreate today.” 

Still, Richard said, other work continues to have resonance. “There’s one play in particular that comes to mind,” she said. “Henrik Ipsen’s An Enemy of the People [an 1882 script staged at the Playhouse in 1991] is about clean water. What could be more relevant today, given the oil spill that just happened? That’s a big subject of discussion in today’s society.”

Before another war broke out, the Playhouse was staging roughly a dozen plays each year. In the early 1930s, they’d secured a property on Ocean Avenue and produced such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Candida, along with a slew of lesser-known comedies, dramas and musicals. From 1942 through 1945, with the Festival of Arts shuttered and the Pageant of the Masters gone dark during the war, the Playhouse used its Ocean Avenue facility as a USO center for military personnel. 

Fast-forward to the 1950 and ‘60s

By the 1950s, with the war behind them and a prosperous future ahead, the Playhouse entered a kind of renaissance. To honor this era, Wareham and Richard chose Bell, Book and Candle (originally staged at the Playhouse in 1954) for the Monday, Nov. 8 reading. “We tried to pick a broad swath and capture a little bit of everything from the history of the Playhouse,” said Wareham. “Between the two of us, we came up with a list of 10 shows that we felt really reflected our own sensibility for the theater, and the theater’s 100 years.”

a centennial Playhouse 5

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” 1983’s Sherlock Holmes starred Playhouse regular George Woods.

Hollywood stars began to dot the Playhouse stage around this time. Los Angeles wasn’t such a distant drive and Laguna became a holiday playground. Celebrities like Bette Davis, Harrison Ford, Dick Van Patten, Julie Harris and Hal Linden (to name just a few) have graced Laguna’s playbills. More recently Melanie Griffith, Rita Rudner, Cloris Leachman, Bryan Cranston and Val Kilmer have also appeared.

a centennial Playhouse 6

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Nellie Gail Moulton and William L. Pereira break ground in 1964. Nellie Gail Moulton’s gift helped fund the building of the current Laguna Playhouse Moulton Theatre on Laguna Canyon Road.

A celebration worth the wait

While plans for the Playhouse’s centennial celebration had to be put on hold, it gave Wareham and Richard additional time to consider the plays they wanted to read. 

“I suppose like anybody who gets older, we should just start lying about her age and call it 100,” said Richard. “But we felt one of the nicest ways to celebrate our history was to highlight a play from every decade and give our audience the chance to experience the art that’s happened over the last century.” 

Richard says audiences will see how the work has changed – whether it’s held up over time, or whether there have been enough societal shifts that the work feels dated and staid. “Even though there are things the Playhouse did long ago that we wouldn’t do today, celebrating this period of time, the work and the history of the Playhouse is important.”

Wareham agreed. “Some plays just don’t stand the test of time with societal changes and shifting norms. I read many of the scripts we’ve done over the last 100 years and some just didn’t hold up. They needed to be put to bed,” she laughed. Instead, Wareham promises that fans can look forward to some old favorites, some of Wareham’s personal favorites, as well as a good balance between genres. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

America’s favorite courtroom drama, Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men,” was a bona fide hit when it played in 2017. The cast featured Seamus Dever, Richard Burgi, John Massey and Andrew Barnicle, and the set was designed by Stephen Gifford.

Perhaps more impressive is how these readings are done. “It’s literally a one-day process,” said Wareham. “We get together late in the morning (which we will do on Monday, Nov. 8). We’ll read the play together, talk about character choices and movement. It’s a six-hour process to get the play on its feet. You can’t overthink it. You’ve just got to deliver the story.” 

The readings won’t be presented chronologically. It may even take more than a year to stage them all, given that they’re being inserted between other shows on a very booked stage. Still, Richard said, “Showcasing our work over the last 100 years seemed like something our audience and owners would really appreciate.” 

While Wareham works to secure all the necessary rights, the slate of shows hasn’t yet been announced. But a few hints may have dropped during our conversation. Watch for A Man for All Seasons (originally staged in 1966) and Same Time Next Year (staged in 1981). 

For more information on the Laguna Playhouse and its history, visit its website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Bette Davis was a frequent Laguna Playhouse supporter. In 1950, she hosted the cast party of “One Foot in Heaven.” Davis is second from the left with, from left, her husband Gary Merrill, Bobby Berry (Davis’ sister) and Laguna Playhouse Managing Director Hap Graham at the Hawaiian Broiler Restaurant.


Cracking the creativity conundrum: chalk artist David Zinn on ephemeral art, the power of pareidolia and finding freedom in limitations

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Imagine walking along a city sidewalk, head down and lost in thought. There at the edge of the pavement lies a charcoal drawing of Mickey Mouse. He’s sporting his iconic profile pose with the signature smile, eyes slid to the side and that thumbprint nose. But no ears. A fully executed Mickey minus his most essential mouse feature. 

David Zinn came upon this scene as a teenager in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This was 1985, before the internet, when folks were often left with unanswered questions. Zinn thought maybe he imagined the whole random episode. With no other option, he went on his way and forgot about it.

A few weeks later, Zinn passed the scene again, this time at night. A streetlamp cast a shadow across the sidewalk. It hit a set of parking meters shaped like those iconic ears and perfectly projected them onto Mickey’s bare head. 

“I suddenly understood this seemingly random thing had been so precisely placed for such a ridiculous reason,” Zinn said in a 2020 TED Talk at the University of Michigan. “It made me childishly happy. I wanted to tell everyone I knew so they could have the same experience. Then I realized they couldn’t have the same experience unless I let them discover it for themselves.” This observation captures not only much of Zinn’s subsequent career, but some of his philosophies about art and life. 

Last week, the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Commission brought David Zinn and his popular sidekicks – Sluggo the green monster, Philomena the flying pig, Nadine the mouse, and many more – to create a week-long scavenger hunt for unobtrusive chalk art around our town. While the whimsical drawings were delightful (combining colorful cartoon characters with remarkable trompe-l’oeil effects), the man behind them had some profound insights about art, artists, creativity and life itself. We caught up with him after Saturday’s demonstration in Laguna’s Promenade to learn more about Zinn and the life philosophies that drive his art. 

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Chalk artist and illustrator David Zinn did a one-hour demonstration on the Forest Avenue Promenade last Saturday

Finding freedom in limitation

Ask Zinn about his biggest fears and “blank canvas” might bubble to the top. Rumor has it there’s an empty canvas that’s sat in Zinn’s garage for 23 years and counting. A clean slate presents endless possibilities, and possibilities can feel terrifying. 

“In theory, a blank canvas should be the most wonderful freedom. An opportunity everyone should long for,” Zinn said. “It’s actually the most paralyzing freedom you can ask for. When there are too many options, there’s too much freedom. There’s too much fear in our heads, whether we’re artists or not, that maybe whatever we do to this blank page will not be an improvement. We’ll regret the marks we make.”

As a kid, Zinn and his brother would play the doodle game. They’d each make a squiggle on a sheet of paper and challenge the other to turn it into something. There was no possibility for failure. It was all just play. 

This gave Zinn an idea. Look at any piece of concrete or strip of street and notice the many natural blemishes. There are cracks and holes, oil stains and metal pipes, tufts of weeds coming out of crevices, or metal grates and manholes. Stare for a moment and your brain can’t help but construct a story around it. It’s why we see animals in clouds and faces in weirdly shaped vegetables. It’s how our ancestors saw constellations in the stars. It’s a phenomenon known as pareidolia – the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. Zinn refers to his work as pareidolic anamorphosis or anamorphic pareidolia. Incorporating natural imperfections and found objects, Zinn uses colorful chalks and black charcoal to create cartoonish creatures in some surprising locations. 

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A faded Sluggo and his friend Squirrel showcase how natural cracks and abrasions in the sidewalk create artistic opportunities

Chalk is the perfect choice. It’s cheap and childish. No one expects you to know what you’re doing. And, Zinn said, if it breaks, you have twice as much. The stakes are low, the effects are temporary.

Plus, street art gets Zinn out of his house on beautiful days (often a rarity in Ann Arbor). “It began to feel like a deathbed regret to sit staring at a computer on a beautiful day,” he said. But unrestrained freedom outside once again forced Zinn to look for limitations and be disciplined with himself. If he was going to sit outside, he’d better be working. Sidewalk chalk art imposed the right amount of limitation for Zinn’s creativity to thrive. 

The art of avoiding children’s books

Getting kicked in the head is an occupational hazard for chalk artists. Oblivious passersby don’t always notice artists working beneath their feet. Zinn often avoids the problem by incorporating large objects – like brick walls and utility poles – into his creations. If he’s pressed against a pole, maybe people won’t step on him. 

Zinn once drew a dragon circling a streetlamp. By the time he finished, the dragon seemed to be staring at nothing. So, he incorporated a mouse as a focal point. Then he felt sorry for the mouse, small and defenseless beside the enormous dragon, so he gave the mouse a tiny sword. Soon people clamored to hear the story behind the image. If Zinn told the truth (he feared getting kicked in the head, his dragon needed something to look at, and he felt sympathy for a mouse) the backstory would feel unsatisfying. Better for the viewers, and their experience, to write their own mental stories. Students from around Ann Arbor shared their tales, each one wonderful and unique. One decided the mouse was a dentist. “I can’t compete with that,” Zinn said. “I made the thing I intended to make. It’s done.”

Still, Zinn is routinely asked about writing children’s books. Although his undergraduate degree was in creative writing, it continues to be a request he resists. Turns out, the blank page looks a lot like the blank canvas. 

“When I was getting my creative writing degree, whenever I sat down to fill some pages, part of me was thinking about what time it was and wondering when I could stop,” Zinn said. “You know you’ve found your thing if you don’t notice the passage of time while you’re doing it.”

Then along came Nadine, who arrived during the pandemic. Dressed in a blue frock and pink shoes, the little mouse kept showing up. She waved from windows. She explored a dark abyss with a tiny flashlight. She offered a cat a cup of tea and sat with an owl on the sidewalk. Soon The Untold Tales of Nadine unfolded into a pamphlet-sized paperback, all the drawings created within walking distance of Zinn’s house during 2020. Every other page shows a picture of Nadine doing something unique, each with a short caption, and the facing page is left open for someone to write their story. Zinn did the writer a favor by removing the blank page and providing a prompt. 

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Nadine hangs in her hammock reading a book on a brick outside the entrance of Nuance on Forest Avenue

“When people see one of these drawings and think, ‘That would make a great story, you need to make this into a children’s book,’ they like the story because they made up the story,” Zinn said. “They may not think they made up the story, but they presumed what story I’m trying to tell. There are very good odds that if I told them my story, it would be disappointing. ‘No, that’s not the story. Make up the real story. The story in my head – tell that story!’ Artists should never explain their art to somebody. It’s like trying to explain a joke. So, this is my sneaky dodge.”

The Zen of Zinn

The ephemeral aspect of Zinn’s art puts him at odds with most traditional artists who encase their pieces in glass and aspire to canonize their work in collectors’ homes, museums, or galleries. Zinn’s creations, by contrast, begin to fade the moment they’re completed. Not only has he made peace with their temporality, he’s embraced it. Even after being told the Lumberyard Restaurant hosed down its courtyard each day, Zinn still chose the patio as a palette for one of his pieces. 

We stood beside Philomena the Pig on Forest Avenue’s Promenade. During the hour we spent talking, two skateboarders rolled across her clouds. A gleeful toddler stomped on her face before settling down for a photo. Couples strolled over her, hand-in-hand, oblivious to Philomena under their feet. 

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Philomena flies through the clouds after Zinn’s public demonstration last Saturday

“I don’t usually hang around this long, so I normally wouldn’t see how people interact,” Zinn said. “But it’s a helpful reminder that just because this spot is now very special to me does not make it special to the universe.”

Zinn recounted a time in his hometown of Ann Arbor when he’d finished a piece and was packing to leave. He watched a man walk into the center of the image, where he stopped to make a call. “It wasn’t out of rudeness,” Zinn said. “He never saw it, which is evidence of how our brains work. Our minds are not objectively recording the world. Things literally seem bigger to you if they’re important to you.” 

Zinn pointed out that one foot doesn’t do any damage to a piece, but 1,000 feet will erase it completely. Still, I couldn’t help wincing each time someone stepped on Philomena. 

“Let me ask you,” Zinn said. “Would you feel this bothered if you were the one who created her?”

“That would be even worse,” I said. “But I still feel invested. I watched you make her.”

“To my mind,” Zinn said, “that should make it easier to let it go. You were present for the important part.” 

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Zinn poses over Philomena

We meandered onto the topic of Tibetan mandalas. Carefully constructed out of colorful sand, mandalas are used by monks for meditation. Once the mandala is complete, the monks set about destroying it by sweeping the sand away. The point, of course, is that nothing is permanent. “I always thought the sweeping was a little ridiculous,” Zinn said. “Let nature take its own course.” He pointed out a child running in circles around Philomena. “Life already does a great job teaching us about impermanence.” Allowing the monks to dictate the time and manner of destruction misses the point, he said. 

“In many cases, there’s no reason for me to be drawing in the first place. The work has no past. I’m not going to be able to save it, take it home, put it in a gallery or try to sell it. It has no future. All I’m left with is the present, which is strangely peaceful. Because most of those things – not just in art but with everything – are not good things. Worrying about the past is not a source of happiness. And worrying about the future usually isn’t productive. I have to be okay with the fact that this is only for right now. If I enjoyed drawing it, I’m done. I walk away.”

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Zinn created opportunities for people to play and make their own creations on the Promenade

Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl said, “In discussing David Zinn, the conversation became about the concept of temporality. What would be the most fleeting and temporary of experiences? Chalk is a delicate material, a dust that can be washed or wiped away. Zinn’s work is universally understood, has no boundaries of value or cost of admittance, is innocent and shares the power of imagination that is a perfect fit for Laguna Beach.”

Zinn’s Eeyore personality creates a Piglet world

Despite the cheerful subject matter of his creations, Zinn is a self-described Eeyore. He grew up a shy and introverted kid who used drawing to escape human interaction. While he once used art to avoid people, he now uses it to connect with them. Still, flying pigs and friendly squirrels seem at odds with a guy who perceives most glasses as half empty. 

When asked about it he said, “If I thought the world was a happy place, I wouldn’t mess with it. I’d consider it perfectly adequate the way it was. Usually, I draw on the street because I’m not having a great day. I draw what reality fails to provide. It makes sense that I draw ridiculously cute, cheerful things because when I look around, I see no shortage of sad, serious things. Even though there may be sad, serious things going on in my head, why would I want to make those real? It’s bad enough up here. That’s where the Eeyore part makes sense. I’m creating the imaginary friends I need to get through the day.” 

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If Rasta Taco guests looked carefully, they would spy Nadine with her playful pup on the patio beneath their feet

Childish discoveries in intellectual environments

If Zinn’s experience with Mickey Mouse proves anything, it’s that private discoveries make for powerful experiences.

“If you put something small on the street, nine out of 10 people won’t notice,” Zinn said. “That tenth person will have a much more surreal experience because they’re aware no one else is seeing it. They might think – even for a moment – this was put here for them. And they’re not wrong. If you’re willing to risk most people not picking up what you put out there, you increase the possibility that the person who picks it up is getting more out of it because it’s not curated in any way.”

Growing up and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan – home to the University of Michigan which prides itself on its prestigious research programs – the academic environment can feel a little serious and intimidating. Zinn regards his art as potentially influential.

“I have to defend my choice of profession in my own head, because I live in a town with major research laboratories and all manners of knowledge. In a college town, having a bachelor’s degree makes you essentially a high school dropout. It’s a community where everyone compares themselves, so it feels weird knowing there are people nearby trying to cure cancer while I’m playing with chalk. Now I’ll never know – and I have to be okay with never knowing – but it’s possible that I could draw one of my silly drawings on Main Street and some brilliant person who’s working really hard on solving a serious life problem will walk across that piece of sidewalk, see that drawing and, even if it’s something they hate, even if they’re annoyed, the emotional/chemical reaction in their brain might change how the rest of their day goes. And that could impact something significant.”

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Who knows how Philomena might influence an unsuspecting bystander grappling with a hard problem?

The nebulous relationship between artist and audience

The ephemeral aspect of Zinn’s art makes questions about his audience even more interesting. When he’s demonstrating his drawings for a crowd, he’s a performance artist. The event itself is art. But what about all those little pieces he places around town, left to be discovered – or maybe not? “Then it becomes a more nebulous concept, because the audience is whoever sees it when you’re not there,” Zinn said. In a gallery or museum, artists can be certain their work is seen by someone. For Zinn, whose work fades fast and is often obscure, there are no guarantees. Is it art if no one sees it? 

Zinn used to ask his musician friends, “If you play music alone in a soundproof room, have you made art?” And what about vocalists? They can never experience their own art because it sounds different from the inside, and recording devices can’t accurately capture the unmediated experience of live music. Does that mean the only way art exists is in the space between the artist and their audience? Or is it possible that it exists on its own? 

This philosophical conundrum caused Zinn to define art as that which leaves the artist changed after having produced it. “I consider the making of any kind of art – and I would include napkin doodles to oil paintings to singing opera – as an experience that leaves the artist different. Even if no one hears it or sees it, even if you draw a masterpiece and immediately set fire to it, you’re now a different person having done it. Since we’re all connected, you still have an audience because you’re reentering the world as a different version of yourself in the aftermath of making art. There will be ripple effects. It’s art because it created a change in the world.” 

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Even if no one ever spied this party-hat dragon outside the DeBilzan Gallery, the world changed a bit just because Zinn created him

Why Laguna makes a perfect artistic playground

In many ways, Laguna’s unique and quirky culture created the perfect atmosphere to experience Zinn’s art. In other ways, Zinn challenged our town’s traditional artistic conceptions. “As the Arts Commission curates the temporary public art experience, we are looking locally and nationally for programming that is yet to occur in our community or anywhere else,” said Poeschl. “We’re looking for experiences that are thought provoking, healing, bring humor, or allow us to see our city through an artist’s eyes.” 

Last week was the second time Zinn brought his work to Laguna. “As far as I know, Laguna Beach is the only place that has not only a solid public arts organization, but a specific temporary public arts organization. That’s an unusually enlightened way to look at public art. I’m very impressed by that. I like this passion for putting art in random places and not worrying about whether it’s in a place of honor. It’s consistent with my desire to have art in places where you don’t expect to see it, because that’s where it will hit you the hardest. Laguna does that very well.”

He’s right. The place feels like the ideal setting to encounter an earless Mickey. It’s full of subversive artists and eccentric characters who aim to keep our town on its toes. 

“My goal is to create a sense that weird things can happen in this world, and you could contribute some yourself,” Zinn said. “The alternative is demanding nice, clean streets where nothing interesting ever happens.” 

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A child looks on as Zinn brings Philomena the flying pig to life


Backstage with Robin Hood and Maid Marion

By MARRIE STONE

Behind every entertaining performance are the actors who bring their whole selves to their roles. Where they grew up, how they were trained, early experiences that shaped their identities and recent events that impact their daily lives are all present, however subtly, on stage. Endless invisible forces operate behind the scenes in every production, informing how the parts are played and enriching the audience experience. 

Stu News sat down with both Robin Hood and Maid Marion to learn more about the people behind the costumes. Their personal stories were as rich and rewarding as the performances they both delivered. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Michael J. Ryan and Sohm Kapila star as Robin Hood and Maid Marion in the holiday panto now playing at the Laguna Playhouse

Sohm Kapila plays the role of Maid Marion. The Indian-born actress was raised in Nottingham, England (home of Sherwood Forest). Trained in London with a BA (Hons) in Meisner Acting, Kapila has worked in film, television, theater productions, animation, voice overs, radio and gaming. Recent roles include Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, filming on season two of The Morning Show, guest starring roles on S.W.AT., 911, Grey’s Anatomy, and co-producing the film Ashes on the Highway.

Since moving to Los Angeles five years ago, she’s worked with Apple TV, Netflix, Universal, Paramount, NBC, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and CBS. This is her first appearance at the Laguna Playhouse.

These conversations have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Stu News: An amazing coincidence to have grown up in Nottingham and be cast as a lead in Robin Hood. Does it feel like a role you were made to play?

Sohm Kapila: Being from Nottingham and having this opportunity come about was pretty cool. I’d grown up learning about Robin Hood and going to Nottingham Castle. He’s everywhere in Nottingham. Maid Marion has always been a role I’ve wanted to play. I’m so glad it worked out.

SN: You’ve been performing since you were young. Are there stand-out acting moments from those early years that stick with you?

SK: This is a funny story. When I met Kris Lythgoe [the playwright and producer], we actually had some history. I’d met his dad, Nigel Lythgoe, 23 years ago when I auditioned for one of the first-ever singing TV competitions called Pop Idol in the U.K. 

I was 15 years old at the time. I got quite far in the competition, making it to the final rounds. But then, of course, they had to check everybody’s identification and make sure no one was below the age of 16. That’s when they found out I was under age. I got kicked out of the competition and Nigel was furious. I was a bit of a rebel back then. So, I’ve got history with the Lythgoe family from 23 years ago. But I’ve come full circle and I’m so pleased to be officially working with the Lythgoes and others. It felt like this role was meant to be. 

SN: Are there other things about Maid Marion that drew you to her?

SK: The way Maid Marion has been written is different from previous Robin Hood scripts I’ve seen. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was excited to bring my energy to her character. 

SN: Many American audiences might not be familiar with the panto style. It’s a distinctly British artform that includes songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters and lots of audience participation. Can you talk about the panto experience and its advantages?

SK: Panto really comes together when the audience arrives, because the audience is another character in panto. When you do shows day after day, you realize the audience makes each show different. Depending on the jokes they pick up on, or the ad-libbing that happens, it can be quite funny how the audience becomes their own character. They are the missing ingredient. Without the audience, we have no show. We need them to be involved. 

Panto is the only time kids can scream and shout as loud as they want without being told off. That involvement is key to making panto work. They need to “boo” the sheriff, egg on Robin Hood in a fight, or tell Maid Marion what to do when she’s faced with a dilemma. The kids really get involved. And it’s also ageless. You can have people from ages 2 to 100 sit in a panto audience and be entertained. This is why it’s such a popular tradition in England.

SN: Having been away from live theater for a few years during COVID, it must feel especially wonderful to allow that audience interaction.

SK: Absolutely. It’s been great to get back into work and feel that energy again.

The other thing that’s great about this show is that audience members hopefully can see themselves represented on stage. We’ve got such an inclusive cast of all shapes and sizes, of all ethnicities. From England to America to Cuba to Korea. Our company and creatives are very diverse. 

SN: I assume that was an intentional choice by the casting director to ensure such diversity among the cast. It’s wonderful. 

SK: It’s important – especially in this day and age – to have that diversity. I’m Indian. In the past, I wouldn’t have been offered a role like Maid Marion. It’s great that I’ve been offered a role that has nothing to do with me being Indian. 

One of the reasons I moved to America to pursue my acting career was because I was getting a little bit tired of being stereotyped. A lot of the roles I was playing in England were about being an Indian girl either in an abusive relationship, or in a marriage she doesn’t want to be in. When I came to America, I found there were more opportunities here for someone like me to play other characters and not just the “poor Indian girl” or “we need an Indian girl to do this.”

Being able to play Maid Marion shows how the entertainment world is evolving and becoming more inclusive. Thank goodness for casting directors and companies that care about that.

SN: Are there ways in which your ethnicity might even enrich the role?

SK: I wouldn’t say so, no. To be honest, it hasn’t changed anything I would do or say. What I do bring is my Nottingham-ness. My East Midlands roots. The fact that I was raised in Nottingham, and the fact that I have an English accent, means I’m able to bring my English personality to the role. The cast has been picking up on phrases we use in Nottingham and things we say. Some of that is entwined into the script.

SN: What are the biggest challenges of the role?

SK: When I was first offered the role of Maid Marion last summer, I actually turned it down. I was 30 weeks pregnant with twins [who were born September 19th by C-section]. I wasn’t sure I could do it. 

The challenge for me personally has been being a new mom. Coming back to work can be quite daunting. The Lythgoe company has been so supportive and understanding of my needs as a new mom. It shocked the cast when they found out I’ve got 10-week twins at home. They couldn’t believe it. But they also found it really inspiring. 

I’ve had people message me on Instagram saying, ‘You’re giving us hope that you can still do it all.’ 

Another thing that shocked everyone is that every time we have a 10-minute break, I’m in my dressing room pumping milk. There’s no stopping. It’s go, go, go. That’s definitely been a challenge for me, but I knew it would be. I’m lucky that everybody in the cast is so supportive.

SN: This must be particularly challenging because a panto requires such dynamic participation. Singing, dancing and a lot of energy. 

SK: C-sections require roughly six to eight weeks of recovery. I started rehearsing the show eight weeks after giving birth, so it has been challenging. Of course, we’ve had to work within the boundaries of what I can do. Thankfully I don’t have to do any backflips. I’m leaving those up to the pros. It’s not been too bad.

But, yes, it takes a lot of energy and I’m not getting much sleep. You have to be 100% because kids know if you’re not 100%. They’re the first ones to tell you when something’s not right on stage. Just tackling that has been key. But I’m quite an energetic person, so I’ve been able to handle it quite well.

SN: Working with a female director must be inspirational.

SK: Bonnie Lythgoe is so refreshing. I wish there were more women in those roles. We need more women working as directors, producers, stage managers, crew. That side of entertainment is still heavily male. 

That’s the parallel [between the production crew and the show]. This show is about a female taking charge, as opposed to the male taking charge. It shows equality between the genders. So, it’s refreshing to work with a female director, stage manager, assistant stage manager. The women backstage have been refreshing. There should be more women behind the camera and behind the scenes.

SN: The synergy between cast and crew sounds fun.

SK: Andrew Lynford, who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, is a spoonful of sugar every single day. He keeps us on our toes. You never know what you’re going to get with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I loved learning the choreography by Mason Trueblood. The dancers are so amazing. It’s been fun to get back on my feet and relearn dancing after two years off. 

What’s been great about this cast is that we have each other’s backs. It’s more like a family. I mean that. There’s no ego in our show. That’s been great.

SN: Are there other roles you’ve played in the past that help you in this role?

SK: I played this character in NCIS with LL Cool J. I used a lot of weapons in that role. That definitely helps with the Maid Marion role.

SN: It’s good for the little girls in the audience to see strong women on stage, and good for women in the entertainment industry to see you tackling this role as a new mother. It’s a wonderful message all around.

SK: It’s been inspiring for some of my fellow acting buddies back home. Some women are afraid to start families because they think it will take them out of the business. But I’ve found I’ve been offered more roles whilst I was pregnant – and following on – than I’ve ever had in my life. You’d think it would be a time that I wouldn’t. But that’s how the world is changing in good ways, especially for women.

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Michael J. Ryan, Daniel Kim and Sohm Kapila star with the company of the Laguna Playhouse and Bonnie Lythgoe Productions’ world premiere of “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto”

British actor Michael James Ryan is also making his Laguna Playhouse debut. Ryan left England to pursue an acting education at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 2016. Past stage credits include Carnoli in Blood Rock (Odyssey Theatre), Rapunzel’s Prince in Into the Woods (Cupcake Theatre) and Garry in Noises Off (Academy Theatre). 

Stu News: It’s wonderful to have a British actor in the role of Robin Hood. Did the part feel tailor-made to your background?

Michael J. Ryan: Being from England, and obviously Robin Hood is set in England, I’m really grateful. But I’m proud to be working with such a diverse cast. There’s clearly been a shift as people realize audiences are more than happy to see diversity on stage. It’s more interesting. It brings more voices to the table. There are more perspectives, and that’s better for everyone. It seems silly that it’s taken this long for people to really start taking a good look at this issue.

SN: It’s nice to see these older productions shaken up. 

MR: Right. Especially when you’re putting on a period piece, there’s a temptation to cast everyone as white actors. We don’t have to do that. It’s much better to have a diverse cast. It makes everything more interesting.

SN: Was acting always part of your life growing up?

MR: I grew up not in the theater, but performing music. I was always a musician. Trombone is my main instrument, but I also dabble in a bit of the piano, the guitar and some singing. So, I grew up with the musical aspect of performance, the theater of music. It felt like a natural progression into musical theater and, eventually, into conventional theater and film acting as well. 

SN: Any standout roles from your past that you’d like to share?

MR: I recently did Into the Woods at the Cupcake Theatre. That was great fun. I met a lot of really good friends. I also met my fiancé. I was playing Rapunzel’s Prince and she was playing Cinderella. I like to say that we crossed storylines.

SN: It’s amazing how these old narratives remain so culturally relevant. Putting a modern-day twist on it makes this production feel very contemporary.

MR: Robin Hood has always contained that element of the wealth inequality in the narrative. It’s not a dissimilar situation in the world today. But in terms of the feminist narrative – I’m not going to give anything away – but the way the story is presented definitely gives Maid Marion’s character more agency than is typical in a traditional telling of the story.

SN: What are the biggest challenges for you in this role?

MR: More than anything, the biggest challenge of this production has been coming off such a long hiatus and straight into a condensed rehearsal schedule and very long and intense days during the rehearsal period. It’s been nice getting back into the theater and flexing those old muscles again. I felt a bit rusty at the start, so it’s been fun and gratifying to get back into it.

SN: The synergy between this cast and crew sounds incredible.

MR: That’s the amazing thing about this cast. Sometimes in the musical theater, a schism can develop between the actors and the dancers and the backstage crew. People get into cliques. The dancers hang out. The actors hang out and vice versa. But with this cast, it’s so much fun because everyone is so friendly. We work so well together. There’s no break between anyone. It really does feel like we’re a big family.

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

British actor Michael James Ryan plays the role of Robin Hood

SN: It probably helps that the play is so funny.

MR: Honestly, the other challenge for me is to not laugh because everyone around me is so funny. Robin Hood plays the straight man, the hero. He’s a strong character archetype. Meanwhile, everyone around me are such funny characters. It’s hard to keep a straight face when the Merry Men are being silly and the sheriff is doing one of his improvised bits. 

SN: Did you know the sheriff before taking on this role?

MR: I’d worked with Andrew Lynford as a casting director. In fact, he referred me to Kris Lythgoe for this role.

SN: What would audiences be surprised to learn about you?

MR: My favorite animals are bats. They’re the world’s most misunderstood mammal. They are incredibly vital for the ecosystems, for a lot of foods humans eat, for pest control, for a number of things. 

There’s so much vitriol against them, especially now. They’ve been accused (not necessarily wrongly, but almost certainly wrongly) for causing the pandemic. They don’t get enough credit. 

SN: Now you just need to find ways to marry your two enthusiasms.

MR: I had a thought, which sounds a bit silly, but there’s never been any Disney/Pixar animation film about bats. So, I wrote one. I’m now in the process of working with an artist to get some character designs drawn up because bats have so much character. Every species is so diverse. Some look like dogs or foxes or hamsters. There’s nothing else like them in the world. They need some good press. Maybe a movie like How to Train Your Dragon or Lion King, but featuring bats, could be a good thing.

SN: That’s one of the better quarantine projects I’ve heard. Good luck with that script and with the role of Robin Hood. 

Backstage with 4

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Jared Machado and Michael J. Ryan star in “Robin Hood & Maid Marion, A Holiday Panto” now playing at the Laguna Playhouse

Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto will show at the Laguna Playhouse through December 29. For more information on showtimes and ticket sales, visit their website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com.


Lagunatics Remaskered: No Square Theatre’s cast and crew share what it took to stage this year’s production

By MARRIE STONE

Have you ever noticed those unmanned Laguna Beach Police cars stationed at strategic curbs and corners around town? Does your foot instinctively hit the brake before realizing they’re often empty? Our local cops hatched a cost-effective way to deter speeding on city roads. And those are exactly the kinds of details that don’t go unnoticed by No Square Theatre’s writers. 

“Police, Maybe Not” (sung to the tune of “Feliz Navidad”) is just one of more than 20 numbers staged in this year’s Lagunatics Remaskered, premiering live this weekend on No Square Theatre’s intimate stage. “We’ve been toying around with that one for a couple of years,” said Paul Nygro, who’s wearing several hats in this year’s production. “They park their police cars there, hope people see them and it works.”

In addition to Nygro’s usual roles as writer, director, choreographer and actor, he’s also functioning as cinematographer and film editor this year. For the first time, Lagunatics is both staging and filming their annual production, acknowledging the strange hybrid times we find ourselves living through. Nygro choreographed two versions of “Police, Maybe Not.” One for stage and another on location in Laguna’s streets. “The Police Department let us use one of their vehicles, so we filmed around it. They thought it was hysterical.”

Lagunatics has been a town tradition for 29 years. Bree Burgess Rosen, who founded No Square Theatre as its artistic director in 1994, co-directs, writes and acts in the show. The annual production parodies local politics and city quirks. How many towns possess a controversial pepper tree? What’s with all those butterflies down at Heisler Park? No topic is off limits, from drag queens to pickleball to the impossibility of parking downtown. While Lagunatics will deliver the same hilarious songs and over-the-top costuming, the cast and crew are all working double-duty as they both prepare for a play and film the entire production for screen. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Emma Hutchinson performs “Somewhere,” a parody on the impossible parking situation downtown (from “West Side Story”)

Several members from the cast and crew shared what it took to make this year’s production happen, the unique challenges they faced given the events of this past year, and why – despite it all – they can’t wait to welcome you back.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Marc Marger leads the Lagunatics cast in “Vaccinated Actors” (from George Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good”)

Adapting to changing circumstances

Since the pandemic hit us nearly two years ago, things seem like they either change without warning or never change at all. Both modes present unique challenges when trying to stage a parody about daily life in Laguna Beach. 

“It feels like Groundhog Day,” said Musical Director Roxanna Ward. “We’re still dealing with the same issues as last year. The show needs to change and yet some things are eerily similar.” 

This year’s writers traded toilet paper for test swabs and booster shots, but the masks remained. Hence the name, “Remaskered,” a term cleverly coined by Nygro. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Eric T. Anderson plays the indestructible pepper tree in front of City Hall. “I Am Alive” (sung to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”) pokes fun at the town tree that keeps coming back.

For all those frustrating Groundhog Day moments, other concerns kept shifting beneath their feet. While it appeared safe to open this summer, the pandemic tide soon turned and No Square Theatre closed again, rescheduling a few Cry Baby shows and canceling their planned production of Charlie Brown

Other changes were minor, but disruptive nonetheless. “I wrote a number from Wicked called ‘Netflix and Wine,’” said Nygro. The song is an homage to how we endured the pandemic by watching Netflix and drinking wine. “I listed a bunch of shows on Netflix, but as time moved on, the shows weren’t as popular. I kept having to change the references to keep up, and the cast had to keep memorizing different show titles along the way.” 

Then the container ships arrived offshore and Hotel Laguna finally opened its restaurant doors. Certain things around town can’t be ignored. “We changed some lines and added a song at the last minute,” said writer and actor Ella Wyatt. “Sometimes things come up and we have to make tweaks.” 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

(L-R) Backstage with Kristen Matson, Yvonne Browning and Ella Wyatt

On location, location, location

Every cast and crew member we spoke to cited the dual production of Lagunatics (on both stage and film) as the greatest challenge of the year. Even costume designer Brigitte Harper, whose creations didn’t change from stage to screen, had to navigate the uncertainties of setting her costumes loose on Laguna’s streets. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Even a phone booth isn’t off limits for actress Kelly Goldstein, who appears in “Vaccinated Actors” (from “Lady Be Good”)

“I didn’t have the chance to make adjustments to the costumes,” said Harper. “To see what worked, and to have access to the actors, to make alterations and clean the fabric. It’s much harder to do this in a filming situation than on stage.”

It wasn’t easy on the actors, either. “Once we filmed one thing, I would still be thinking about it while I was supposed to be memorizing something else for the next thing,” said Wyatt. “I spent my days re-memorizing everything. I learned to let the last thing go so I could focus on the next thing.”

Nonetheless, despite doubling the work and stressing out the crew, using Laguna’s actual locations as the backdrop for the songs proved hilariously worthwhile. Three senior gals got their boosters at Bushard’s Pharmacy. The pickleball players shot their scene on a real court. A group of drag queens shopped in Laguna’s boutiques. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

(L-R) Ella Wyatt, Bree Burgess Rosen and Kristen Matson appear in “Boosters” (from “White Christmas”)

“We took all our guys, dressed up as girls, and went to Tight Assets, Twig, Slice and several other locations filming both outside and inside these venues,” said Nygro. “The reactions were great. So many people stopped and took pictures. The shop owners were more than happy to let us film inside. We were free advertising for them.” 

All about the headdress

Ask any cast member what stands out about this year’s production and you’ll soon hear about the costumes – specifically the headdresses. Harper, who’s worked with No Square Theatre as their costume designer since 2015, outdid herself once again.

“Infrastructure” (done to the tune of “Big Spender” from the 1966 Broadway musical Sweet Charity) pokes fun at our national infrastructure bill. Harper designed and built bridges, roads, wind turbines and electrical powerplants, all as headpieces to be worn while dancing. There’s also an electric car, a train and a ship.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Costumer designer Brigitte Harper created cars, roads, trains, boats, wind turbines, powerplants and other infrastructure symbols on headdresses 

“Bree asked if I’d seen Beach Blanket Babylon [a musical that relies on hilarious and elaborate headwear],” recalled Harper. “I hadn’t. But I researched it, dug up photos and figured out the most cost-efficient way to produce these headdresses. We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have money to spend on expensive costuming.” 

Using Styrofoam, barbecue skewers, thread, EVA foam, fabric and whatever else Harper could conjure that was lightweight and durable, she created some of the most elaborate and hilarious headpieces yet. “Ella Wyatt, who wears the wind turbines, probably has the most difficult one,” said Harper. “It’s not just one turbine, but three. It’s a little more challenging for her than for the others.”

Nygro choreographed the dances to accommodate the bulky headwear. “The headdresses were designed brilliantly,” he said. “But you’re always going to run into some sort of problems when you have sizable headdresses on someone’s head. We had to make sure they could keep them on, not get injured and still do the choreography. I tried to make sure to use all hand choreography and not too much with their heads.” 

Both Nygro and Burgess Rosen said it took forever to videotape the song “Negative,” which debuts in the second act, because everyone was laughing so hard. “The song is about a woman who’s scared of getting the big, long swab shoved up her nose,” said Nygro. “We developed this number around three girls who play the swabs. They have these huge cotton swabs on their heads. We couldn’t contain ourselves. We could barely get through it without cracking each other up.” 

“I haven’t laughed that hard in years,” said Burgess Rosen. “I was crying-laughing. This was our first time wearing the hats which, at that point, hurt like hell (they don’t now, because Brigitte Harper is the best). We got the giggles and it just wouldn’t stop.”

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Photo by Ella Wyatt

Kristen Matson plays a COVID test swab in the song “Negative” (from “Legally Blonde”)

Thankful for a good laugh

If there’s one thing this town could use these days, it’s a good laugh. “What we really need,” said Ward, “is a show about kindness. More Mr. Rogers is what our town needs.” 

Navigating negativity seems one of our collective challenges. Ward’s solo – “People” from the 1964 Broadway musical Funny Girl – was inspired by an encounter at a four-way stop sign in town. “I remember the days when people were polite, letting everyone go ahead, smiling and waving,” she said. “There’s none of that now. People are acting ridiculous. I went into rehearsal that day and said, ‘Okay, I have my act.’”

The tone and tenor of the town has changed, Ward observed. It’s no longer quite as friendly and carefree as it felt pre-pandemic. “We’re trying to act like we’re all okay, going out to dinner and taking our masks off. But then we find out Uncle Bill over here has been infected. There’s just an edge that I don’t remember experiencing in my life so far.” 

The cast and crew agreed the town needs Lagunatics and their silly, over-the-top antics perhaps this year more than ever before. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Musical Director Roxanne Ward performs her solo song “People” from “Funny Girl” 

“We’re so looking forward to our live shows this year,” said Nygro. “Connecting with the audience and seeing their faces, feeling their energy and feeling their presence. That’s going to make it fantastic and hopefully make all our hard work worthwhile.”

The bad news for those who didn’t purchase their tickets early, all three live shows sold out weeks ago. Even Wyatt’s own mother didn’t get a seat. “We always tell everybody, every year, we sell out,” said Wyatt. “And every year my mom asks me to get her a seat. I have to say, ‘I told you. You’re too late!’” 

The good news, of course, is the production was filmed for screen. For two nights only, December 26 and January 1, 2022 Lagunatics Remaskered will be available on the No Square Theatre website. Is a filmed version planned for future years? The response was emphatic from cast and crew: Never again!

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Courtesy of No Square Theatre

Director Paul Nygro poses with the Booster ladies and Dr. Fauci

For more information on No Square Theatre, Lagunatics Remaskered and future productions, visit their website at https://www.nosquare.org/.


A tribute to Wayne Thiebaud: The Laguna Art Museum celebrates the life of one of its treasured artists

By MARRIE STONE

Art is not delivered like the morning paper; it has to be stolen from Mount Olympus. – Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021)

If artists are lucky, their work gains notoriety within their lifetimes. Other artists attract recognition after they’ve passed on. For Wayne Thiebaud, who died last month at the age of 101, his followers may well come from both camps. Especially if the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) has something to say about it. For an artist whose career spanned eight decades and cut across many mediums in the art world – including drawing, painting, animation, printmaking and more – there are countless ways to appreciate his contributions. Thiebaud’s playful subject matter was only outmatched by the seriousness with which he approached his craft. 

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Courtesy of LAM

Artist and educator Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021)

“Our Friend Wayne Thiebaud,” an exhibition of Thiebaud’s work in LAM’s permanent collection, will be on display at the Museum through May 1. It includes over a dozen donated pieces, including several rough pencil sketches that give audiences access to Thiebaud’s artistic process. It also contains woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs and etchings that showcase the broad range of Thiebaud’s printmaking techniques. Whether you’re already familiar with Thiebaud’s work or encountering his art for the first time, this exhibition likely holds something for everyone. It’s both a tribute and a gentle introduction to the might and mind of an artist at work longer than most people’s entire lifespans. 

Happy childhoods beget happy art

Born on November 15, 1920 in Mesa, Arizona, Thiebaud spent the bulk of his life in California. The family moved to Long Beach when he was only 6 months old. His Mormon childhood was a happy time, influenced by memories of traveling circuses and summers spent on his uncle’s Utah ranch. The exhibition conveys that sense of joy and playfulness that permeated Thiebaud’s long career.

Though born into a tumultuous time in American history, Thiebaud described his childhood as essentially ideal. “I was a spoiled child. I had a great life, so about the only thing I can do is to paint happy pictures,” he once said. What some might characterize as misfortune (breaking his back playing high school football), Thiebaud viewed as opportunity (it gave him more time to draw). 

He first found his artistic voice as a cartoonist, spending a high school summer working for Walt Disney Studios where he drew “in-betweens” (a process in animation that involves generating hundreds of intermediate frames to produce a sense of movement) of Goofy, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket.

“If we don’t have a sense of humor, we lack a sense of perspective,” Thiebaud once remarked. He was able to retain that youthful sense of humor, and subsequent nostalgia for those childhood memories, throughout his 80-year career. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Jolly Cones,” oil on panel, 2002 

A lifelong educator

In addition to his many artistic talents and work across genres, he was, at his core, a teacher. Thiebaud began teaching at Cal State Sacramento, where he obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the early 1950s. He became an assistant professor at UC Davis in 1960, where he remained until 1991. Even after his retirement at age 70, he continued imparting his wisdom on young artists, retaining his Professor Emeritus title until his death.

“I hope one of the takeaways when people see this exhibition is what can be learned from his sketches and drawings,” said Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of LAM. “Wayne was a teacher. When people look at this work, I hope they see his teaching through these drawings. He was always working out his thoughts, as artists do. The sketches are raw and direct. That’s what he imparted to so many people – his process. It feels very personal.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

An untitled sketch shows Thiebaud’s artistic process while creating a cover for “The New Yorker” magazine in 2002

At the opening of Thiebaud’s exhibition sits a book that invites viewers to leave their impressions and remembrances. To prove Lee’s point, one unsigned entry reads: “Since I was a kid, I could always spend tons of time staring at his cakes, pies, cityscapes, trying my hardest to track his moves, his brushstrokes, his color choices. I heard an interview with him a few years ago on the Modern Art Notes podcast and hearing him talk about his work rushed me back to my years before art school when his paintings were the magic that got me excited about painting in the first place.”

“Every paint-stroke takes you farther and farther away from your initial concept,” Thiebaud once said. “And you have to be thankful for that.” The half-dozen sketches on display demonstrate this point. With each pencil stroke, the viewer can watch Thiebaud’s mind at work.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Graphite and ink sketch showing the stages of Thiebaud’s process

Michael Tompkins, a former student and assistant to Thiebaud in the 1980s, said of his teaching style, “He preferred teaching undergraduates and ‘raw beginners’…He wanted people who were wide open, without any irony. He told us his work was about scrambling around with the basic issues, like a baseball player who still goes to spring training each year to brush up on the basics.” Thiebaud believed that in teaching, “you have to constantly rethink things.”

Pop artist? Maybe not…

Despite his association with the 1950s pop art movement, Thiebaud rejected the label. He didn’t want to be lumped in with Andy Warhol, whose work he regarded as “flat” and “mechanical.”

One reviewer at the time interpreted Thiebaud’s colorful desserts, gumball machines and childhood toys as a commentary on the vacuousness of American culture. Editor and critic Thomas Hess admired Thiebaud’s work for offering a scathing critique on American consumerism. Thiebaud rejected that interpretation as well. In contrast to Warhol’s cynicism, Thiebaud’s joy was genuine. 

When asked why he painted gumball machines, Thiebaud relayed a conversation he once had with Barnett Newman, who pointed out: “The gumball machine is the most surreal object in the world. It promises things inside. It’s like gift-wrapped elegance. All it supplies is something to chew on but look at it with its brightest kind of colors plus the fact that you put in the dirtiest, grimiest kind of copper money and out comes a beautiful magenta or yellow ball full of sweet promise.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Toy Counter,” serigraph proof, 1970

An extraordinary career in print

Fans of Thiebaud’s paintings and drawings may be interested in exploring his versatile talents as a printmaker. The exhibition includes roughly half a dozen examples of his woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs and etchings.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Candy Counter,” linocut, artist proof, 1970

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“River Turns,” etching and aquatint, hard worked with charcoal and white chalk, 2012

A strong supporter of LAM

Thiebaud was a longtime friend and ally of the Laguna Art Museum. He staged three exhibitions at the LAM over the years: 70 Years of Painting (2007), American Memories (2004) and Clowns (2021). He even funded the wood floors in the museum’s galleries. In 2013, LAM presented Thiebaud with the Wendt Award for his outstanding contributions to the study and public awareness of California art. 

I had the opportunity to write about Thiebaud’s Clowns last September. (To access the article, click here.) What struck me then was the sense of melancholy that slipped into Thiebaud’s work in his later years. Clowns came late in the artist’s life, after the death of his son Paul (2010) and his wife, Betty Jean (2015). The pieces contained Thiebaud’s classic playfulness and cheer, but also a ribbon of sadness and a recognition of his own mortality. He must have known that, in all likelihood, he was painting his final act. 

“This retrospective exhibition reminds us that the museum is an important hub,” said Lee. “Over the years, people came to see three full exhibitions, attended programming and had the opportunity to meet him, learn from him and experience that direct connection to his work. Many of those people are students of Wayne’s. They’ve increased their own art practicing success because of the things they learned from him over time. It’s a huge loss felt deeply by so many people in town. We’re honored the museum can pay tribute to that legacy.”

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“Our Friend Wayne Thiebaud” exhibition will be on display through May 1

“I think art is probably our saving grace,” Thiebaud wrote last year. “It can almost ignore our animal premise and spirits. It’s worth investing in as many deeply involved people as we can muster because I think that’s where our hopes lie: in giving us a life of pleasure, challenge, comfort, joyousness – all of the things that make us human and able to relate kindly to each other.” 

The day after Thiebaud’s Christmas Day death his daughter, Twinka Thiebaud, made the following statement on Facebook: “Master painter, art professor, tennis player, joke teller extraordinaire, beloved husband, father, uncle and friend, Wayne Thiebaud has packed up his brushes in search of new scenery to paint, new canvasses to conquer. He will always be our favorite Father Christmas. Rest in sweet peace, Papa. One hundred one extraordinary years on planet earth!”

For more information on the exhibition and Wayne Thiebaud’s contributions to the Laguna Art Museum, visit their website at www.lagunaartmuseum.org.


Uncovering the mysteries behind the museum: A conversation with Executive Director Julie Perlin Lee

By MARRIE STONE

Museums have always intrigued me. Maybe it comes from watching too many movies like Night at the Museum or The Da Vinci Code. Living statues and stolen art aside, I’m interested in how exhibitions get chosen. What goes into putting them on? Who funds them? And how have the museum’s goals adapted to fit our evolving culture? 

Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum (LAM), eagerly agreed to answer my questions. “The number one thing I’d love to do is take the mystery out of the museum,” Lee said. “We are not mysterious.” We talked for nearly an hour and, by the end, I’d gained an even deeper appreciation for this artistic gem in our midst. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum, poses in the storage facility for the museum’s permanent collection

Stu News: First off, am I alone in wondering how museums operate?

Julie Perlin Lee: You’re not alone. We recently had a group of MFA students come over from LCAD asking similar questions. They wanted to meet with staff and understand what goes on in the museum. If you’re someone who plans to spend a life in the arts, you want to know how the museum works. 

I was so grateful for their questions. I put out an invitation to my entire team and almost everyone who could said they’d love to participate. I wanted to impart to them that we are not mysterious. Many of us, including me, have an MFA. We’re here as a creative team, working together, and we’re all accessible and open to questions.

Each of us here is committed to the arts, not just professionally but in our personal lives. We don’t just clock into work. We try to be part of the art world ourselves by spending a lot of time going to art shows, other museums and being part of national organizations like the American Alliance of Museums. We hold ourselves to the broader museum community while also focusing on Laguna Beach. We’re a youthful, energetic and participatory group of arts people who truly care about the museum.

SN: You took the helm as executive director last April. Has the mission of the museum changed under your leadership?

JPL: The mission statement has not changed. And it doesn’t need to change at its core, but it’s time to refine it a bit. There’s different messaging out there about the museum. Some say we’re the premier museum of California art. Others say our mission is to become financially successful. They all say slightly different things, and they’re all true to some degree. But a mission statement should be focused and consistent all the way through. 

We’ll be working with the board at the end of the month to define who we serve and why, and what we do that separates us from the rest. 

In the coming months we’ll put out a more finite, consistent message about who we are, what we do and who we serve. For me, that’s part of a bigger strategy to move the museum on a path to ensure we’re following the same standards of excellence as the rest of the museum world.

SN: As executive director, do you oversee curation?

JPL: When LAM was under Malcolm Warner’s leadership, he was doing a lot of the curating. I absolutely understand why. That’s my background too. It’s one of the best parts about working in a museum – meeting people, deciding what stories should rise to the top, who hasn’t been appreciated with a museum exhibition yet, what our collection holds that would help us tell a story. We have all these works in our collection. What are we doing with them? He was leading in that way. At the moment so am I, but it’s not my desire to do that even though it’s so much fun. 

I want to bring on a curator or two in the future. I’m using this first year to understand the rhythm of the organization. But, at some point, we will bring in a curator whose sole job is to help select and create the exhibitions.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee with artist Rebeca Méndez working on the 2022 Art & Nature exhibition

SN: Talk about how the exhibitions are selected.

JPL: We look for artists who’ve had exemplary careers and haven’t had the opportunity to have someone seriously look at their work. Perhaps they’ve been in a lot of group shows, but they’ve never had the chance to have a singular exhibition. We’re looking at artists who’ve had full careers in and around the area. We look for local Orange County artists. There are so many who have contributed enormously to the arts and have not had a chance to show in the museum. I’m also looking at shows that are going to bring in people from different regions to come to the museum. 

For example, we’re looking at a foundation that has a tremendous archive of contemporary artworks. For the most part, these artists are all household names. A show like that includes a lot of large-scale work, which is wonderful because we have a large-scale gallery. We’re speaking with them about bringing that to fruition.

SN: What does it take to put on an exhibition.

JPL: Putting a show together takes a lot of work. Sponsorship has to happen. Hopefully catalogs are happening. Scholarships are being written, loans have to be found and conservation needs to happen to make sure the works are looking their best before they go on the wall. Not to mention all the party planning and everything else that happens closer to the show’s opening.

SN: What are your immediate goals for LAM?

JPL: We really want to see 100,000 people being served annually by the organization – either through the door, with our virtual programs, with our outdoor Art & Nature exhibits, or in our Laguna Beach classrooms. However we can do it, that’s our goal. We think it’s a reasonable goal for a museum of our age, with the artworks we’ve collected and with our capacity. Not to mention our beautiful location. 

We’re focused on who we want to see and who we’re not seeing at the museum. The preschool program is a perfect example. We don’t see many small children in here. Being exposed to the arts is important at that age level. There’s plenty of research behind that. So we started a preschool art storybook program and art making time that’s about to launch. We also want to see more artists at the museum, so we’re kicking off an artist lecture series focused on themes and artmaking with artists. Hopefully that builds a stronger community.

We’ve recently put more effort into social media and weekly newsletters to make people realize there’s a lot happening at the museum all the time. 

SN: Has the museum returned to some sense of normalcy since its pandemic closure?

JPL: It’s very difficult for me to know what’s normal because, of course, I started in a year where we’d only been open one month after a year of closures. I’ve been at the museum plenty of times in the past as a visitor. But it’s hard for me to judge normality. We’re still operating in a reactionary mode from the pandemic.

There’s still a lot for me to learn. There are still a lot of people who aren’t comfortable coming yet. But we have to keep trying. We’re increasing our virtual programming quite a bit. 

SN: How much do you draw from the Los Angeles art community?

JPL: We’re doing a show next fall on photographer William Mortensen. He was a familiar face at the Festival of Arts during the end of his career and had his school of photography here in Laguna Beach. But he had an extraordinary background and close relationship to Hollywood during his early years. We’ve been working with different scholars, so we’re hoping to get not just our local community excited about celebrating one of our own, but the Los Angeles audience and photographers everywhere. Again, we’re focused on what assets we have and who we can talk to. We look internally at our collection to decide who’s of greater interest to a wide group of people. We try to get those people interested in the museum. It’s a lot of connecting with people from every arts community. 

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Courtesy of LAM

LAM leads art access trips to Los Angeles galleries like Hauser & Wirth to extend the reach of the art education programming

SN: You’ve got such a rich permanent collection – something like 5,000 pieces of art. I know you show pieces of it periodically. Are there plans to exploit it further?

JPL: I believe we always need to be showing work from our permanent collection and let people get exposed to it. In terms of California art history, we’ve collected work since before the state even became a state. We’re holding almost every genre you can imagine. We tell the California story through art.

It’s important to continue cycling through the collection and let people become more familiar with it. It’s a collection built on the generosity of others, either works donated by artists or collectors. The whole museum is built on the generosity of others, which is why it’s important for us to give back and serve. We are grateful for all the people who have come before us. We’re looking forward to meeting more of the community and letting them share in that generosity.

SN: Can you introduce us to some members of your team?

JPL: It would be an honor to recognize them because these people work so hard. Tim Schwab has been here for two decades. He’s our institutional memory. He has a direct hand on the look and feel of the design and installation of the organization. He’s also stepped up his role in ensuring our social media and other communication is looking good. 

Tim Campbell is our registrar. Getting art in and out of this building is not easy. Every schedule in the whole world is upset by supply chain issues. We rely on art shippers and other people in the workforce who we can’t control. It’s been challenging. Tim Campbell has done an extraordinary job with that during a very difficult time. 

Victoria Gerard is our new deputy director. Her emphasis is on our education department. She ensures our docents stay well informed and have the tools they need. She’s working on virtual programming as she has a lot of specialized experience in that area, and also the young children’s educational program. I’m so grateful for her. Plus, she’s out in the community trying to get involved with other organizations and be a face for the museum.

There are plenty of people behind the scenes who you rarely see. Lucila Ucio is our director of operations. She makes sure all the nuts and bolts stay together, that our amazing frontline staff is organized, that our store is stocked, that everyone is getting paid and we don’t miss any bills, that our insurance is up to date, all of those things. She’s incredible and works so hard. Everybody works so hard. I can’t name all of them, but I would love to name them all. 

Together we are a staff of around 28 people (including part-time positions). Our core group is 11. We’re about one person deep in each department. For example Tim, who’s responsible for getting the art in and out of the museum, also oversees our entire permanent art collection of 5,000 pieces. At another museum, that department would usually be overseen by at least two directors with people underneath them. Everyone wears a lot of hats here. It won’t always be this way, but it’s what we have to do at the moment. 

SN: You’ve worked at a few other museums. Can you talk about what drew you to LAM?

JPL: The museum has an outstanding collection of California art. I haven’t even scratched the surface to know the depth of our collection and the ways we can put it to good use. There will be infinite ways. 

And because I’m a history lover, I love that this museum has such a great history and legacy. The whole State of California needs to know the legacy of this museum and our contributions to the art world. It’s not a museum that popped up recently. It’s artist-founded and has been making an impact for over 100 years. That’s extraordinary to me. I love being part of that.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee poses with Stephanie Barron, LACMA senior curator department head of modern art, who was LAM’s 2021 Wendt Award recipient

SN: Any hidden gems in the museum that people should know about?

JPL: One thing I was excited to find out recently. We probably have about 30 artists with 12 or more artworks in our collection. That’s a significant holding. Wayne Thiebaud is a perfect example. Armed with that information, we can look at art from all one time period, or we can show work across a single person’s career.  We can investigate why we have so much work from one artist and ask, “What’s the story here?” 

Also, I’m still just getting to understand the building, so I feel like there are surprises every day here. There are more little closets and crawl spaces in this museum. But don’t go looking for them because we might not find you again. 

SN: How much of your decision making is influenced by the donors? 

JPL: So much of what we do relies on fundraising. Every decision is weighed carefully against the people supporting the museum and their experience of the museum. They have to love what we do. When I make a decision, it’s not just that I think it’s a great idea. It’s like having hundreds of stakeholders. I need to be mindful of how we’re putting their donations to use.

SN: To that point, I’m curious how the museum is funded. What percentage comes from membership fees versus donors versus fundraisers? 

JPL: I don’t have a breakdown by category, but there are generally two types of revenue – earned and contributed. About 75% comes from contributed revenue. You can’t just flip that on overnight. I’ve been working hard on that aspect. 

In terms of creating earned revenue streams, we’re very focused on that because it alleviates the pressure on contributions. 

Then we have an endowment we’re also building. That’s another key strategy. The larger our endowment grows, the less we rely on fundraising. Those two things together are what I’m focused on from a business point of view because everyone gets tired of being asked. At the moment, we don’t have another option. We’re still a museum that has to ask for funding.

SN: Your annual auction is coming up. Is there anything you’re excited to share?

JPL: Over 100 individuals came together to support the museum this year. Their donations amount to the largest gross combined value of artworks ever donated to the museum for an art auction. But it’s not just about the value of the artwork. There are some exceptional works by some very well-known artists. I really want to thank that group of people.

There’s one I’m particularly excited about. I reached out on a whim to the artist Judy Chicago. We have one of her works in the collection. When I contacted the group who helps her, they were so excited to hear from us because they had lost track of that particular artwork. They didn’t know where it was. 

That’s another great thing about this job – receiving that kind of enthusiasm back. Not only were they excited to hear from us, but they were also excited to donate a print and artwork to the auction. I promised to reconnect with them after the auction because the museum should have more than one Judy Chicago in its collection. She’s such a foundational artist for feminist art in California. Her start was through Cal State. One of her shows was at Cal State Fullerton. So she has some local presence in terms of her history and art making.

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Courtesy of LAM

Julie Perlin Lee meets with members from Bonhams Los Angeles to discuss the 2022 California Cool Art Auction

SN: It sounds like there’s a lot to love about this job. What’s your favorite part?

JPL: It’s a joyous place for me to be. I love coming here every day. But my favorite part is watching people in the galleries explore the art. That is the best part. That’s the payoff.

For more information about LAM and their programming, visit their website at www.lagunaartmuseum.org.


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.


A conversation with the musicians: You’ve Got a Friend debuts at the Laguna Playhouse

By MARRIE STONE

“When you’re down and troubled, and you need some loving care, and nothing is going right...” These might feel like relatable lyrics these days. Though “You’ve Got a Friend” was released more than 50 years ago – winning two Grammy Awards for both James Taylor (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance) and Carole King (Song of the Year) and re-recorded by dozens of other artists since – its message resonates perhaps more powerfully today than ever before. Dozens of hits by both King and Taylor have made their way into the American songbook, and for good reason. They touch on loneliness and heartbreak, but also friendship, love and human connection.

Singer/songwriter Kirsti Manna and national recording artist Jonathan Birchfield arrive at the Laguna Playhouse for five concerts between Thursday, Feb. 24 and Sunday, Feb. 27, to perform nearly two dozen iconic songs by Carole King and James Taylor. 

Like the legends they honor, Manna and Birchfield have their own inspirational stories. Before rehearsal one night, they agreed to share with me how they met, what inspired the show, their message to audiences and why they feel the music might be more important today than ever before. But first, a brief introduction to the singers behind the songs. 

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Kirsti Manna and Jonathan Birchfield channel Carole King and James Taylor in “You’ve Got a Friend” at the Laguna Playhouse (February 24-27)

Singer/songwriter and motivational speaker Kirsti Manna

More than 20 years ago, Nashville-based Kirsti Manna heard an outgoing message on her friend’s answering machine. He’d recently suffered a breakup and his girlfriend had left town. In addition to the usual leave-a-message instructions, the recording ended with, “If this is Austin, I still love you.” Manna told him it would make a great song and urged him to write it. The relationship had left him raw, but he agreed to let Manna transform his words into lyrics. She teamed with David Kent to write “Austin” and Blake Shelton recorded the song in 2001. It spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country chart that year. (Incidentally, while the song hints at a happy ending, the real-life story didn’t turn out so well.) 

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Kirsti Manna wrote the hit song “Austin,” recorded by Blake Shelton in 2001, which spent six weeks on the Billboard country chart

Alongside writing songs, singing and producing music, Manna also founded “Songwriter Girl LLC” and “Songwriter Girl Camps,” whose mission is to empower girls of every age in their musical pursuits and build their confidence and creativity. 

“My mantra is – whatever you do, stay inspired,” said Manna. “I loved the work I did with my Songwriter Girl Camps in Nashville for about 12 or 13 years. I want anybody interested in being creative to take their gifts seriously and really look at their potential. Try to make discoveries about your creativity. Especially young girls. I wish for all young girls sitting in their bedrooms writing songs, making up poems, or whatever they’re doing creatively to realize that’s a gift. Stay inspired. Find joy in creating. And share your gifts with other people because you don’t know who will be touched and how it might turn someone around.” 

In addition to Manna’s motivational speaking, she has numerous acting credits to her name, including starring in her own national children’s television show, Kirsti’s Manor. Numerous country music stars have recorded her songs and they’ve been heard around the world on The Tonight Show, The David Letterman Show, Friday Night Lights, ESPN and Dance Wars. Manna’s husband, Bill Warner, acts as the duo’s producer, engineer and musical director.

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In addition to performing and writing songs, Kirsti Manna is also an actress and a motivational speaker who inspires young girls pursuing careers in music 

But before all this success, Manna had already met Birchfield. They’ve been songwriting partners since 1995, when Manna began as Birchfield’s voice coach after he moved to Nashville. Then the duo began recording albums together. “It’s the chemistry we have on stage that’s the magic of it all,” said Birchfield.

Traveling troubadour Jonathan Birchfield

Jonathan Birchfield (who goes by JB) grew up in the foothills of North Carolina. His southern roots influence his style, which has been described as “Americana, country rock, roots rock from the heartland with a kick.” His second album, Enjoy the Ride, achieved acclaim in 2013 and 2014 with the song “Shootout Saturday Night,” which was featured on ESPN during the Infinity and Sprint Cup series. “When You Say Yes” was anointed by Ralph Murphy of ASCAP as “the new wedding song.” 

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©Don Windsor

Jonathan Birchfield (aka JB) replicates James Taylor’s sound, and his humble and accessible style

He’s shared a stage with Jimmy Buffet, Guy Clark, Allison Krauss, Edwin McCane and countless others. Although Birchfield never played with James Taylor (who he affectionately calls “JT”), he’s played with Russ Kunkel, Taylor’s drummer and a few other bandmembers. 

“When I met [Taylor] in Montana, he was as nice a guy as you’d want your hero to be,” said Birchfield. “We had an honest conversation and the last thing he said as he shook my hand was, ‘Tell me your name.’ For the rest of the weekend, every time we saw each other, he made a point to say hello and use my name.” 

Birchfield drew some lessons from Taylor’s humbleness and authenticity, carrying it with him into his own career. 

“I want people to be true to themselves. But more than that, I want to do good things for good people, and give this music to them,” he said. “I couldn’t live without entertaining people. Being a songwriter and a decent guitar player, I want to be in front of people making a difference in their lives. If I can touch one person in that audience, I’ve done my job.”

You’ve Got a Friend is born

Sometime after Carole King and James Taylor’s 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour (which celebrated the 40th anniversary of their original Troubadour Tour), Birchfield called Manna and asked if she’d be interested in recreating that show. “I don’t know anybody else I’d like to do this show with,” he told her. Manna thought it sounded like a blast. She’d never seen King play in person, but she’d been to several of Taylor’s concerts. 

“I’ve written with [King’s] daughter, Louise Goffin, and have done some songs around Nashville with her,” said Manna. “A friend of mine, Bobby Braddock, once told me I sound like Carole King and my lyrics and phrasing were similar. That was a great compliment. Growing up, like every other kid, I was really into Tapestry [King’s bestselling album, released in 1971].” 

Birchfield interrupts her. “Every other girl kid,” he said. That’s the rapport between them – affectionate and admiring with plenty of playful banter. 

Manna and JB had a contact in Vegas who booked concerts and quickly grew interested in the idea. He helped them secure a grant to film the concert, accompanied by the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra based in North Carolina. “Now we had our reel,” said Birchfield. “It became our calling card to pitch all kinds of derivative shows – either as a duo, a six-piece band, or a full orchestra.” 

You’ve Got a Friend officially launched in 2014 and has toured the United States and Canada since.

How music can bridge political and social divides

Both Birchfield and Manna pointed to the power of live music to bring people together and heal national divisions. 

“People need to have their hearts touched,” said Manna. “We need to cut through the shells some people are living in and take them away from a world of loneliness.”

“Not to get political, but this country is divided,” said Birchfield. “I don’t care what side of the fence you sit on; it’s divided. I drove from North Carolina to Nashville today. I started early in the morning before the sun came up, and there were already aggressive, bully drivers. People are just off. There’s so much hate in this world. People are so frustrated and sad and stressed. I think some of it comes from not thinking they’re ever going to get what they want.”

“Songs that people love – the songs we’re talking about here – give them hope,” said Manna. “Music is so healing. When someone has gone through something terrible, if they hear a song or a certain lyric, they feel like someone has written about them and understands how they feel.” 

Plus, Manna said, the nostalgia of remembering a different time of life, a memory, can pull people out of the present and back to better times. 

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Manna and Birchfield’s music routinely moves their audiences whenever they perform

“Let me just say this,” said Manna. “People should sit in a writer room. Sometimes writers get divided over songs, but we work it out. We’re not going to fight about music. It’s the same thing. Why are we fighting? Remember Dave Mason’s song, ‘We Just Disagree?’ That’s a song for these times. If people could really believe that and live it, I think things would cool off.” 

Birchfield also noted the power of music to connect with loved ones who are difficult to reach. “My dad has always been my biggest fan,” he said. “He was stricken with dementia about five years ago and it’s going downhill. But the one thing that keeps him alive is either I go over and play guitar, or he plays his record player. Music is a common denominator.”

Closing out the night

In addition to “You’ve Got a Friend,” fans will hear classics like “Fire and Rain,” “It’s Too Late,” “How Sweet It Is” and “Natural Woman.” 

What are Manna and Birchfield’s favorites? Both agree on the closer. “We end with ‘You Can Close Your Eyes.’ That’s the highlight of the show,” said Manna.

“I’m an only kid,” said Birchfield. “But one of my big brothers in music – a drummer – passed away. Every time I play that song, it connects me with him. I think of this guy every night.” 

“It’s a beautiful way of closing the night,” said Manna.

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“You’ve Got a Friend” is playing throughout the weekend at the Laguna Playhouse

You’ve Got a Friend opens on Thursday, Feb. 24. For information and tickets, visit the Laguna Playhouse website at https://lagunaplayhouse.com/.


Sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling’s Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice on display at the Laguna Art Museum

By MARRIE STONE

In the far corner of Gerard Basil Stripling’s exhibition, Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice, stand three limestone pillars topped by three bronze birds – a raven, a vulture and a dove. The raven carries a “cross crosslet,” a heraldic symbol made from four Latin crosses arranged at right-angles. The crosslet is also said to represent the four Gospels. It hangs from the bird’s neck on a rope, looking nearly as heavy as the raven and making him appear both pious and encumbered. He’s saddled with the title Fidelis Miles (“Faithful Soldier”), leading us to believe he was set on this righteous path some time ago and isn’t necessarily happy about it.

Nearby, a pompous looking vulture collects a series of rings. They dangle from his feet and neck. He grips one in his beak and clings to another with a claw. Its title, Absolutum Dominium (“Absolute Power”), evokes a corporate raider or corrupt politician awaiting an opportunity to take advantage of another financial kill. Between them a dove, Quod Quam (“Which, In What Way”), sits encased inside a series of staircases leading nowhere, or everywhere – depending on your point of view.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

“Fidelis Miles,” “Absolutum Dominium” and “Quod Quam” (2008) were created for the Laguna Art Museum’s annual fundraising dinner “Palette to Palate” to intentionally address the two forbidden dinner conversations – politics and religion

A long tradition of literary symbolism surrounds these birds. Ravens connote death, but they’re also commonly associated with transformation from the physical to the spiritual world, portending transcendent shifts. Doves, of course, embody peace. Vultures, well, watch out.

Stripling created the series in 2008 for the Laguna Art Museum’s annual “Palette to Palate” fundraising event. Conventional etiquette advises us to avoid two topics at dinner – politics and religion. Stripling aimed to stir up those conversations. Is the raven uplifted by religion, or is he burdened by it? The vulture’s rings represent power, greed, wealth and success. But clutching onto them prevents him from doing anything else. He can neither move nor speak, caught in the shackles of rapacity.

What of that peaceful dove who seemingly escaped the endless race to nowhere? Did he take a leap of faith and fly off the conventional path to find serenity within? Did he lose his way or did he, instead, find it? 

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“Fidelis Miles,” “Absolutum Dominium” and “Quod Quam” (2008)

Work and Soul represents two decades of Stripling’s work as a fine arts sculptor. The nearly 30 pieces not only trace the evolution of his process but illustrate the variety of both subject matter and materials he’s willing to explore. Bronze, steel and ceramic are common elements. But there’s also rhinestones, limestone, copper, wood and glass. “It’s loosely laid out in chronological order,” Stripling said. “So you’ll see the very first sculpture I ever made and sold, and then a piece that was just finished in February.”

Sometimes his titles come to him first, an idea he wants to explore with the words as a guiding principle. Other times, Stripling has an entire essay in his head about what he wants to say. He expresses his thoughts in sculpture and then struggles to encapsulate the idea in a succinct phrase. Those are the titles he finds most challenging.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Gerard Basil Stripling has lived and worked in Laguna Beach since 2000

“I try to be very present in life,” Stripling said. “And I use everything as inspiration – be it things I see in nature or a conversation that feels incomplete. I get inspiration from things I hear in the media. Then I’ll add the emotions I want to express – things I can’t put into words, that I can’t write down – and I’ll express it in a physical sculpture. 

“Sometimes sculpting enables me to release something that’s troubling me, or it’s a way to work out ideas. Other times I’ll challenge myself to make a sculpture with only things I have in my studio at the moment. It’s all those different ways.” 

Many of Stripling’s pieces grapple with the burdens we carry and the institutions that hold us down. We’re the wardens of our own prisons, he seems to say. But we hold the keys to free ourselves. 

In addition to those three birds who wrestle with their afflictions, a few other notable pieces speak to the ways we confine ourselves. Pretty Little Cage (2022) is Stripling’s latest piece, completed only a few months ago. We build our own mental cages, he seems to imply, where we often contentedly (or perhaps discontentedly) remain. Stripling’s door has been left ajar, reminding us there’s always a way out if we choose to take it. 

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Pretty Little Cage (2022)

Note its position high above, like many of his pieces, demanding we look up. The gallery looks like a forest of sculptures. “That’s the kind of reaction I want to get from my work,” Stripling said. “I want people to look up and think while they’re looking up.”

The personal, of course, is always political and Stripling doesn’t let our nation and its government off the hook. A few pieces hit domestic policy issues head-on. Special Delivery, created during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent bailout, might not look like an obvious metaphor. The inverted bronze tree precariously balances on a limestone pedestal, its branches and leaves seemingly encased in a protective gunnysack. Its root system, however, remains exposed, stretching up and out like a raw nerve. Special Delivery represents Stripling’s indictment of the financial bailout – of who received protection and who was left out to hang. The root system (symbolizing the American worker) denotes the essential lifeblood that feeds the leaves. With healthy roots, branches – think corporate billionaires – could regenerate. And yet who did the bailouts save?

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Special Delivery (2008)

Stripling’s commentary on our contemporary culture doesn’t end there. On two opposing walls hang two very different American flags. Created in 2017, Domum Mori (“Home to Die”) is an actual flag cast in bronze. At its heart lies an untreated steel ring that’s been allowed to oxidize and degrade. Rust bleeds down the bronze like tears. There are our ideals (and the symbol of those ideals), and then there’s reality eroding them. When asked why he opted to put the piece behind glass he said, “Because it’s important. I want people to think about what’s happening.” The bronze and steel sepia tones are subdued, unlike its counterpart across the room.

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“Domum Mori” (2017)

Turn 180 degrees and another American flag sparkles with gems. The famous name “Gagosian” glitters across the flag’s center like a movie marquee surrounded by broken glass. American Dream was created in 2022 and spotlights one of the United States’ most prominent contemporary art dealers, Larry Gagosian and the internationally known Gagosian Galleries. Coming from modest middle-class roots, Gagosian began his career by selling posters on Los Angeles street corners. Today he represents artists like Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Cy Twombly, clearing an estimated $1 billion in annual sales. Using setbacks as tools to build an artistic empire, Gagosian succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. 

“I’ve built this monstrosity of a business, and I’ve got no choice,” Gagosian told the Wall Street Journal in 2016. “It’s like Sisyphus. I’ve got to keep pushing the rock up the hill – and some days the rock is pushing me and some days I’m pushing the rock. But I have to keep it going. And I love it.” 

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“American Dream” (2022)

By contrast, one of the more overtly political pieces in Stripling’s exhibit, entitled Behind the Poverty Curtain (2018), incorporates a 1911 quotation from Booker T. Washington: “There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs. There’s a certain class of race-problem solvers who do not want the patient to get well.” 

Washington’s quote has received a lot of attention over the past several years from both sides of the political aisle as racial tensions have escalated across our nation. Stripling cast the words in bronze and mounted them on a found wooden pallet. Voile curtains drape over it, as though we’re looking at a boarded-up window and no longer allowed to see outside. This class of people, Stripling seems to suggest, have walled themselves off and boarded themselves in. But the sheer curtains are a reminder that it’s still possible to see through to another way of life.

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“Behind the Poverty Curtain” (2018)

When Stripling was in college, an art professor challenged the class to paint a tomato. It wasn’t an unusual assignment, but the task didn’t end there. Cut the tomato open, they were told, and paint it again. Scoop out the guts. Paint it again. Paint the seeds. Squish the seeds and paint those. 

“The exercise taught us to look deeper than just the surface of an object,” Stripling said. “There’s always so much more to dive into.” The practice taught him to be more aware, to be present, to ask questions, to investigate. “I don’t want to miss out on anything that I see as a potential inspiration.” 

Evidence of that level of thinking and Stripling’s instinct for deep investigation can be found all over Work and Soul. Layers of meaning lay within each piece. 

I confess, without a knowledgeable docent and a thorough tour of Stripling’s exhibit, I would have missed much of this important backstory. But once art leaves the artist’s hands, it belongs to the larger world and is theirs to interpret and internalize. Art is as much mirror as window. 

This point was brought home by one piece in particular. Fortuito (“Fortuitous” in Spanish) was created in 2000, the first sculpture Stripling made and sold. A large, torus-shaped stone was left behind by the prior owners of Stripling’s home. He discovered the stone and created the sculpture the same year he moved to Laguna. At its base, a skirt is welded in steel, an homage to Stripling’s time in the fashion industry. “I felt like it was very good fortune that I found this stone and created a piece of art out of it,” Stripling said. “Then I was able to sell it. That gave me the confidence to keep going. It made me realize it was possible to create and generate income from selling fine art.” 

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“Fortuito” (2000)

The circular stone hangs from a triple-bound rope suspended from a copper bar. When I first encountered it, my mind triggered the image of a lynching. By the end of the docent-led tour, all three other attendees (and the docent herself) disclosed they shared my reaction. My husband, by contrast, saw a tranquil tire swing. Stripling’s cousin also told the docent how peaceful she found the sculpture. 

Isn’t that the purpose of fine art – to hold space for conversation and debate? To provide a kind of Rorschach moment for audiences to reflect on their responses? To allow for a range of interpretations that can be defended and discussed? All these versions reinforce the point – art opens the door to dialogue.

By the way, if you stand at the right angle, it’s possible to view American Dream through Fortuito’s natural window. Take any one of these construals – from talisman to sinister symbol – and consider the scene through each of those lenses. It’s a powerful statement however you choose to look at it. 

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Viewing “American Dream” through the lens of “Fortuito”

“The themes are all over the place,” Stripling said of the exhibit. “And the look of the sculptures are all over the place. The common theme is that everything is different. But I’m into communication, personal growth and positivity. A lot of the sculptures talk about that.” 

Locals will likely be familiar with Stripling’s work. Four of his permanent public art pieces are installed around town and over a dozen more appear around Southern California. He’s also had two temporary public installations. Most recently, during the month of February, Stripling’s Anastasis appeared in front of City Hall in celebration of Ethnic Diversity and Black History Month. 

Born in 1965 and raised in south central Los Angeles, a career in fine art didn’t initially seem like a viable path for Stripling. He tried a major in mechanical engineering, but ultimately graduated from Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. His first influential job, guided by Hollywood fashion designer Bill Whitten (1944-2006), was as wardrobe supervisor for Michael Jackson. The job allowed Stripling to travel, visit museums and art galleries, meet artists around the world and refine some other skills (such as welding and design) that would help launch his career as a sculptor. 

On the south wall of the exhibit hangs one of my favorite pieces. You Get Out What You Put In (2018) is a wood-framed mirror, in the center of which a bronze baby floats inside a womb of books. A few titles touch the baby – Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, Tonic for Our Times by Richard Evans, Robin Hood and Prophecy. Others, like James Michener’s Texas, hover on the outskirts. Stripling rescued the box of books from being tossed out after an art show. It’s a powerful image of what we teach our young, what mental nourishment we offer their developing minds and, perhaps, what we don’t. By using a mirror as matting, Stripling asks us to reflect on those decisions. 

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“You Get Out What You Put In” (2018)

For an artist like Stripling, who grew up outside the privileges of the art world but set his intentions early on, every piece of Work and Soul reflects a shard of his psyche. Stripling is methodical in his approach and deep in his thinking. The exhibit provides a glimpse inside the mind of an artist who’s thought hard for two decades about the varied issues confronting us and how best to communicate them. And each piece invites a new conversation. 

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“Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice” will be on display in the Steele Gallery through June 12 at the Laguna Art Museum

Work and Soul: Two Decades of Practice will be on display through June 12. The Laguna Art Museum offers daily docent tours at 11 a.m. On Saturday, May 7 at 6 p.m., Stripling will be in conversation with Curatorial Fellow Rochelle Steiner at the Museum. More information on hours, tickets and other events can be found on their website at www.lagunaartmuseum.org

Gerard Stripling’s work can be viewed on his website at www.gerardbasil.com.


Art Stars 2020 honored by the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance at Art Star Awards on Sunday

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Since 2007, the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance (LBAA) has hosted the annual Art Star Awards to recognize excellence in achievements in – and contributions to – the arts in Laguna Beach. On Sunday evening at [seven-degrees], the 2020 awards (canceled due to COVID) were bestowed on a dazzling array of talented recipients. It was apparent that the two-year postponement made the event even more special, and the artists and community members who filled the spectacular venue were ready to honor their Art Stars.

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Joy Dittberner, LBAA chair and executive director of the Laguna Beach Dance Festival, kicks off the 14th year of Art Star Awards

The award categories were Best Arts Program, Individual Arts Patron of the Year, Corporate Arts Patron of the Year, Outstanding Arts Collaboration, Arts Leadership, Artist of the Year and Volunteer of the Year. A special award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts was also presented. 

Created in 2002, LBAA represents the partnership of 22 Laguna-based organizations dedicated to promoting a collaboration of artists and those who support the arts – serving as a united voice for the arts in this city.

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“Louies” created for the Art Star Awards by Louis Longi

The various category winners are given one-of-a-kind sculptures (“Louies”) created by local artist and celebrity Louis Longi. The “Louies” are created specifically for the Art Star Awards with no molds or editions.

The Art Star Awards Committee – Wayne Baglin (chair), FOA/Pageant of the Masters; Faye Baglin, Community Art Project; Joy Dittberner, Laguna Dance Festival; Amy Francis-Dechary, Third Street Writers; Michael Ervin, Laguna Beach Arts Commission; Deena Harros, First Thursdays Art Walk; Sharbie Higuchi, FOA/Pageant of the Masters and Pat Kollenda, Laguna Beach Arts Commission – put on a stellar event.

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Art Star Awards Committee: (L-R) Pat Kollenda, Faye Baglin, Mike Ervin, Deena Harros, Sharbie Higuchi and Joy Dittberner (absent from the photo, Amy Francis-Dechary and Wayne Baglin)

LBAA Chair Dittberner thanked the city, county and state for their support, which allows Laguna to be known as an artist colony. “Within the artistic fabric of Laguna, the artists create art that transcends time and space.”

Allyson Allen was the recipient of the 2019 Grant Winner – The Honarkar Family Grant. It’s widely known that Allen’s quilt exhibition at Wells Fargo Bank was taken down due to a few unfavorable reactions. However, they found a new temporary home at the Neighborhood Congregational Church. “It worked in my favor,” Allen said. “Only a few hundred people would have seen the exhibition at the bank, but at the Neighborhood Congregational Church, over 700 people viewed it.” 

Allen’s quilt exhibition was displayed on the walls of [seven-degrees], adding another layer of meaning to the evening.

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Recipient of the Honarkar Family Grant - Allyson Allen

The first to receive the coveted “Louie” was Keynote Speaker Marrie Stone. For several years before her role as arts columnist, Stone interviewed many of our town’s greatest legends for Stu News. For the past year, she has been an archeologist of sorts, digging into the many facets of the lives of local artists. During her stint as Stu News’ arts columnist, she’s profiled 100+ artists in addition to covering art installations, exhibitions, performances and events for the 22 arts organizations of the LBAA. 

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Honored speaker Marrie Stone

Stone is also a freelance writer, podcaster (she’s interviewed more than 600 writers on the Writers on Writing radio show) and lawyer. During Stone’s speech, she gave the audience insights into the quirky and unique psyches of the extraordinary artists she has interviewed. 

“I figured what better time than tonight to revisit all those things we decided were off the record and I wouldn’t print,” Stone said. “I’m kidding. All secrets are safe. You know what they say. ‘What happens at [seven degrees], stays at [seven degrees].’”

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Marrie accepts first “Louie” of the evening from Joy Dittberner

However, Stone did reveal a few of their common traits – they were all very funny and weird little kids and mostly knew that they were destined for the arts out of the gate. “The lore in Bree Burgess Rosen’s household was that when she was born, the doctor slapped her butt and she immediately hit a high C,” she said. “She was performing in public by the age of 2.”

As children, artist Kathy Jones believed tiny singers lived inside her radio, Scott Moore thought he could fly and Kaitlin Evans was selling her art on the front lawn when she was only 5 years old. 

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(L-R) President of the Board of Directors FOA David Perry, Orange County Supervisor for District 5 Lisa Bartlett, Marketing/PR Director at Festival of Arts Sharbie Higuchi and Community Relations Advisor/Policy Advisor at County of Orange Sergio Prince

Stone recalled the advice that artist Yuri Kuznetsov received from a teacher early in his career, “Once you start to love nature and learn by experience, you can become great. Once you can imagine it, you can translate it into art.”

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Creating into the mystery – three new Festival mixed media artists explore complicated territory

By MARRIE STONE

Artists are storytellers. Some stories are seemingly straightforward, like capturing a ray of sunlight stretched across a hillside. Others evoke entire worlds, ancient religions, indigenous cultures and age-old mysteries. For three new Festival of Arts (FOA) mixed media artists – Jayne Dion, Judith Haron and Debbora Zoller – their stories are complex amalgams of all those things. Toss in some time travel for Dion, illuminated manuscripts for Haron and spiritualism for Zoller, and you’re still only scratching the surface of these artists’ work.

Intrigued by the intricacy of their designs and the originality of their mediums, I sat down separately with Dion, Haron and Zoller to learn more about the artistic minds behind their evocative imagery. From Haron’s hyper-pigmented colors to Zoller’s black and white graphite portraits, the moods they capture are very different. But the underlying draw toward something spiritual and the mystical world of dreamscapes stretches across all their work. 

Here’s a peek inside their minds and studios. 

Jayne Dion’s timeless trees

For Jayne Dion, there’s an interesting connection to explore between time and trees. The Native American artist grew up steeped in ancestral traditions, attending Latin mass as a child at the San Juan Capistrano Mission and finding herself drawn toward the intersection of environmentalism and spiritualism. 

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Jayne Dion’s 30-year career as a muralist and set designer laid the foundation for her intricate clock sculptures. Visit her this summer in FOA Booth #20. Or visit her website by clicking here.

“I grew up culturally aware of the significance of trees within my ancestry,” said Dion. “Because my mother was tied to the Mission, I also grew up listening to Latin mass in that old Mission church with the ritualistic regalia of the priests.” Although Dion didn’t speak Latin, the atmosphere inside the Mission was evocative. 

Combine those early influences with time travel, and you’ll begin to see how Dion’s unique sculptures evolve. “The clocks came while I was working on a time travel series in New York,” Dion said. “I asked myself, ‘What if you could bend time? What if you could go back and right a wrong or change a word? Would that make a difference in someone’s life?’ This idea became part of my own personal healing process after the loss of some family members.”

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This Banyan tree showcases the many layers of multi-media in Dion’s pieces

While seeking out mechanical gears for another project, Dion found herself in possession of several mantle clocks. Once she hollowed them out and discovered the empty vessels would make ideal shadow boxes, her sculptures began taking form.

“When I thought about what I could put inside the shadowbox, trees immediately came to mind,” Dion said. “I began building a forest on top of the clock. Then I had this magical doorway into a new realm within the clock where the gears used to be. That’s how I started creating the illustrations that go inside.”

The result is an amalgam of mediums. The trees are sculpted from wire and epoxy clay. The clock opens into an intricate world of layered paper displays. “Initially I planned to create little sculptures inside the clock. But paper illustrations allow me to cut layers into incrementally smaller scenes. It feels like looking into infinity.”

Inspired by vivid dreams, as well as an interest in dendrology (the scientific study of how trees communicate), each clock contains a story. Dion’s diptych entitled “The Garden of Good and Evil” is a strong example. “One side contains a lush green forest. The other holds a black and white forest. On top of the two are trees with hearts on each one. It’s a decision path. Do you choose the seemingly easy road, or the more difficult? Maybe the dark path leads to enlightenment. Maybe the easy path leads to difficulty. The piece represents our life choices.”

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A close-up image taken from inside “The Garden of Good and Evil”

Dion combined her background in muralism and set design (she was the lead prop stylist for South Coast Plaza) with her rich imagination to produce these unique sculptures. There are layers of symbolism contained within each piece. But the clock, Dion said, is the overarching metaphor. Our natural world is on borrowed time.

Judith Haron’s egg tempera manuscripts

As only the second egg tempera artist to be accepted into the FOA, Judith Haron’s work is also infused with spiritual symbolism. A lifelong student of indigenous cultures around the world, Haron’s fascination with spiritualism appears throughout her pieces. From tribal ceremonies and rites of passage to rich textiles and indigenous clothes, Heron’s pieces incorporate layers of rich imagery. Add to that her draw toward wildlife and the natural world, and you’ll begin to see how her work takes shape.

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Judith Haron will show her egg tempera manuscripts this summer. Visit her at FOA booth #74 and to learn more about her work, click here

Every piece begins with mounds of research. Haron takes copious notes on each symbol that appears in her work. “First I begin by researching the narrative,” Haron said. “Certain birds appear with certain flowers, and they’re all symbolic. There’s also a lot of cultural symbols – ceremonial wear or day-to-day textiles. I have a background in design, so I’m interested in the patterns and textiles.” From Aboriginals to Native Americans, as well as celestial imagery, it’s all inspiration for Haron’s work.

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Travel around our Wonderful World with the Pageant of the Masters

By MARRIE STONE

One hundred and fifty years ago, French novelist Jules Verne imagined a journey “Around the World in Eighty Days.” This year, the Pageant of the Masters transports guests to 17 countries in less than two hours – all without the jetlag. 

As the sky darkens over the Irvine Bowl each evening, the audience settles into their first-class seats onboard a flight bound for France. On the screen, our in-flight movie reminds us that back in the 1950s, elaborate airline meals were served on china plates with proper cutlery. Stewardesses prepared icy cocktails while passengers relaxed with a cigarette. In the mid-20th century, friendly skies meant sophisticated attire, ample leg room and impeccable service. 

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Courtesy of Pageant of the Masters

The Irvine Bowl stage. Director Diane Challis Davy takes advantage of the expansive façade above the stage to use audio-visual effects and videos to enhance the performance. Videographer Paul Renner’s designs added a layer of depth and texture to this year’s show.

Inspired by “The Voice of the Globe” James A. FitzPatrick, who hosted technicolor Traveltalks from 1930 through 1954, Wonderful World invites its audience on an international adventure while introducing them to 36 works of art across a variety of nations. FitzPatrick’s nostalgic 10-minute travelogues (commissioned by MGM to be shown before feature film presentations) took Americans to locations they could only dream of visiting. Those vintage films set the tone for this year’s Pageant theme. 

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Courtesy of Pageant of the Masters

Recreations of vintage lithograph posters from the French Riviera open this year’s “Wonderful World”

“Going to the cinema in the 1930s and 1940s to watch strangers in strange places was only one remove from actually traveling to strange places,” wrote Darragh O’Donoghue in a review of FitzPatrick’s Traveltalks for Cineaste Magazine. And so it is with Wonderful World, which explores both art and its history across cultures, continents and time periods, guiding spectators through five different centuries of art. 

Traveltalks provided a sentimental conceit for Pageant Director Diane (Dee) Challis Davy and scriptwriter Dan Duling, who were already planning their own travel-themed show. “Dee had a great fondness for those documentaries,” said Duling, “and realized they were for people who didn’t have the luxury of travel or didn’t even consider travel as an option. That, of course, has changed dramatically. But we’ve also passed through that golden age of travel when it was still a luxury for people rich enough to afford first class travel. Today, the state of travel is compromised both by the specter of COVID uncertainty and the fact that most airlines have made the experience of traveling by plane as unpleasant as possible. This is where we quickly moved from the reality of travel into the romance and philosophical inspiration of travel.”

Travel around 3

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Courtesy of Pageant of the Masters

Another recreation of a vintage lithograph poster from the French Riviera that opens this year’s “Wonderful World”

Unlike today’s stressful airport sagas, traveling with the Pageant is both an entertaining and educational experience, touching down on nearly every continent all while being treated to both a visual and musical feast. 

“It’s always a good idea to go in the opposite direction from the previous year,” said Challis Davy. “And, in a way, Wonderful World is a companion piece to last year’s Made in America. Knowing that so many people have been prevented from traveling and visiting the places they love, I thought this was a good theme.” 

Act One opens with a vintage poster montage of various 20th century lithographs from beaches around France, Australia, England, Florida and – finally – Laguna Beach. Challis Davy commissioned Festival of Arts artist Mike Tauber to design the acrylic 40 x 60-inch Laguna Beach travel poster. 

“I’ve always enjoyed working with Dee and the team at the Pageant,” Tauber said. “When she asked me to create a travel poster, of course I said ‘yes.’”

Challis Davy recommended Tauber use the view from the Heisler Park gazebo and provided him with the model, complete with pedal pushers and a ponytail. “I replicated the title font from an actual mid-20th century postcard and added the rooftop marquee sign on Hotel Laguna for authenticity,” Tauber said. “Sizing the figure was a challenge, but it worked out.” 

Tauber relies on alphabetic letters to form all his compositions. “I created an S-shaped composition to lead the viewer’s eye from the foreground aloe flowers to the figure, Main Beach, and the distant hills beyond,” he said. “Painter Brad Elsberry, the set builders, lighting designers, makeup team and model did a fantastic replication.” 

Travel around 4

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Courtesy of Pageant of the Masters

Festival of Arts exhibitor Mike Tauber created this 40 x 60-inch acrylic vintage poster of Laguna Beach for this year’s “Wonderful World”

“We want to have a little fun at the beginning with those vintage travel posters,” said Duling. “But that’s just setting up the larger, relatively simple structure for the show, which provides a variety of experiences in the middle of Act One. I consider that the heart of the show.”

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Artists share colorful stories behind works in Black and White show at Laguna Art Museum 

By THERESA KEEGAN 

This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

Southern California is so often associated with bright, colorful settings, it is almost a shock to see a current exhibit that celebrates work by Southern California artists that features work in only black and white. 

Black and White, the show at the Laguna Art Museum, features a variety of media in these two bold colors, is a riveting display of how art can transcend expectations. 

This collection of 30 pieces of contemporary art from the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation is a refreshing reminder not just of the power of these two contrasting colors, but also how this combination can contrast with what so many consider the requisite colorful SoCal experience. 

Amid the bold black and white artwork on display at the Steele Gallery, there is a recurring inspiration these artists credit to nature, especially the ocean, the power of light and shadow and the beauty that is found in their unique Southern California environments. 

Artists share Black and White

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Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

A crowd gathered to hear a conversation with curator Billie Milam Weisman, but laryngitis led to a change of plans. Instead, selected artists spoke about their work. 

When the exhibit opened earlier this month, the museum scheduled an evening in conversation with Billie Milam Weisman, director of the Foundation, curator of the show and wife of the former Frederick Weisman. Her knowledge and support of the area’s artists would certainly be insightful. However, the evening took a last-minute twist as Weisman had severe laryngitis. Instead, some of the participating artists spoke and in the museum’s intimate venue, revealed their inspirations, processes and the SoCal area that binds them together. 

They also shared their gratitude to the Weismans’ foresight in collecting contemporary art from the region and the Foundation’s commitment to making it publicly accessible. 

“It’s great to be in great company,” said artist Andy Moses, pointing to the surrounding pieces by artists both living and deceased. He then went on to share his story about moving back to California in the early 2000s and looking at the ocean while driving near Venice.

“There was something about the reflection of light on the water,” he said. “The quality of light, the quality of motion. I knew I wanted to capture that.” Within a year he had created Beyond the Cirrostratus, a round pearlescent acrylic that shimmers and changes depending on light and perspective. His Tale of the Dragon also abstractly reflects nature by using circular motion and paint that chemically interacts to create organic forms. 

Artists share Andy Moses

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Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

Artist Andy Moses talked about his art pieces in the show, but also that of his father, Ed Moses, who also has pieces in the exhibition. Both were inspired by Southern California’s openness.

Moses went on to talk about Southern California’s influence on his father, Ed Moses, who also has two pieces in the show. The opportunity to paint outdoors unleashed a freedom within Ed. “He just broke free from the prior constraints,” said his son, who told of his father’s freedom found painting outdoors on a huge driveway. “In three or four years, he made an abstract painting that stops you in your tracks.” The controlled brushwork in Helix - 1 is a manifestation of his painted grids, while Racko No. 2 was created by pouring acrylic onto a soaked canvas and manipulating it with a squeegee, creating both a grid and undulating marks. 

Artists share Billie and artist

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Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

Artist Ned Evans (L) talks with curator Billie Milam Weisman during the public talk earlier this month 

A love of ocean – and surfing – was shared 

Artist Ned Evans also credited nature and the ocean for his inspiration. Although he is best known for his surfing-inspired bright, colorful, fluid paintings, when he addressed the museum audience, he also recalled a darker time in the ocean’s not so distant history. “We’d come in from surfing and there’d be oil on your feet and your surfboard was covered in tar.” This ocean-loving artist, in Black Sand, has deconstructed and put back together a totally black surfboard, one of just a few sculptural pieces in the exhibit. “It’s a statement and it’s intentional,” he said of the deep blackness of the piece. Meanwhile, his other piece in the show, Curico, reflects the simplicity of the shadows one sees when walking under a pier. “The light shimmers, it’s bouncing and still there, but a little subdued,” explained Evans. 

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Suzie’s ARTiculation

Music in the Park – the community’s favorite summer concert series says sayonara for the season Sunday

Story by SUZIE HARRISON

Photos by Scott Brashier

Last dance, last chance to enjoy Laguna’s best kept secret, the favorite Sunday summer ritual know as Music in the Park will end another sensational season this Sunday with SantanaWays, a Santana tribute band, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Bluebird Park.

For many locals, the popular community concert series is a highlight of the summer, a shared tradition for friends and family since 1983, established as a passion project by the late Doris Shields when she served on the City’s Arts Commission.

That first year, Shields had a month to put the inaugural concert together. To facilitate, she called on Leigh Unger, a harpsichordist and music professor at Fullerton College at the time. He was able to gather some of his students and fellow musicians to perform in the first concert.

A lot has changed from those days. Now, the community can thank the Arts commissioners, the Cultural Arts Department, and namely Siân Poeschl, the City Cultural Arts Manager, for making the popular series what it is today. 

“I feel incredibly fortunate to work and live in a community that appreciates the importance of music to our lives. But Music in the Park goes far beyond that, it’s an opportunity to see friends and neighbors, share food, stories, to dance and hang out as a community,” Poeschl said. “That’s very rare and should not be understated as to its importance.” 

music in the one

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Families and friends love to gather at Music in the Park, a local favorite summer tradition since 1983

In 1994, Music in the Park Inc. formed and entered into a public private partnership with the City in 1995 through 2005. The Arts Commission has funded the concerts through the Business Improvement District since 2005.

The concert series started with three concerts at Nita Carman Park. Only four bands played and 30 people came that first summer. Traffic noise was an issue, so the next year, Bluebird Park became its fitting home. 

After the new digs were found, a berm was built for performers. Poeschl kindly gave me a bit of music history, Music in the Park history:

--From 1984 – 1987 the number of concerts increased to four and were held from late June through September.

--In 1986, a sound system was introduced for amplified sound.

--Two years later concerts increased to five with an estimated 800 – 1,000 attendance.

--From 1989 – 1990 the concerts increased to six.

--The following three years the concerts were increased to seven and ran from late July through September.

--The following decade, from 1994 – 2004, eight concerts were held each summer.

--But in 2005, the number of concerts was reduced to seven.

“The concerts are a community orientated event, in a community park setting,” Poeschl said. “Since 2000 a professional audio company has been hired to do the sound. Decibel levels are recorded every 15 minutes throughout the concert.”

Both funded by the City, the beloved sculpture “Laguna Tortoise” was installed by Michele Taylor in 2003 and “Bluebird Park Gate” was installed by Jon Seeman. 

music in the tortoise

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Michele Taylor’s ‘Laguna Tortoise’ is a favorite public art piece adored by people of all ages at Bluebird Park

To find the best entertainment, the Arts Commission reviews hundreds of bands starting in January. Although some concerts are more popular than others, attendance has remained the same over the last five years around 800 to 1,000.

“We are very appreciative to the Bluebird Park neighbors and because of this we encourage audience members to be respectful of where they park,” Poeschl said.

The rules: No dogs are ever allowed at Bluebird Park; there is no smoking in any Laguna Beach park; no set up before 3 p.m.; no open alcohol is allowed outside the park; alcohol is allowed with a meal; no umbrellas are allowed up; and bring only low beach chairs, so that everyone can enjoy the concert. 

“Facilitating Music in the Park requires the collaboration of the Public Works, Police and Cultural Arts Departments,” Poeschl said. “Although the concerts look effortless, it takes months of planning and organization.”

Poeschl has been working with Rick Weirs from Public Works since she started running the series 20 years ago. Last year, Mike McGregor, Arts Program Coordinator, was added to the team.

music in the dancing

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Dancing, laughing, fun and merriment abound at Music in the Park

“Every concert is attended by a member of the Arts Commission, you will see them at the gate handing out the schedule, or hear them introduce the band,” Poeschl said.

Longtime Arts Commissioner Pat Kollenda lauds the series and what it brings to our community.

“MIP is a gift to our wonderful town. I’ve been involved for 25 years and been amazed at how it has grown and how much it is cherished by our ‘Lagunatics,’” Kollenda said. “I am also very proud of the collaboration between City Departments and the support of our City Council! and, of course, much gratitude to Sian Poeschl.” 

The concerts follow the rules of the City’s noise ordinance. To address the concerns of neighbors, the City guaranteed the concerts would be concluded by 7 p.m. with no exception. Although, at every concert, Poeschl or staff get guff from people wanting the bands to play longer. But that’s not an option if locals want the series to continue as they are.

“It is important to retain the community feel of the event, to have generations of family and friends spend two hours together enjoying a variety of live music,” Poeschl said.

music in the musician

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Catch the final Music in the Park Concert on Sunday to savor the sounds

The City funds and presents 16 free concerts – two World Music, seven Music in the Park, and seven Sunset Serenades, which kicks off for the fall with jazz vocalist Valerie Geason at Heisler Park Amphitheater on Friday, Sept 7 at 5:30 p.m.

Until next time…so many City concerts to enjoy, so little time!


Newest public art installation “Changing Station” inspires viewers to “Be a hero any way you can”

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

On one side of the Forest Avenue art installation “Changing Station” by local Artist Robert Holton is a list of inspirational quotes, one being, “There is a Superhero in all of us, we need the courage to put on the cape.”

Newest public Holton

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Artist Robert Holton 

Holton says, “I pitched this idea to the Arts Commission because of the connection of the phone booth and Superman, that’s where he changed and emerged as a superhero. I applied to the Arts Commission two years ago, and I came in third out of 20. So this year, I pitched it again. The sayings on the side are positive affirmations. There is so much insecurity and drama in town, this is an inspiration that each of us can be a hero in the smallest of ways.”

Newest public quotes

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Inspirational quotes

Holton has owned his sign business, One Day Signs, Inc. for over 20 years. He has exhibited for five years at the