Mike Tauber named Artist of the Year

By Nancy Carpenter

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Interviews are approached with a certain topic or goal in mind, an agenda so to speak, and as it should be. But no matter the amount of research completed or questions planned, occasionally another story surfaces. It’s a good idea to follow that script.

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Mike Tauber, painter, sculptor, ceramicist and “Artist of the Year”

When I was asked to interview Mike Tauber, my focus was on his most recent honor: Artist of the Year and, officially or unofficially, grand marshal of the annual Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade, since it was the parade committee that honored him. This is just one of Laguna Beach’s many ways of acknowledging local artists and their contributions to the community. Tauber certainly qualifies. He has proven himself as an artist, but likely prouder of his involvement with innumerable local projects. More on that shortly. First, his artistic chops.

Tauber works with paint and cement relief, but he is perhaps most recognized as a ceramicist. Using tile he has fired, he creates large-scale interior and exterior murals. Think of this as the merging of architecture and design, and thus a permanent alliance.

Much of what he does is commissioned for a specific site, whether a private residence or commercial center. The Wilshire Grand Center’s six white-swimming-capped and red-tank-bathing-suited swimmers ready to dive into a pool has a smart retro look. Closer to home, you may be familiar with The Crab Cooker in Newport Beach and its interior scene that not surprisingly is ocean-themed. Within our own city limits, Whole Foods has four landscape murals that in this instance utilize paint and aluminum.

It takes a village to create on a grand scale. His public art is often a collaborative effort, and can be found in neighboring Orange County cities as well as San Diego. But it is Laguna Beach that I am most interested in, since that is where he lives and works, and Laguna is the city honoring him.

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Mike Tauber with his collaborative mural “Swimming in Sea Life”

We met in front of his most recent installation, Swimming in Sea Life, that graces the northwest exterior wall of the historic Taco Bell (now The Taco Stand) at the corner of Coast Highway and Cleo. Tauber didn’t hesitate in acknowledging the efforts of 95 citizens who participated in this LOCA Arts Education Project in 2023.

“I chose ocean life as inspiration for this piece,” he said. “I wanted the viewer’s eye to be drawn into the constant swirling motion. The grout lines give an added architectural quality.”

He went on to explain. “The sea otter is the focal point, the outline of the body and the flippers crucial to the overall piece.”

Tauber was responsible for ensuring the sea otter anchored the overall mural. But the rest was up to the volunteers whose contributions were necessary to the project. With little direction, each participant was tasked with creating a tile and assigned a row. The top row has a lighter color palette, the subsequent rows deepen into darker ranges, the way light refracts through water. The respective palettes were the only restrictions, leaving them to design anything relating to the ocean. Within the 126 tiles, I discovered a couple of octopus (or is it octopuses?), sea anemone, what might be perch, sea bass or halibut, starfish, crab squid, and a lone scuba diver staring back at me. Each tile stands on its own, leaving Tauber to the final assembly resulting in this masterful mural.

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“Laguna Honors Its Artists” mural honoring Michael Hallinan

Tauber and I didn’t have to go far to see another of his works: A quick walk to the other side of The Taco Stand and a mural honoring local impressionist artist and surfer Michael Hallinan. This is part of the “Laguna Honors Its Artists” series of murals, in this case, a tile scene inspired by the late artist.

Tauber has other murals worth exploring, including the Neighborhood Congregational Church with its street-facing Coastline to Canyon panel within easy walking distance of where we stood. This is on a much grander scale – that’s Tauber to the right, dwarfed by the finished piece and impossible to have completed without the efforts of 700 volunteers.

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Tauber dwarfed by “Coastline to Canyon”

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But I was assigned to interview Tauber, and we had to find a quiet place to talk. We settled on 140 West Hotel’s cozy, boutique-y lobby. Tauber was dressed in shorts, shirt, and loose sweater, the kind of clothes a visitor accustomed to cold climate might wear. I was a little more bundled up for the cold by California standards. We fit the part of hotel guests, yet I felt mildly guilty setting up shop free of charge in an intimate lobby, and so I asked the manager, Tamara Dowell, if there was a coffee shop on premise. “No,” she answered, “but we have complimentary coffee and tea and water. You are welcome to anything.” She motioned to a side counter.

We explained we weren’t guests, but that didn’t matter to her, we could make ourselves at home. That’s one of the many things I like about Laguna Beach, that spirit of open doors and sharing.

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Detail of “Coastline to Canyon” – Neighborhood Congregational Church

We settled into the business of our interview. I had those prepared questions, ready to discuss the sources of artistic inspiration, the mechanics of working with tile, “a week in the life of an artist,” and most important, the satisfaction he got from creating. But interviewing is not so much about asking as listening.

Tauber placed a small pad of paper on the coffee table and said, “I jotted down a few things I want to be sure we cover.”

Ah…the script that will become the story.

From Tauber’s perspective, his art gives him the opportunity to work on his passions. His biggest, most rewarding achievements come from his involvement in our community, and particularly if that involvement includes kids. His dedication and commitment are evident.

“We need more opportunities for young people to get involved in projects that recognize not only their abilities and give them the forum to use those skills, but also show them the results of their efforts,” he said, elaborating on LOCA’s efforts and The Taco Stand mural. “Those 95 volunteers creating all those tiles weren’t all adults.”

Nor have Tauber’s efforts been limited to Laguna Beach. He is modest about his leadership in creating and supporting similar opportunities throughout Southern California, including a Tustin project requiring the eyes and hands of 250 volunteers. Tauber is more than the artist and project leader. He is a mentor.

As he sees it, today’s youth can just as easily be captivated by art as they can be recruited by gangs.

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Military band in the 2023 Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade

Murals are permanent; parades are not. Which brings us to his second passion: whether in them or watching them, he loves parades. And he loves Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade slated for March 2.

As it turns out, Tauber’s father is a World War II veteran, one of those coincidences, so was mine. Both men were stationed during their careers at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago. Tauber pointed out something that is true, but we don’t necessarily realize: Our military has a presence in nearly every parade, even the most modest efforts.

Bands are equally central to parades. “Band members may appear to be casually walking down the street,” Tauber said before elaborating. “It takes a lot of work marching in sync while encased in stiff uniforms and toting instruments that, by the way, need to be played.”

He’s had personal experience with this challenge. “I played saxophone when I was a kid,” he said. “I’m blowing on the mouthpiece. The music card is clipped to the neck and I’m focused on reading the notes. Everything is going fine until I step in a pothole. Mouthpiece meets teeth. I nearly lost a few.”

He emphasized the hard work that goes into organizing and staging parades. Sandi Werthe could confirm that: She has been fielding applications, securing city approval and doing the countless other tasks to make this happen.

Yet there is never a door charge or admission fee to watch a parade. Parades are right up there with libraries that deliver on value, open to everyone, always give back. Parades represent a unique opportunity to support the community and honor all the participants, whether they are part of the parade, or those behind the scenes making the parade happen.

This brought the conversation back to his father, who along with his mother, is in his 90s and living outside Chicago. If Tauber had one wish, I know it would be the opportunity to bring his parents to California to watch him march from Park Avenue and Legion Street down Glenneyre, right on Forest, to the end at City Hall. This is all happening Saturday, March 2, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. I am told there will be floats and vintage cars, maybe some dating back to the ‘30s.

Which brings to mind the first Pageant of the Masters which was actually a parade culminating in a small stage on wheels with a curtain that when raised, revealed the reenactments of Whistler’s Mother, Blue Boy, Mona Lisa and The Sistine Madonna. This was an extraordinary achievement for 1934.

As Artist of the Year, Tauber will be in the thick of the parade. He has planned a surprise of his own, something that he’s creating and he insists is really big as well as unique and memorable. Still, his greatest reward will be sharing the experience, through photos, with his father.

Do check out the street closures and available parking and all the other parade details by clicking here.

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Peace sign in the center of “Coastline to Canyon”

As we cleared away our empty cups and were leaving the cozy 140 West lobby, we wanted to thank Dowell for extending such gracious hospitality. She talked about other hotels in the area that she oversees before adding, “This one is scheduled for renovation.” She was delighted to have this chance meeting with Tauber, whom she knew by reputation but had never met. “As part of the redesign,” she went on to say, “the hotel wants to include a permanent mural.”

Tauber and Dowell had a lot to discuss and so I excused myself and made one last loop to take in the outdoor art that plays an important role on so many levels in our community. Art that is meant to be viewed and enjoyed. Art created by people like Tauber and inviting all of us to be part of its creation.

Tauber is modest about his other achievements. An active exhibitor in the Festival of Arts, he has also been featured in other exhibitions, galleries and juried shows. This includes solo exhibits at John Wayne Airport and Fullerton Museum Center. He was part of a group installation in Sorrento, Italy. He has been a juror, giving back in kind to fellow artists.

Laguna Beach Arts Alliance also named Tauber Artist of the Year in 2018. He was a recipient for many other honors, for his own works as well as his collaborative and leadership efforts.

Not surprising, he teaches ceramics and painting geared to both adults and kids for LOCA Arts Education, FOA and Laguna Art Museum as well as other museums and art-focused venues in Orange County. This year he became a member of the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.

Is Tauber the mystery snorkeler in “Swimming in Sea Life?”

One question I failed to ask but followed up with by email. “You are drawn to the ocean. Does that mean you actually get in the water?”

His answer: “I love swimming in the ocean, and a favorite place to snorkel is Avalon, Catalina.”

Maybe that lone snorkeler in the tile was a volunteer channeling Tauber. I need to take a closer look.

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