“This is gorgeous!” exclaimed several passersby as Laguna Beach sculptor Terry Thornsley put the finishing touches on “Grace,” a mural commissioned by the city to adorn a wall adjacent to Main Beach’s lifeguard headquarters.
Thornsley finished the metal mural on Sunday as Mother’s Day crowds swirled around the site and the early afternoon sun gave no quarter. “This project was as draining as it is rewarding. I feel a weight off my shoulders now that I met all its challenges and it turned out what I wanted it to be,” he said.
Built in six sections, weighing roughly 150 pounds each, the commission had been budgeted at $40,000. Thornsley estimates at least half the commission went to cover material and production costs, while he put in 2,500 hours of work (earning about $8 an hour) for a work of art that is even more impressive at dusk when lights hidden in the design elements turn on. “It’s a thank you for the opportunity to the city and a gift to the community I live in,” he said.
Thornsley named the mural that includes two figures rowing a dory through churning seas to make a rescue to honor lifeguards who risk their lives for others.
An ocean kayaker, sailor and certified diver, Thornsley’s mural also pays homage to the ocean and the creatures inhabiting it. The mural, crafted in bronze, copper and stainless steel, is enlivened by schools of fish and waves with a patina of greenish blue hues and topped by silvery heads depicting foam. It does lack sea lions. “I hate to repeat myself,” he said, a reference to Thornsley’s sea lion sculptures already in Crescent Bay Park, at the Laguna Beach campus of Mission Hospital, the “Water Puppy” at the Festival of Arts and “Slick” on the Seal Beach pier.
Thornsley had but three weeks to submit a proposal, which was ultimately selected from finalists winnowed last spring by the city’s arts commission. He went to Hawaii for inspiration and studied Japanese woodblock prints, especially Katsushika Hokusai’s “Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” which inspired the frothy waves in “Grace.”
Woodworking artist Randy Bader occupies half of the live-work building on Laguna Canyon Road that Thornsley designed. He observed “Grace” in progress.
“I’ve been seeing it in pieces nearly a year. It resembles a plein-air painting in so far that close up you see the pieces of metal as separate elements. Fifty yards away, it looks like a painting,” he said. “It is a work of art as well as an engineering project, and at night it’s magnificent, a dream-like sculpture.”
Built in 1992 and miraculously spared by the 1993 fires, their studio/living quarters are designed to accommodate their work, such as an orientation to correspond with light and temperature variants and a 10-foot tall front door.
“We followed the original live/work ground rule that artists should build their own studios,” said Bader.
Thornsley, 55, said he worked out aesthetics such as making the wood and stucco structure look like concrete and adding design elements that correspond specifically to the canyon. Trained as a draftsman in high school, he once considered becoming an architect should his art ambitions not work out.
A Laguna Beach resident for 31 years, Thornsley exhibited for 28 years at the Festival of Arts, up until 2012.
Mostly self-taught, Thornsley began painting watercolors and sketching nature at age 14. “My parents collected painting and I thought, hey, I can do that,” he recalled. While still in high school, he began to exhibit and sell work in galleries and at age 21, he had shows on Catalina Island and in Palm Springs, he recalled.
He learned how to sculpt by observing friends and experimenting with small sandstone pieces at first. Becoming enamored with sculpture, he took foundry courses at San Jacinto College and still fondly recalls filling ceramic crucibles with chunks of metal to be melted.
Although much of Thornsley’s public art works relate to ocean life, he does not want to be known as a marine artist. “Peacescape,” a 12-foot long bronze landscape, centered on a giant oak and the fauna of Laguna Canyon, is a case in point. The work on the grounds of the Montage resort faces Coast Highway and screens a rear entry.
“It’s one of Terry’s most beautiful and subtle pieces. It should really be more prominently placed,” said Laguna Beach photographer Hamisch Duncan, a close friend.
Ken Auster, a painter and member of the arts commission, praises Thornsley’s aesthetics and work ethic. “Terry is a hard worker who puts in more effort than is required for a project. In my experience most artists have two identifications, themselves and the art. For Terry the most important thing is the art; he knows that is what will be around long after most of us are gone,” he said.