‘The Big One’ Returns Home

Robert Young’s widow Deborah and daughter Charlotte alongside his masterpiece, “The Big One.”
Robert Young’s widow Deborah and daughter Charlotte alongside his masterpiece, “The Big One.”

From the Festival of Arts

A year after his passing, artist, colorist and former Laguna Beach Festival of Arts exhibitor Robert Young’s immense masterpiece, “The Big One,” has made its way back to Laguna Beach after a 30-year sojourn at SeaWorld San Diego. It will be on display at the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts through the end of August, the first time it has ever been exhibited for the general public.

As a child, Young put on a diving mask back in the 1940s and dove into the ocean at what is now Crystal Cove State Park, emerging transformed. In an aesthetic sense, he never came to the surface again.

When he began painting, his subjects were marine inspired and his style was completely his own. In the early 1970’s, Young transformed a stash of salvaged telephone poles to frame a secure shelter big enough to accommodate a large painting he had begun. The painting was so large and so long in the making (nearly a decade), Young and his artist friends began referring to it as “The Big One.” He covered the entire 9’ X 15’ surface, one dot at a time. His legion of friends had long since told him that it was finished when he covered it again. And again.

In the stormy winter of 1978, 25 massive eucalyptus trees fell in a single night in the secluded Thurston Park neighborhood of Laguna Canyon. One of them squashed Young’s car flat and fell on his house and destroyed it, miraculously leaving the occupants alive. One tree aimed to fall onto “The Big One,” but the structure of telephone poles protecting it did its work and fended off the blow that might have destroyed 10 years of work.

In the end it was Mother Nature, not the painter, who determined the completion of “The Big One.”

“Bob Young was the wonder of our time,” says Laguna Beach artist and Young’s long-time friend, Dion Wright. “Bob might never have finished ‘The Big One,’ having already worked on it for over a decade. It is an arrested process rather than a finished work; very pure.”

The painting had to be moved, but not just any facility could accommodate such a large piece. In the end, SeaWorld received the painting for display in a restaurant there, and eventually that building became the home of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute – an appropriate place for such a work, but also a place where the public had limited access.

When Young died last May after a nearly decade-long struggle with dementia, his wife Deborah determined to bring “The Big One” back to Laguna Beach where she would find a home for it where the public could enjoy it. After discussions with the Festival of Arts last year, plans were made to return the “The Big One” to Laguna Beach.

“We just felt like this painting was a significant part of Laguna Beach’s history,” says Pat Sparkuhl, who caught Deborah’s vision for moving the painting to a public place and became the project’s primary champion at the Festival of Arts. “It’s an emblem of an era and the biggest painting ever produced in Laguna Beach. We wanted people to know about it, to see it.”

Moving the massive painting wouldn’t be an easy task. The painting is so large and was in one place for so long, Hubbs-SeaWorld had built out some of their facility around it, precluding it from being moved on its stretcher bars. It took six people, three ladders, one 12-foot tube and a rented moving truck to get the painting off the wall, rolled up and delivered to the Festival of Arts where it was stored for two months before the season opened at the beginning of July.

For “The Big One” to be appropriately displayed, the Festival preservationists had to build a new stretcher system and framework to accommodate it. The future home of Young’s opus remains to be determined, ownership remaining with the family until it is procured by a suitable collector or institution.

“I would love for ‘The Big One’ to have a permanent home in the Laguna Beach art scene, but wherever it ends up, my biggest stipulation is that it be displayed for the public to enjoy,” says Mrs. Young. “People deserve that. Robert deserves that.”

Visitors can enjoy the enormity of “The Big One” through the end of August.

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