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Art and Nature: That’s Laguna

By Tom Osborne
By Tom Osborne

Laguna at its core and as many see it today is the result of sculpting Pacific forces, like wind and waves, and the works of artists who have immortalized in their creative renderings the beauty of its coves, headlands, coastal canyons, and hills. Having lived here 43 years, I cannot imagine three words that better convey what Laguna is than these: art and nature. Simply replace the conjunction “and” with an ampersand and capitalize the two nouns and we have Art & Nature, the recurrent and recent theme of an excellent program at the venerable Laguna Art Museum. It ran Nov. 2-5. Dr. Malcolm Warner and the others who helped mastermind this theme are to be commended for both the brilliance of the concept and its execution.

Unable to do justice to the entirety of the program due to space limitations, I’ll briefly highlight three components of it: the “California Mexicana: Land into Landscape” exhibit of paintings and panel discussion; the keynote address by prominent USC history Professor William Deverell; and the display of three large paintings done by Laguna Beach High School art students depicting sea-level rise and the resultant flooding of downtown Laguna streets.

If the “California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820-1930” exhibit had a flagship work, it was Ferdinand Deppe’s oil on canvas titled “San Gabriel Mission,” circa 1832. A thatched Indian dwelling, with Gabrieleño-Tongvas sitting and standing near its entrance, is featured in the foreground, overlooked by the mission and its church. In the background are situated the San Gabriel Mountains, topped by billowy white clouds surrounding a snow-covered peak. The impression is one of arcadian bliss, but for the indigenous people life there was anything but that. A panel discussion featuring UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel, a leading authority on the California missions, discussed various paintings on exhibit and the realities of life in these iconic religious compounds dating to the Spanish colonial period in California.

Professor Deverell’s speech provided a sweep of California history up to statehood in 1850, correlating various developments with the museum’s displayed paintings. Like the broad strokes of a master painter, he drew our attention to the gathering war clouds over the internationally-coveted Mexican province perched on the continent’s Pacific edge. He asked, “How did Mexico become California,” and answered that the state was “born in blood” –- referring to the Mexican War (1846-1848). Evidencing a skillful use of metaphor to explain the transfer of the Pacific province from Mexico to the United States, he noted that while mission adobe thereafter was eclipsed by Yankee bricks as a building material, those bricks were composed of the same soil elements as adobe; so while the look of Americanized California had changed, the Native American-Hispanic cultural imprint remained indelibly stamped on the area as seen in place names, foods, and fiestas.

A third highlight of Art & Nature was the display on Main Beach of paintings by Laguna Beach High School students depicting sea-level rise in the coming years. Irene Bowie, a member of Laguna’s Environmental and Sustainability Committee, brought Laguna Beach High School art department chair Bridget Beaudry-Porter into the plan to temporarily install on Main Beach three 4 x 6 foot panels depicting a surging Pacific engulfing downtown Laguna’s streets. Said Bowie: “We also wanted to convey the message that green house gas emissions must be reduced if we hope to lessen the intensity of coastal inundation.” This message is wholly consistent with the sea-level rise projections on the West Coast as detailed in the just-released report on climate change from 13 executive branch departments of the federal government. Museum personnel directed visitors to the Art & Nature talks to be sure to see the arresting student installation at the beach. Our city should provide for a reshowing of this art.

The above three highlights evoke from me and many others three cheers for the museum’s Art & Nature program for 2017! Yup, that’s Laguna.


Tom Osborne’s most recent book, “Coastal Sage: Peter Douglas and the Fight to Save California’s Shore” (University of California Press) will be released this month.

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