Inside Out: The War of Art, Laguna Style


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By Michele McCormick

Sex sells. Aggression sells art. Maybe. Freud believed that creativity is libido and aggression sublimated. This Victorian father of psychology dared to propose that when humankind has a conscious relationship to instinctual drives, societies realize higher collective strivings toward art, love, and civilized life.

This has been my experience at the annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting  Invitational. Artists from across the U.S come to offer their best effort at interpreting Laguna’s vistas. The Quick Draw — a timed-two hour paint-off and silent bidding contest that immediately follows — begins the weeklong painting fest and the Collectors’ Soirée closes it. As a writer and psychologist, I view life through a unique, subjective, lens often seeing multiple levels of meaning. I imagine the Quick Draw and silent auction as aggressive and competitive in nature. The Saturday evening Collectors’ Soiree feels sexier, more libidinal. Smooth. Sauvé. An urbane, shared communal experience where attendees dressed in their finest enjoy works of art over champagne and martinis.

When preparing for a Quick Draw, all a gal might need would be paintbrushes and palette knives… especially if already fortified in Luchese custom boots and black jeans. Not so for the silent auction at the 2011 invitational. A name like Quick Draw brings to mind visions of the Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp shoot outs at the Okay Corral. Given what came down and surrendering to my baser instincts, I wished I’d holstered a metaphorical Lady Smith and Wesson that fine day. I’d done my research. I knew the artists well.

I started collecting in 2001 at Joan Irvine Smith’s first fundraiser for the Crystal Cove Conservancy. Many of us were grieving over the changes happening to that last stretch of undeveloped coastline. We wanted to give, to buy art as a way to preserve the memories, the land. I heard about the event while on a beach walk from painter Jacobus Baas, a founding member of Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, who set up in front of Vivian Falzetti’s studio to paint the cottages at sunset. I connected with that first painting. Now it hangs over my fireplace.

Ten years later, at the 2011 Laguna Plein Air Painting Invitational’s Quick Draw auction, I was ready again to bid on a Baas. Friends were bidding on some of the same pieces I enjoyed. We appreciated good work. We laughed about it. It was collaborative, even playful…until it wasn’t.

The close of the silent auction period neared. Auctioneers called the time remaining. I’d circled the room once, twice, then three times to identify the pieces that drew me. Timing was everything. I noticed an experienced husband-wife team efficiently working the room together. They were interested in the Jacobus Baas piece that I coveted. I confess. I was lost in the desire to possess, to own, to compete for limited resources–that base instinctual drive had taken hold.

One minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, I stood in front of my first choice, waiting. I used the last second remaining to put my name down for the fourth and final time. The bell rang. I had the winning bid on the Jacobus Baas piece! It was mine, mine, mine. My precious.

But, no. Seconds after the bell, I was knocked sideways into the wall by a confident brawny man who must have been a defensive lineman in a former life. He elbowed me out of the way, boldly writing his name down after mine. I was in shock, almost knocked to the ground. Standing agape, unable to speak, I recognized my competitor. He was a respected Laguna business owner and philanthropist. While he sauntered off, quite pleased with himself, the auctioneer moved in and took the bidding page from the wall. Amazing. How was that possible? A cheater defeated me.

Suddenly, I was on the sixth grade playground when Grady Smith knocked me down to score a homerun even though I’d tagged him out, fair-and-square. Silly me. Why didn’t I realize one could break the rules, push the limits to get the prized possession?

Hold on, now, this year’s Invitational ends well. At the silent auction held at Aliso Creek Inn on Oct. 13, LPAPA Director Rosemary Swimm stood with microphone in hand just before the bidding ended to institute a firm ground rule. “If there’s a bidding war, those involved need to come up here now to discuss it.”

Throughout the week’s events, I experienced serendipitous moments of collaboration between fellow collectors and art lovers. Rather than an elbow in my ribs, I found trustworthy sounding boards in dear friends.

In the end we sublimated our instinctual drives to compete, conquer, or possess toward the pursuit of a higher call to appreciate creativity and art, qualities of soulful living that can never be owned.


Michele McCormick is a resident, writer and practicing psychologist in Laguna. She can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Liz Zuercher

    I guess art stirs all kinds of feelings, including the urge to do battle. I hope the cheater reads this essay and feels remorse. In the end, though, it sounds like a more benevolent creative spirit prevailed. Thank goodness!

  2. Mariah

    Fun view into the intensity of silent auctions and into one of our best annual events for the arts in Laguna. Hope you read this at November DimeStories.

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