Museum Remixes Light with Nature and History

Artist Phillip K. Smith III describes one of his works. Photos by Jody Tiongco.
Artist Phillip K. Smith III describes one of his works.
Photos by Jody Tiongco.

Though Laguna Beach’s signature summer art festivals have long wrapped up, the Laguna Art Museum established what is turning into a unique seasonal tradition, the Art & Nature Festival.

The symposium melding art, nature and science of art, now in its fourth year, takes place Nov. 3-6 and focuses on the multi-disciplinary work of artists Phillip K. Smith III and Kristen Leachman.

“Art inspired by nature and the people that made it are the history of Laguna Beach,” museum director Malcolm Warner said.

As in previous years, the museum will annex Main Beach for the main festival presentation, Smith’s outdoor installation titled “1/4 Mile Arc.”

It will consist of 250 stainless steel upright poles installed to echo the graceful curve of the Main Beach coastline. Placed four and a half feet apart, the poles will reflect the cityscape, the ocean and the sand and the changing light conditions. “My desire is to create large scale works in the context of an environment, to create a dialogue between light and topography, as well as give viewers a sense of discovery,” said Smith on Monday, in explaining the installation.


Kristin Leachman’s work depicts the internal structure of plants.
Kristin Leachman’s work depicts the internal structure of plants.

Yet, with its dependence on natural light, Smith describes “Arc” as an analog piece as opposed to “Bent Parallel,” a work consisting of two light-filled planes arranged in a way to suggest a third. In addition, an intriguing circular installation in the museum’s mezzanine brings to mind a sunlit field of flowers all contained by circular shapes. “There can be no obvious signs of fabrication just pure (visual) magic,” said Smith of the seemingly spontaneous changes of color from greens to yellows to hues of pinkish reds. “I’m in control and also willingly out of control,” he said.

Motionless, the uprights might nonetheless recall Lita Albuquerque’s 2014 installation “An Elongated Now,” another Art & Nature installation on Main Beach. Then, a long line of white-clad volunteers formed an arc at the water’s edge in the golden glow of pre-sunset and then at twilight reversed direction and revealed glowing blue lights.

That year, the festival drew more than 1,514 visitors. This year, organizers hope for even larger crowds.

The first 2013 show centered on Jim Denevan’s illumination of the length of Main Beach with solar lanterns, which cast graceful arcs of light. Last year, the museum commissioned Los Angeles artist Laddie John Dill to devise a laser light show at the north end of Main Beach.

Inspired in part by the light and space movement of James Turrell, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, Smith earned degrees in fine art and architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. But, born in 1972 in Los Angeles, he also has an emotional connection to Laguna Beach. “I remember going to the Sawdust Festival since age 4; going there was a yearly birthday gift for my father,” he recalled.

If Smith’s light pieces appear as the perfect marriage of art and modern technology, Kristin Leachman’s “Xylem Rays,” plumb the depth of nature. Leachman closely observes xylem, the system that supplies nourishment to trees from roots to branches. It’s comprised of patterns made by an intricate net of wooden arteries. She painstakingly transforms what she sees into gouache washed drawings or large oil paintings that, although fairly monochromatic, command attention.

Born in 1966, Leachman grew up in Virginia, close to the Blue Ridge Mountains in a woodsy region populated by artisans and crafts people. “Early on, I always saw women making things, crocheting, knitting that influenced the way I look at art now,” she said.

Also a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she initially wanted to move to New York. Through her study of Western explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Los Angeles beckoned and she now lives and works in Pasadena.

The eight paintings seen in the museum’s lower level galleries begin to take shape on a black background where Leachman has traced the basic life-force that supports trees. “I paint what I see on the trees using no forms of enlargement,” she explained. Painting the forms a tiny bit at a time, she slowly adds color, likening the process to diary entries. A video filmed by her husband, film maker Kurt Brabbée, accompanies the exhibition.

Nature also gets its due in the third festival exhibition, “Miss Hills of Laguna Beach: Anna Althea Hills,” curated by Janet Blake, the museum’s curator of historical art.

Although not as renowned today as some of her male contemporaries in the Laguna Beach Art Association, over which she presided in the 1920s, Hills was a driving force in the founding of Laguna Beach as an art colony.

Warner noted that she was a skilled fundraiser when it came to build the association’s art gallery, which today is the museum’s largest exhibition space.

Blake will present Hill’s life and work in a lecture on Oct. 27. (See related story).


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