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A Lagunan at The Bowers

By Gary Stewart

So, you have danced on The Deck at Sawdust and watched the glass-blowing. You have perused the offerings at the Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair. You have soaked up the view of old Laguna captured by Joseph Kleitsch, now on exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum. You are a regular at Laguna’s First Thursdays, floating from one local gallery to another. 

And it’s still not enough. 

Not to worry. There’s more, as I experienced in mid-July, at one of the bimonthly Free Family Festivals (free admission for Santa Ana residents) at the Bowers Museum. The theme this time was “Celebration of Indian Culture.” On walking under the mission-style arch into the courtyard, there is activity in every direction. To the left and right, there are numerous tables with a variety of art projects (for kids AND adults), such as decorating your own kite or fan or having a peacock feather painted on your arm. There are free samples of Indian food set out by a young woman in gorgeous traditional Indian wedding attire. Ahead of you, there is shaded seating for listening to live sitar music with vocal accompaniment. This is all before you reach the entrance.

Inside, more choices. One of the temporary exhibits is unbelievably intricate and colorful hand-sewn beaded art from rural South Africa. Made with tiny Czech glass beads, the artists labor for months, imbuing the work with their griefs and memories. There are multiple permanent exhibits. From Polynesia, one encounters exotic masks every bit as frightening as anything from Tim Burton, a headband of dog’s teeth, a pectoral ornament made with a clamshell and a turtle shell, a double ring fashioned from a boar’s tusk, and an unimaginatively-named “pig killing club” (which also sported intricate carving and coloring).

The art of China spans many centuries, with Ming Dynasty blue and white ceramics, of course, intricately carved snuff boxes and monumental lidded jars of the Qing Dynasty, and horse sculptures that continued to demonstrate the muscular horses with flaring nostrils and attentive ears, still reflecting breeding practices dating to the Han Dynasty two millennia ago (141-87 BCE). There are cases of pottery from western Mexico, elegant still-life paintings of Alberta Binford McClosky, and artifacts of “The First Californians.”

The other temporary exhibit was a treat: The 112th Annual Gold Medal Exhibition, curated by the California Art Club. This included almost 200 paintings and sculptures in a wide array of styles. Several excellent works had familiar names – Hollister Ranch Solitude from Michael Obermeyer, Laguna Beach from Michael Situ (Heisler Park at sundown), and Front Row Spectators from Wendy Wirth. Most of the California Art Club paintings are still available for purchase at californiaartclub.org.

In the always interesting museum store, I found a darling Japanese pin made from a small cherrywood branch from which were hanging eight acorns, each wrapped in a unique kimono silk fabric. I can also attest to the excellence of the dishes to be had at the museum’s restaurant, Tangata, where this Sunday’s brunch included roasted cauliflower, avocado toast, crème brûlée French toast or smoked salmon with red onion and capers.

The number of visitors had reached 268 by 12:50 p.m. when I left to brave the incoming Laguna traffic that was backed up well past the 73. Oh well, that’s the price we pay for living where everyone else wants to be. Even so, it’s worth it to break out once in a while. Make note – if you are at the level of “Supporting Member” at the Laguna Art Museum ($150 annually and above), you are enrolled in the North American Reciprocal Museum program, which allows free or discounted admission to the Bowers and about 1,100 other museums.

Dr. Stewart, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida, stopped in Nashville and St. Louis for education before arriving in Southern California in 1977. A happily married internal medicine physician with three accomplished children, he is equally enthusiastic about the arts (piano player, art collector, bachelor’s in English, widely read), the sciences (physician, climate activist with Citizens’ Climate Lobby) and fun.

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