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Laguna Art Museum's Art & Nature conference to debut this fall

The Laguna Art Museum sits atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on a spot picked in 1929 by artists who had settled in Laguna Beach to paint the natural landscape.

Given its site and its historic association with art devoted to nature, Malcolm Warner, the museum’s executive director, thinks it’s only natural for the Laguna Art Museum to host an annual weekend conference and festival examining how art and nature intersect.

The Nov. 7-10 inaugural edition of Art and Nature, announced this week, is expected to feature a gigantic commissioned drawing in the sand of nearby Main Beach as a centerpiece. The keynote speaker will be USC professor and former state librarian Kevin Starr, an authority on California history who’ll  talk about shifting attitudes toward the Golden State's environment.

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The program also will include two panel discussions bringing together scientists who study nature and artists who take inspiration from it.

 “This museum is uniquely positioned to celebrate the interaction between artists and nature,” Warner said. 

Planning for the Art and Nature conference began early this year, he said, and its final shape is “still very much in the white heat of creation.” A key moment will likely come on July 16, when museum leaders are scheduled to ask the Laguna Beach City Council to OK plans for Santa Cruz artist Jim Denevan to temporarily occupy up to a mile-long swath of Main Beach with one of the drawings he makes using just a rake and a large stick.

 “The beauty of it is that Jim doesn’t mind people using the beach at the same time he’s making the designs,” Warner said. “He can work around them, and he said he’s found from experience that people are quite respectful of what he does,” finding spots for volleyball, strolling and sunbathing that allow the art to coexist with beach-going as usual.

Warner said he’s aware of only one other comparable museum program, the Art and Environment Conference at the Nevada Museum of Art.  Having discussed his plans with William Fox, director of the Reno museum’s Center for Art and Environment,  Warner thinks Laguna can find its own niche by emphasizing the shore and ocean and steering clear of architectural themes that are featured prominently in the Nevada conferences -- although he does envision a landscape architecture component for the Laguna conference.

Warner said he’s still scouting for panelists and seeking ideas. Among those he plans to meet with are Michael Latz, a marine biologist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla who studies bioluminescence -- the ability of some deep-sea creatures to generate their own light. Latz has collaborated with photographer and video artist Erika Blumenfeld on an art project depicting the phenomenon’s beauty.

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Warner recruited Laguna Beach filmmaker Greg McGillivray and his wife, Barbara, to serve on “a brainstorming committee” that’s shepherding the Laguna Art Museum’s conference. McGillivray is co-founder of McGillivray Freeman Films, a leading producer of IMAX and other giant-screen documentaries that typically focus on science and nature.  A 2009 film, “Van Gogh -- Brush With Genius,” branched into art with an IMAX-scale look at the master’s paintings.

It was a “happy coincidence” rather than a matter of deliberate planning, Warner said, that two special exhibitions that will be on display during the Art and Nature conference  will dovetail with its theme,  even though they were planned before any thought had been given to the new event.

 “Sea Change: Tanya Aguiniga’s Bluebelt Forest,” which opened in June for a nearly yearlong run, is a commissioned installation that has turned a museum gallery into a colorful evocation of Pacific kelp forests and coral reefs, rendered in yarn and other land-derived materials. Special lighting effects lend an underwater feel.

“Adam Silverman: Clay and Space,” opening Oct. 27, is the first solo museum exhibition for the Los Angeles ceramic artist, who often looks to the shore for his materials, and for the forms and textures of the finished artworks. Silverman plans to dig clay for some of his exhibition’s newest pieces in Laguna, and fire them in a public fire pit on the beach.

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In recent years, Warner said, the Laguna Art Museum had honored its roots in nature-painting by hosting an annual invitational show organized by the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn., which this fall will move to a different venue in Laguna Beach, the Aliso Creek Inn.

 “I felt, and the board and staff agree, that having done that for 15 years, we might want to look to represent in a broader way artists who engage with nature -- for example, artists who make Land art, or who are inspired by an astronomical or microbiological way of looking at nature,” Warner said.

While the Plein Air Invitational “is very close to the hearts of many people here, when we explained that we felt we should open up to all kinds of California art that deals with nature and not spend quite so much time and energy showcasing that one particular kind, most people understood.”

Warner said that traditional views of the California landscape will be well-represented in museum galleries during the Art and Nature conference, with early 20th century California Impressionist classics by William Wendt, Joseph Kleitch and others to be featured in permanent collection galleries that will emphasize the Laguna Art Museum’s nature-oriented holdings.

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