Art and nature combine swimmingly

Murphy, the sea lion sculpture that stands at the entrance to Laguna Canyon's Pacific Marine Mammal Center, will soon have a companion to help greet visitors to the facility.

For the last month, exhibiting artists from Laguna Art-A-Fair painted designs adhering to an ocean theme on a 40-pound, 4-foot-tall fiberglass sea lion at the art festival grounds, at 777 Laguna Canyon Road.

On Saturday, a delivery truck will transport the sea lion to its permanent home at the mammal center, at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road. The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce will note the installation with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The sea lion will sit on a wooden platform the same height as the one supporting Murphy, who arrived after the December 2010 floods, said Keith Matassa, the center's executive director. Murphy is made of plastic composite and is not decorated with artwork.

Laguna Art-A-Fair and mammal center officials began discussing a second sculpture about a year ago, said Teri Powers, Art-A-Fair's vice president of marketing.

"How many of us had lived here so many years and not known [the mammal center] existed?" Powers said.

That changed over the last five years when the plight of sea lions made national headlines as thousands of the animals, malnourished and dehydrated, washed ashore on Orange County beaches.

The mammal center is the only one of its kind in the area, treating sea lions and other marine mammals from San Onofre north to Seal Beach.

"Suddenly, everyone heard of sea lions," Powers said. "This was the perfect opportunity, and [mammal center] staff was willing to work with us."

Since July, more than 12 artists have taken turns painting the sea lion, which does not yet have a name. Laguna Art-A-Fair, which purchased the sculpture base and is donating the finished product to the mammal center, was taking suggestions for a name on its Facebook page through this week.

Artists have come and gone, leaving a variety of scenes and ocean life on the new sculpture, including whales, starfish and sea turtles, said wildlife painter Laura Curtin, who coordinated the effort.

"The artists were so kind to donate their time and talent," Curtin said. "I appreciate all the volunteers who did this."

Nature and wildlife painter Giam Buu Truong spent six hours at a time over three days drawing, on the sea lion's chest, bright-orange garibaldi, the state marine fish, and kelp beds as he crafted an underwater scene.

Truong, a Westminster resident, didn't hesitate when Laguna-Art-A-Fair officials asked for volunteers.

"I grew up [in Vietnam] with animals and appreciate how beautiful they are," said Truong, 68, alluding to his affection for nature and wildlife.

The contour of the sculpture created a challenge.

"Painting a sculpture is real difficult," he said. "It's not flat like a canvas or paper."

Curtin painted goggle-wearing pink elephants in one section of the sculpture.

"Elephants swim," she said.

Matassa said he has seen photos of the sculpture, and "it looks gorgeous."

"I'm glad we have more art work here to exhibit to visitors," he added.

Laguna Art-A-Fair has a history of raising awareness about the need to protect animals, including wild horses and elephants, through art.

In 2013, artists painted a life-size baby elephant statue to coincide with the Elephant Parade, an international open-air exhibition of decorated statues that was held in Dana Point that year.

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Bryce Alderton, bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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