Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that a desert artist, someone steeped in light, sand and simplicity, could arrive at the ocean and teach beach dwellers a thing or two.
For Phillip K. Smith III, both locations have a stark, infinite expanse that always changes because of space and shadows. Both, in the end, require quietude and patience in order to fully experience their beauty.
Smith was the latest artist to be featured in the annual Laguna Art Museum's "Art & Light" project. Called "1/4 Mile Arc," he created a long arc of tall, thin reflectors on Main Beach. For more of his work, visit pks3.com.
In a lecture at the museum on Nov. 4 , he explained to a full house how the beach is very much like the desert because of its enormity and nuance.
"It was actually quite daunting," he said, describing when he first went to the site to evaluate his options. While he came to Laguna Beach as a teenager with his family, he realized that he could not compete with the inherent natural beauty.
"How do you really impact this space and really collaborate with it?" he said. "The power of what nature makes, it's hard to top it."
He adapted what he had learned from past projects, including his famous "Lucid Stead," which transformed an old wooden homestead in Joshua Tree into a mind-bending display of altered perception.
"'Lucid Stead' is about tapping into the quiet and the pace of change of the desert," he wrote of his work. "When you slow down and align yourself with the desert, the project begins to unfold before you. It reveals that it is about light and shadow, reflected light, projected light and change."
Those same sentiments could describe "1/4 Mile Arc." While not as dramatic as "Lucid Stead," the beach installation fostered curiosity and allowed visitors to easily interact with the piece.
Most people stopped and pondered. You could see their wheels turning. Whatever their understanding, they invariably positioned themselves just right to capture the reflection that suited them.
Smith said he was fine with people having questions, but sometimes it's good not to have the magician explain his tricks.
"You don't want to know," he said. "You just want to have the pure, raw experience."
Whether it's a perfect gradient of sky and clouds or of haze and water, he feels he succeeds when people are "stopping and being quiet so you can truly see and listen."
The allure and magic of the mirror-like poles were how they juxtaposed images. For example, if aligned properly, the breaking surf seemingly moved on land. Cars drove in the sky. Lifeguards ran on water.
Smith said the real philosophical question when you're looking closely at the mirrors is if you wonder which side of the reflection you are on. Not unlike an M.C. Escher illusion, mirrors like this force you to rethink reality.
"There's always a sense of discovery," he said. "It's OK to move through. It's OK to walk around and within."
Smith's creations work best when they transport you without disorientation. In other words, there's something reaffirming about extending the natural universe into other perceptual realms. If that happens organically, simply, with just a few strategically placed mirrors and shifting light, then all the better.
Smith said his goal with these types of projects is to create something memorable and good in this world and share the light.
"In much of my work, I like to interact with the movement of the sun so that the artwork is in a constant state of change," he said in a statement. "I often merge highly precise, geometric, zero tolerance forms with material or experience that is highly organic or in a state of change — something that you cannot hold on to, that slips between your fingers."
While the Laguna project ended on Sunday, Smith hopes people continue to discuss it and let the experience linger.
During a question-and-answer session at the museum, someone asked if it breaks his heart for the work to be torn down.
"It does," he said.
But he quickly added that he will be recycling the reflectors in upcoming shows, including Desert X, an inaugural exhibition in the Coachella Valley next spring, desertx.org. It's intended to shed light on the unique, seemingly barren landscape in new ways.
With Smith's contribution, desert and beach will combine again. Doubtless, the sand and light will carry over, and the conversation will continue.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.