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Art umbrellas bring unity, inspiration to Laguna Beach

Art umbrellas bring unity, inspiration to Laguna Beach
It took 1,000 lighted umbrellas for Laguna Beach to rekindle its spirit. (Photo by David Hansen)

It took 1,000 lighted umbrellas for Laguna Beach to rekindle its spirit.

With a deep pastel sunset as a backdrop, Main Beach became a sea of mandalas on Saturday night as part of the Laguna Art Museum’s sixth annual Art & Nature experience. Called the Shoreline Project, it was the brainchild of Newport Beach artist Elizabeth Turk.

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The LED-illuminated umbrellas, fashioned after the X-ray image of a seashell mandala, provided dramatic contrast as they swirled and moved along the beach.

In addition to the spectacle itself, the community event seemed to capture Laguna’s imagination in a way that was both nostalgic and optimistic.

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For decades, the famous art colony has lived on its reputation — funky but increasingly corporate.

The Sawdust Festival still claims bragging rights among the hippie-cum-hipster generation while the Pageant of the Masters and Festival of Arts have become well-oiled machines catering to busloads of tourists.

This fledging annual production by the museum that defies categorization has become the city’s true avant-garde art standard.

It has single-handedly infused a new energy into what makes Laguna Laguna.

On the beach, proud residents pranced around with their magic umbrellas. Spinning and dancing with abandon, it was clear that all people really need is the approval to have fun.

“At first I think some of the participants wondered what they were supposed to do, but soon the idea that you could make all kinds of interesting moves with the umbrellas caught on and it was a party,” said Malcolm Warner, executive director the museum. “Elizabeth thought a lot about what she called the ‘sociology’ of the piece and her intuitions were right. They made themselves into a community.”

Laguna artist Robert Holton and his wife, Marita, volunteered, and they thoroughly enjoyed the immediate sense of community.

“It was magical how it was all put together, very interactive,” he said. “I was amazed at the age diversity. There were seniors, parents, families, small children. It brought a lot of people together.”

Perhaps there was pent-up demand for something like this. Remember that last year the museum’s final event was banned by the California Coastal Commission, which claimed the art project was inconsistent with the rules of the Marine Protected Area. The temporary installation, “Seascape,” would have anchored a streetlight 200 yards off the beach.

In prior years, the exhibitions were more prescriptive and less participatory. If you recall, there was the laser show, the tall mirrors poking out of the beach, the illuminated spirographs in the sand and the white-robed ephemeral people.

All of these were very interesting but didn’t have the same “Singin’ in the Rain” umbrella chutzpah.

Whether or not the art project worked from a critical perspective, I don’t know. I’m not an art critic. But I will tell you this: It completely energized everyone.

The crowds were unprecedented. People lined up well before dark. There was sustained buzz everywhere.

There was never this much anticipation for an event — any event — that I can recall in Laguna for at least the last decade, probably more.

I think there were several reasons why.

The timing was perfect. Most people have been beleaguered by an unusual midterm election. This art event was a welcomed antidote. I did not hear one snide political comment the whole night.

Also, as with any public art project, the participation is novel, and there’s an immediacy to it. Everyone knows it’s going to be over in a matter of hours, so there’s built-in appreciation for its temporal nature.

“The umbrellas united them [which is what umbrellas do, metaphorically speaking] and at the same time allowed each person to do something of their own,” Warner said. “There was both community and individual expression, and I think that energized people — they were part of a group and free to be themselves.”

I also think there’s been enough of a track record by the museum to successfully execute these events that people know — whatever happens — it will be creative, thought-provoking and just plain fun.

That’s why these events represent the best of Laguna. It’s the sheer unexpectedness, gumption, sophistication and leadership.

“This was the sixth Art & Nature,” Warner said. “It would be a huge honor for the museum if people started to think of our event as a Laguna Beach institution like the Pageant of the Masters and the summer art festivals. We certainly feel like we’re moving that way, and the fact that we had the highest ever attendance this year bears it out.”

Time and again, I heard overwhelmingly how this event captured the hearts of everyone involved.

“It was mesmerizing,” Holton said. “I wish it was just more than one night.”

Events like this remind any city of what’s possible.

It can highlight a path forward but only if there’s a willingness to embrace risk, think big and reward whimsy.

David Hansen is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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