The long cardboard box extended across a table at the Coastline Art Gallery, and Bolton Colburn was eager — and more than a little relieved — to view its contents.
Colburn, the curator of the gallery's upcoming show, knew what was inside the box, though he had never seen it in person. He was definitely familiar with the image — Beth Pewther, the artist, had been in contact with him, and he had viewed reproductions of her 1966 mixed-media piece, "Body of Christ — Body of Man."
Before Colburn tracked her down, though, he believed the piece was lost. Mystic Arts World, the Laguna Beach shop and gallery where it once hung, burned down in 1970, and one of Pewther's works perished in the blaze. Dion Wright, the onetime curator at Mystic Arts World, had told Colburn he believed "Body of Christ" was that piece.
But it wasn't, and now the velvet-mounted work emerged from the box. Colburn held one end as Coastline gallery director David Michael Lee slid the piece out and undid the bubble wrap. As "Body of Christ" rolled out on the table, its image — a portrait of Jesus in flames on the cross, with images of the Vietnam War and American magazines surrounding it — looked pleasantly ironic under the circumstances.
"It didn't burn!" Colburn exclaimed with wry enthusiasm. "Although it is burning."
Pewther, who lives in San Francisco, had mailed "Body of Christ" ahead of two other pieces. When "Orange Sunshine and the Mystic Artists 1967-1970" opens July 25 at Coastline, Pewther's efforts will join enough other contributions to cover the walls from floor to ceiling — though the total will still fall short of what the organizers had in mind.
When Colburn and Wright set out to create a retrospective show for Mystic Arts World, they worked from a list of about 50 artists who had once exhibited at the Laguna shop. In the end, they managed to line up about two-thirds of them, since some proved impossible to locate. Not all the artworks were available in original form, for that matter — Wright's "Taxonomic Mandala" painting, which hung in Mystic Arts World's meditation room and has since gone missing, will be represented by a high-resolution copy.
Mystic Arts World operated under the leadership of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a bohemian group that took Timothy Leary as its spiritual leader and helped brand Laguna as an epicenter of the 1960s drug scene. Its story has inspired many tellings over the years: in Nicholas Schou's book "Orange Sunshine," in OC Weekly features, in memories shared at Mystic Arts, the artists' cooperative that opened recently in Laguna near the burned-down gallery's former site.
Still, Colburn said, the artistic side of the period has gotten short shrift. The exhibit at Coastline, to his and Wright's knowledge, is the first of its kind.
"In hindsight, it's becoming more apparent that it was an important period — an extremely important period regionally that has been completely overlooked," Colburn said. "And that, I think, makes this exhibition really important."
'A burned-out shell'
Wright still remembers the call.
The artist, now a longtime fixture at the Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna, was stirred by the phone around 5:30 a.m. in June 1970. When he answered, he heard the voice of Norm Babcock, a police officer friend, bearing the news that Mystic Arts World had burned overnight.
Wright raced down to the shop and encountered a scene both depressing and, in the context of the time, predictable.
"I went down and it was just a burned-out shell, a smoking hulk," he said during a lunch break at Sawdust last week. "The melted candles from the import store were running out across the sidewalk. Technicolor, organic-looking weirdness. And there were a bunch of hippies on the other side of Coast Highway yelling at Norm Babcock: 'There's the [jerk] who did it! It's all him. He's the fire man!'
"Well, poor Norm, he had nothing to do with anything like that. He was just the scapegoat because he happened to be a cop."
Wright, who has stated before that he believes members of the right-wing John Birch Society lit the fire, remembers the day bitterly for another reason: "That fire took out a lot of good artwork. A lot of disappointed people about that."
Still, plenty of pieces from Mystic Arts World's heyday survived — and ended up in the personal collection of Wright, who became a de facto historian and archivist. In addition to artworks, Wright saved many fliers advertising shows at the gallery, and he dug them out of his files for the Coastline show.
One is the notice for Pewther's solo show, with a reproduction of "Body of Christ" alongside a quote from Wright proclaiming her a "visionary American mythical Christian." Other fliers show different sides of the times: A photography exhibit titled "Faces of the Poor" features a picture of a black child clinging to a fence and gazing warily at the viewer.
Would Mystic Arts World have endured over the years if not for the fire? Wright, who noted that it began around the same time as Sawdust, suspects that it would. As for the era that spawned the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, he's brusquely unsentimental about it.
"It was a godawful period full of disaster," he said. "And it had very little to recommend it, except that it was doing some good work to oppose the Vietnam War. Aside from that, it was painful."
A long-ago Laguna
Pewther, who scored a one-woman show at Mystic Arts World when Wright saw an exhibit of her work in New York, lived in Laguna only for a few years before departing for San Francisco. The gallery, though, represented the end of a cross-country journey for her, and Wright's backyard served as the makeshift destination.
After Wright invited her to exhibit her work in Orange County, Pewther and her husband bought a car and drove all the way. Once in Laguna, they set up camp outdoors behind Wright's home — for a practical reason as much as a bohemian one.
"We had a little dog, and he was allergic to dogs," Pewther recalled.
She quickly found herself in a city where improvised living conditions were far from rare. The Los Angeles Times, in a 1970 story on the hippie scene, described Laguna as "a sort of a spiritual watering hole for a subculture, where a longhair knows he can always find a friend, someone to rap with, someone to travel with, someone to crash with, someone, in short, like himself."
In the midst of that scene stood Mystic Arts World, which offered beads, books and vegan food — and, on the side, not-so-legal items. Pewther, who supported herself in Orange County as an advertiser for a community newspaper, drew from multiple sources — contemporary news, drug usage and spirituality — to craft the works that hung at the gallery.
"They were done in kind of a religious passion," she said. "I had recently been converted to Christianity, and I had taken a lot of psychedelics. I wasn't a fun seeker so much as a truth seeker, so I was looking for things that would give me deeper insight. I was searching for the real reality, whatever that is."
At Coastline, Pewther's works will hang alongside others in a variety of mediums: wood assemblages by Gordon Wagner, pen-and-ink drawings by Steven Kensrue, prints by Mary Riker Segal. Richard Aldcroft, who once installed a psychedelic light-projection machine at Mystic Arts World, will be represented by a digital projection of his work since Colburn was unable to locate him.
Another vintage touch will contribute to the Coastline show: Music by Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, whose records often provided background music at Mystic Arts World, will play at the gallery.
For Allan Seymour, the exhibit evokes memories that go beyond Mystic Arts World itself. The Capistrano Beach resident, who donated sculptures by Robert "Jocko" Johnson for the show, said his now-deceased friend cottoned to the dusty, rural vibe of southern Orange County in the 1960s and left subsequently as the area grew more suburban.
"He moved up to Twentynine Palms when it became too civilized here, too many rules," Seymour said. "He always missed the living down here."
Nearly half a century after Mystic Arts World's demise, is there still interest in an exhibit of its artworks? Schou, the managing editor of OC Weekly, suspects so.
"I think that, even though Laguna has changed dramatically since the '60s, there's still a kind of core community of artists who remember what it used to be like," he said. "So the story of Mystic Arts World is certainly a key part of the nostalgia that still exists for that time period."
IF YOU GO
What: "Orange Sunshine and the Mystic Artists 1967-1970"
Where: Coastline Art Gallery, 1515 Monrovia Ave., Newport Beach
When: Opening reception, 6 to 10 p.m. July 25. Exhibit runs from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays, from July 27 to Sept. 26 (closed Aug. 29)
Information: (714) 241-6213 or coastline.edu/community/art-gallery