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Hansen: Boyhood gem leads to life of art

When Todd Elliott Cohen was a boy he had a favorite opal.

The fiery gem would sparkle with mesmerizing light. He used to stare at it for hours, turning it over in his hand and holding it up to the sun as if there was some cosmic connection.

This wonderment never left him.

The Laguna Beach artist is still playing with light. Celebrating his five-year anniversary at 577 S. Coast Hwy, Cohen has crafted a specialized artistic style that combines sculpture, light and photography.

"I get the most joy out of doing abstract shapes that represent rhythm and nature — waves and caves and shells and flowers and bodies and sacred geometry," he said. "It's like an artistic Rorschach test."

But it started in an unconventional household.

"I grew up in a house with a room that had furniture made of prisms," he said. "I had this room of rainbow light that I grew up with, so that is what started me playing with light."

He trained at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he gravitated toward sculpture.

"It wasn't until art school that I fell in love with sculpture," he said. "So I have a background in fine art, but when I started sculpting I realized that was my greatest passion. But then I got out of art school and looked out at the world and my reaction was, great, I'm a stone carver. What am I supposed to do with that?"

Restless, he landed on a beach in Anguilla, West Indies, in his comfort zone: selling jewels. But island living ran its course, and he was eager to return stateside.

"I got back to the states and really felt like I needed something tropical but also was connected to metropolitan areas," Cohen said. "And Laguna is the perfect balance to me between island life and city life."

At first he worked at a gem and gallery store on Forest Avenue, but eventually his current space opened up. Plus the technology and market changed. LED lights became more affordable, and mixed mediums grew in popularity.

"It really was the combination of lights and sculpture that allowed me to live and function as an artist," he said.

Cohen started experimenting with different styles of sculpture but quickly realized that he needed to make some decisions.

"It could take a year to make a piece of art. That was a problem," he said. "It wasn't until I started doing the light sculptures, that I could cast and finish and make one in 20 hours as opposed to 200, that I started selling my art."

Cohen's light sculptures, which can be seen at toddelliottcohen.com represent a combination of fine art and timed lighting, creating subtle but striking changes in mood. He also applies the technique to photographs of the sculptures. The photos range from $300 to $2,000.

"People are drawn to color. People who like something that's different are magnetically drawn to my art. Once they hear the explanation, they are even more impressed, knowing it's a sculpture and there's lighting involved and photography."

It's not easy work. Cohen keeps his gallery open seven days a week. It's located steps away from the busy Cliff Restaurant. While he enjoys a stunning view of Main Beach, it's not a traditional gallery space, which is fine by him. He would rather have a view than be in a fancy gallery staring at square walls all day.

"The challenge of running a shop is you don't have as much time to create the art," he said. "But I like it here. It opens you up to people you'd never meet.

"I happen to love selling my art. To me, sharing it is half the fun. It's almost as fun as making it. It's a pretty elaborate art, so it takes some in-depth explaining. Some artists shy away from that. No one is going to like everything you do, but you get to really connect with people. To me, that is important. It's hanging your soul on the doorstep."

Cohen feels he's ready for the next step, whatever that is. He believes there is an exciting convergence right now of technology, art and life.

It's a dynamic, intimate experience of energy and color — kind of like an opal.

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

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