Laguna Beach artists struggle to recover from mudslide and flooding


Olivia Batchelder went to sleep listening to the rain crash on her roof, but at a some point a new violence in the sound woke her up.

Behind her house in Laguna Beach, the creek was overflowing. Out front, water and mud were rushing down the hill. Soon her kitchen was flooded, and the free-standing garage where she keeps the equipment with which she makes a living as an artist — easels, brushes, paint dishes and silk supplies — had been inundated.

In Laguna Beach, the Dec. 22 storm caused an estimated $10.2 million in damage and struck particularly hard along Laguna Canyon Road and the streets behind it, where Batchelder and many of the city’s other artists live and keep their work spaces.


Block after block through the canyon last week, bins were piled high with debris, mud was being shoveled out, and artists were trying to assess how much they had lost.

For Batchelder, 65, who specializes in hand-painted silk scarves and other clothing, the toll included a stack of painted silk coats, but the bulk of her artwork was saved. She had it inside the house for a recent show and, when the rains got fierce, decided to get it all off the floor.

Standing outside her home last week as volunteers from local churches helped clean out her muddy garage, she tried not to think about how she will have to tear out her kitchen and replace it.

“There’s been a lot of destruction, but there’s been a lot of community bonding and help from all angles,” said Batchelder, who has lived in the neighborhood 11 years. “I’m not scared of nature. I have chosen to live in the bowels of Mother Nature, and so you feel every burp and gurgle.”

The storm uncovered what appeared to be a century-old garbage mound on the hill above her home, leaving her property covered with chipped glass bottles glinting in the mud. She salvaged them and lined them up on a wall. Maybe, she thought, she could make something out of them. The storm had inspired other creative notions.

“When this is cleared up, I’m going up the hill with my easel and do a series of silk paintings,” she said. “Maybe ‘Mother Nature Burping’ or ‘The Hills of Laguna.’”


Looking back on the time preceding the flood, she said, there had been the winter solstice, a full moon and a lunar eclipse.

“We had cosmic conditions for a huge amount of water movement,” she said. “No, the insurance companies aren’t going to do anything with that, but that’s what I think.”

Batchelder went behind her house, where the creek, which had filled her yard with shin-deep water a week earlier, was flowing calmly.

“Today she’s peaceful and beautiful, and she has different music because the rocks have moved around,” she said of the creek. “Mother Nature screamed, and now that it’s over, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful. It was a catharsis for nature.”

Laguna Beach is famous for its artists, and many live in the canyon because city laws allow them to use the light-industrial equipment they require for their work there.

“This is one of the few places in Orange County that’s zoned for artists to live and work, so we can have these furnaces blasting day and night,” said glass sculptor John Barber, 58, who uses an outdoor furnace for his work.


Barber, who has lived along Laguna Canyon Road for nearly 30 years, said a big rock on the hill above his home diverted the recent mud torrent, sparing his property from terrible damage. And his artwork was unharmed.

“Luckily, the mud doesn’t hurt the glass. You wash it off and it’s good to go,” he said. “As soon as we get all this done, we’re gonna light the furnace up and go back to work.” He expected that would be in a couple of weeks.

Less fortunate was Marsh Scott, 57, who paints in mixed media and sculpts in stainless steel and was named 2010 Artist of the Year by the Laguna Beach Alliance for the Arts. The 1,500-square-foot studio she rents on Laguna Canyon Road was full of mud, 2 feet deep in places. Along with a great deal of ruined equipment, she lost enough artwork to make a 20-foot-high pile.

Scott figured the storm had set her back six months to a year. “I will be using other artists’ shops,” she said. “I will ask them if I can work in their space to finish my commissions.”

She said she got small grants from local arts groups but not nearly enough to cover the damage. “This was such a beautiful place to work,” Scott said. “The deer would come down. The light was beautiful. It’s hard to go back to the way it was.”

Laguna Beach police Lt. Jason Kravetz said the storm took a serious toll on 30 homes and 59 businesses, leaving some retail outlets with most of their stock ruined. Boards were swept from the Main Beach boardwalk and carried out to sea.


On Laguna Canyon Road, the Laguna Beach Animal Hospital sustained $800,000 in losses, he said, while the Anneliese School just up the road, which teaches preschool and elementary students, sustained $900,000 in damage.

Sian Poeschl, the city’s cultural arts manager, said Laguna Canyon artists will open their studios Saturday for a free, self-guided tour. Despite the storm damage, of the 24 artists expected to take part only two have said they will not be able to do so, she said.

“It would be great if people would come out on Jan. 8, with everything [the artists] have been through,” she said.