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Orange County artist’s ‘Happenstance’ completes Muckenthaler sculpture garden

Artist Bret Price stands next to his piece titled "Godot" on Nov. 12.
Artist Bret Price stands next to his piece titled “Godot,” which is one of eight installations at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center sculpture garden, at the center’s Fullerton landmark location on Nov. 12.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Although Orange County may be closing up once again, the purple-tier pandemic status didn’t put a halt to the recently completed sculpture garden at Muckenthaler Cultural Center.

The center has stayed away from virtual events for the most part, instead opting to expand its programming with drive-in concerts and the addition of a sculpture garden spread throughout 9 acres of land.

CEO Farrell Hirsch said the idea to turn the outside property into an art gallery had been circulating for a long time, but it wasn’t a priority.

“When the pandemic hit in March and April, people had to stay in their homes, and the reaction of people was taking walks,” Hirsch said. “Foot traffic increased through our grounds much more than they ever had. We said, ‘This is the time to do it and find a way to bring art to people where they are.’”

The center serves the north O.C. area and tries to champion local artists, Hirsch said. He was familiar with artist Bret Price’s work and had admired the piece on public display in Century City. When Hirsch found out Price lived near the center, he thought he would be the right fit.

Price’s “Godot” sculpture was the first piece added to the garden in May. The title of the 12-foot metal sculpture is a reference to Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot,” an absurdist two-act classic that seemed like a relatable fit for the existential dilemma brought on during the pandemic — a wait for going back to some kind of normalcy.

“From a certain angle, there’s this sad questioning character of a face, so I just named it ‘Godot,’” Price said. “It was better to have it in this beautiful space to be looked at in a safe way than in storage. And it’s on loan for a year or so.”

Price’s second sculpture, “Happenstance,” was installed last week and completed the garden.

Five year-old Evelyn Wu poses for a photo on art piece titled "Happenstance"
Five-year-old Evelyn Wu poses on Nov. 12 with a sculpture called “Happenstance” by artist Bret Price, one of eight installations at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center sculpture garden, at the Fullerton landmark location.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“It’s a play on the word happenstance and the fact that something happened — my approach to what the pursuit of abstractions are to me,” Price said.

Unlike most of his metal pieces, “Happenstance” is made out of steel. He bought the material for the 12-foot sculpture about nine years ago from a genetics company that contracted a group to create a 30-foot-tall DNA helix. The helix was going in the wrong direction so they scrapped the steel to start over.

“I got their mistakes, which were not mistakes for me,” Price said.

He compares his metal bending process to improv theater. He takes risks and problem-solves as he goes. The works are lying down when he creates them, and he knows whether or not they work when he lifts the sculptures with a crane.

He said it’s exhilarating when a sculpture works, and a sense of discovery is what has kept him interested in sculpture for 41 years.

The “Hometown Proud” documentary following Archer Altstaetter, a gay O.C. transplant who grew up in rural Ohio, makes the film festival rounds through December.

Price started bending metal in 1979 when he was teaching ceramics at Chapman University. Disappointed with the smaller scale limits of ceramics, he made the art department’s parking lot his own experimental studio, and the vice president at the time helped him bend the metal for his first piece, “Twisted Flex,” which is still housed at the university.

Price’s sculptures can also be found in the permanent collections at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach Museum of Art, Orange County Museum of Art, the Dayton Art Institute and the Smithsonian as well as corporate collections.

“I got into the PepsiCo Sculpture Garden when I was 33 in the 1980s, and I thought I was golden,” Price said. “I thought I was God’s gift to art-making. And then I didn’t sell a piece for a year. So the art world has a way of giving you humility.”

Today, he works out of his main studio Logan Creative in Santa Ana. He’s completed a few works this year and is taking a break to recover from a shoulder surgery.

“It’s hard to be a one-armed sculptor,” Price joked.

Other pieces in the center’s garden include “The Wave” by Dan Miller, untitled pieces by Jimmy Centeno, a mural by Sofia Enriquez, a mosaic by Katherine England and 10- to 15-feet story poles from Papua New Guinea on loan from the Bowers Museum.

The center will be cycling most of the pieces in and out of the garden on a regular basis.

Papua New Guinea story poles
Papua New Guinea story poles make up one of eight installations at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center sculpture garden, at their Fullerton landmark location on Nov. 12. These poles are more than 300 years old.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

If you go

What: Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s Sculpture Garden

Where: 1201 West Malvern Avenue, Fullerton

Cost: Free

Information: themuck.org

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