Travel, exposure — and cake

Dana Harel's creative process begins in silence.

On the precipice of new work, the artist sits in the calm of her Redwood City home, clutching a solitary sketch book.

Only after an idea begins to take form, followed by a rough sense of direction, does she turn on some music.

Production mode — when her task is clear and refined — is marked by Harel tuning in to podcasts.

"I tend to be most productive when I spend long days in my studio, when I can get into a zone where I am letting go and not judging every move I make," she said.

The 43-year-old, who admits that the unpredictability of her artistic practice yields "exciting and unexpected" outcomes, will display her work at the Laguna Art Museum starting Sunday. "ex·pose: dana harel," made up of 14 pieces of different sizes, will be exhibited along with "Wayne Thiebaud: American Memories" and "Travels with Millard Sheets, 1950–1986" until June 1.

Harel, who has made a name for herself with elaborate graphite designs on large-scale paper, spent nine months holed up in her studio, constructing an entirely new body of work ahead of this show.

"Lately, I have been experimenting with different mediums that eventually all translate to work on paper," she wrote in an email. "My process involves creating rough sculptures prior to drawing. Then, through a series of hybrid techniques, which includes sculpture, drawing, photography and printmaking, I slowly construct my drawings."

Grace Kook-Anderson, the Laguna Art Museum's curator of contemporary art, received an exhibition catalog in 2009 depicting Harel's intricate sketches of hands contorted to look like snakes, crocodiles and more. She then visited a gallery showcasing the artist's pieces and was immediately taken by the inherent style and attention to detail.

"Between the striking execution of her work and the layered process in which she draws from different source materials, I wanted to have a chance to show Dana's work for one of our 'ex·pose' exhibitions," Kook-Anderson said.

Sunday marks the unveiling of a new group of shows at the Laguna Art Museum. This event, according to Executive Director Malcolm Warner, is one of the museum's most important because of the inclusion of Thiebaud.

Last October, the institution honored Thiebaud with a California Art Award to recognize his contribution to elevating the reputation of the state's art.

"He proceeded to out-honor us by giving us one of his paintings ['Jolly Cones'] and a group of [six] prints," Warner said. "About that time, he also brought up the idea of showing another exhibition of his work here — a kind of sequel to the one we had seven years ago, with a different lineup of works. He offered to put the show together himself, and we were more than happy to take him up on that."

Although Thiebaud has been lumped together with pop artists of the 1960s, Warner believes he is a class apart.

His compositions not only depict a noticeable mastery of technique but celebrate everyday, commonplace objects, the executive director said. Joy is evident in his artwork, which is "infectious but never corny or cloying," Warner added.

Initially, the exhibit took shape with drawings and prints, but the 93-year-old painter, who grew up in Long Beach and remains connected to Southern California, wanted more. Now, the 58-piece show comprises still lifes, landscapes, cityscapes, figure subjects and, of course, iconic images of cakes, pies, dessert and candies, with which Thiebaud is synonymous.

Warner reflected on his first meeting with the artist at Pancake Circus, Thiebaud's favorite breakfast spot in his hometown of Sacramento. Surrounded by clowns and circuses, the duo discussed art history before Thiebaud ambled off for a game of tennis.

"There can't be many artistic geniuses who are also warm, generous, funny and down-to-earth. He is," Warner said.

Although smaller than Thiebaud's contribution to the museum's upcoming show, Sheets' portion is no less important.

Laguna Beach-based collector E. Gene Crain, who owns more than 130 works by Sheets, provided 17 produced between 1950 and 1986. Tahiti, Hawaii, Mexico, Japan, India, France, Nepal and Turkey are represented in the pieces.

Janet Blake, the museum's curator of historical art, kicked off her career in California art history by becoming curator for the Crain Collection in 1981. She met Sheets not long after and began to study his pieces, which impressed her with their abstraction, designs and vibrant colors.

"Sheets was a very successful artist, designer and educator who had a major impact on the art of California, especially in the 1930s," she said. "The works represent his mature, colorful style, a style in which he employed abstract design and patterning. It also reflects his interest in traveling throughout the world to see different locales and different cultures."

According to Warner, a variety of periods and styles is critical at a venue that prides itself on showcasing the best of California art. Having a major name like Thiebaud is a bonus, he added.

"Fortunately for us, he's also fond of Laguna Art Museum, likes the way the place is moving and enjoys helping us," Warner said. "When this glorious exhibition opens, I'm sure we'll be the envy of other museums large and small."

If You Go

What: "Wayne Thiebaud: American Memories," "Travels with Millard Sheets, 1950–1986" and "ex·pose: dana harel"

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, from Feb. 23 to June 1

Cost: $7 general admission; $5 for students and seniors; free for children under 12, active military and museum members and from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month


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