The master of the lids

According to Gisberto Bertucci, there are two ways to get anywhere in the universe: your imagination or through a black hole.

"Why would God create such a large landscape if we can't see it?" he mused Friday morning on a bus trundling down Coast Highway toward Laguna Beach. "In your mind, there are no limits. Or in a black hole, there's no time and no space. If you got through, you could be anywhere."

Bertucci, who lives in a camper parked in a friend's Costa Mesa yard, catches Orange County Transit Authority's Line 1 to Main Beach every morning about 9 at a stop on East Coast Highway.

While he spends most of the day playing chess or strolling the boardwalk in Laguna, the 70-year-old Italian expatriate also become something of a fixture at the Starbucks where he waits, sketching portraits of the other regulars on drink lids.

"He's been going there for the last couple years — at least two or three years," said Marc Forster, who stops in for coffee before work. "He's been kind of a staple."

This past Christmas, Foster said, Bertucci began decorating the store's Christmas tree with portraits of regulars he sketched on drink lids.

They were a hit.

"He didn't even let us know. He just did it from a distance," said Paul Heller, who unwittingly sat for a portrait. "It's an inspiration. He has such a keen eye."

So, after the holidays passed, Foster asked to hang onto the tree ornaments, and he had them framed at Creative Play in Costa Mesa. The final product has been on display in the store for about a week.

"It's getting a lot of attention," Foster said. "Everybody in there's really enjoyed the thing."

Friday morning during the morning rush, Heller admired the rows of portraits, complete with an inscription Bertucci wrote explaining what moved him to decorate the tree.

"The tree looked naked," it says, "so I wanted to give it a life."

Bertucci, meanwhile, sat at his usual table as customers stopped by to congratulate him.

With his weathered face and ancient bucket hat fit securely over wisps of long, blond hair, Bertucci isn't exactly typical of the Newport clientele, but trim moms in yoga pants and harried commuters alike greet him as a friend.

"Looks great, Bert!" Chad Steelberg called out as he left.

While his drawings have garnered praise, Bertucci is the first to admit he's no Da Vinci.

He said he's never had formal art training. Asked how he learned to draw, he replies with a raspy, booming chuckle, "By trying!"

And he could never work on commission.

"People ask me to draw them," he said. "But it makes me uncomfortable."

It's too much pressure, he says.

In fact, viewed a certain way, his portraits sketched onto plastic drink lids could actually seem more like pop art — cheeky, modernized takes on Victorian cameos or commentaries on the disposable nature of consumer culture — than the work of a Renaissance master.

Still, there's something to Bertucci's work.

Behind the layer of glass, about 75 men, women and children look straight ahead or wistfully into the distance.

They have a serenity Leonardo might've admired.

Later on the bus, the windows across the aisle frame a million-dollar view of the ocean — one that drivers crawling along the highway often miss while keeping their eyes on the road.

Stepping out onto the sidewalk, Bertucci takes a loud breath of the fresh sea air. Walking toward the chess board table where he'll wait for a challenger, he waves at a shopkeeper.

It's beautiful, he says. Yet after more than three decades soaking up the California sun, there's somewhere he'd rather be.

If he could, Bertucci says, he'd live out his last remaining years in his Tuscan hometown, Pontecosi.

His Orange County routine is nice and relaxing, he says, and his work occasionally installing dry wall is better than sitting in a cubicle all day.

But Bertucci, who lost touch with his family years ago, yearns for something more.

"It would be nice to be able to come and go," he says, his ever-present smile fading. "How can you be happy just to play chess in Laguna Beach?"

For now, he may have to imagine.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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