From Canyon To Cove: Mastering the moods of the creek

On the morning of Dec. 22, Laguna Beach silk painter Olivia Batchelder woke up her boyfriend, Steve O'Neil, as rain pounded the high-beamed roof of her Laguna Canyon home.

It was 3 a.m., and she'd never heard such a racket in a rainstorm. Something told her this was more serious than any storm she'd weathered in the 12 years she has lived next to the creek.

"I told him to get up, but he said not to worry about it," Batchelder recalled. "So I handed him his jeans and pulled him out of bed."

Outside, they encountered a creeping mass of mud, peppered with glass, from a long-forgotten dump site on the hill next to the creekside home.

"We were walking around barefoot on broken glass and somehow we didn't get cut," Batchelder said.

The glass was the top layer of a wall of mud that slid from the city-owned parcel.

But that was just one of a number of waves of destruction that hit the home/studio from three sides that morning.

First, water and mud cascaded down the canyon road from nearby El Toro Road, flooding the home with an inch of water and mud. The garage — which happened to be filled with furnishings cleared out of the home for a holiday party — was inundated with four feet of mud. All but the roof was lost.

The rain and runoff kept coming, the creek overflowed its banks and a number of storage units on a property on the other side of the creek floated away, bashing her studio space and garage. Boulders smashed into the property from the other side as the hill came down.

"I lost everything related to my silk painting," she said.

She and Steve were able to continue living in the one room of the house that was unscathed — the bedroom. She attributes that bit of luck to a very solid bedroom door that kept the water and mud at bay.

"We even cooked in the bedroom," she recalled.

Eight months later, Batchelder and the other homeowners in the Sun Valley Drive area are still coming to grips with the flood and aftermath.

"We just found out that it was a 10-foot flash flood," Batchelder said of the creek water that morning. A city committee is calling the event a "100-year flood," but Batchelder knows that the canyon creek traditionally floods about every 10 years. So she is stockpiling sandbags and will fortify her property — which includes both sides of the creek — early in the rainy season this year and every year from now on.

The creek traditionally had no water in it except during the rainy season, but development above it has changed that, she said.

"Now it flows year round."

Batchelder's ordeal of flood and mud is coming to an end: In the past week, her insurance company has signed off on repairs to her home and she is once again painting large swaths of silk in preparation for making her signature jackets and wraps. She is happy with her sales in the Sawdust Art Festival over the summer and plans to teach a T-shirt painting class.

While some of the property owners in the area are filing lawsuits against the Toll Roads and Caltrans and seeking to recoup their losses, Batchelder is moving on.

"When the kitchen was done, that made me very happy, even though I don't cook a lot," she said.

The new kitchen is sparkling white, with windowpane cabinets that show off her art glass collection and new appliances supplied courtesy of the Laguna Beach Rotary Club.

And she's making the best of it in a way that only an artist can: through her art.

She's painted a series of 50 "landscape" wraps in silk, called "The Many Moods of Laguna Canyon."

"Sometimes it's high, or low, or there's no water," she said, picking through a rack of colorful wraps to show the varied compositions.

She also used the glass shards — which still turn up in her yard — in a mixed-media painting series, "After the Flood."

The glass bits were remnants of a 1950s era dump site, when residents used incinerators to burn their trash. The dump was unknown to the city, which has long owned the parcel as open space. The city drilled core holes into the hill to decipher the contents of the dump, especially to determine if toxic materials were disposed of in it. They found some toxins, she said, which have turned up in some area yards.

"The dump owner, a farmer, would go around and collect the ash, and everything that didn't burn, which included a lot of glass, which he would throw in a canyon and cover up with dirt," Batchelder said.

The shards are historic. Some of the glass bits she has identified as pottery from the original Pottery Shack, a Laguna Beach institution for many years. Other items include perfume bottles or bottles in unusual shapes. One she found was a bottle for nitroglycerin, commonly used to prevent heart attacks at that time. All became subjects of her art as she worked through the emotions of that destructive day.

Finally, she embarked on a series of large silk paintings in warm, bright colors. This series, "The Return of Happiness," will be stretched and hung on walls, not used for clothing.

One thing she has not yet recovered is her original studio spot in a secluded part of the property along the creek. That will have to wait for a renovation of the land outside. But she is able to work in a covered spot near the road, which has the disadvantage of attracting the attention of hikers and bikers in the scenic area, some of whom stop by for a chat with the busy artist.

"When I moved here I loved the voice of the creek, flowing by on the boulders," she said. Now, having experienced the creek in its fury as well as its quiet moods, she is considering ways to tame it.

"The creek should be shallow and wide," she said. If the creek bed is too narrow, the water flows too fast and, as seen on Dec. 22, can wreak havoc. With the help of landscape experts, she is hoping to avoid experiencing another of the creek's "bad moods."

For more information about Batchelder's work, visit http://www.oliviabatchelder.com.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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