Hansen: Fast art is a slow joy

Laguna Beach had another art thing this week.

Yes, that was my reaction when I heard about the 13th annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational.

I may have yawned. Bad, I know, when we become so spoiled in Laguna over art. The number of contests, exhibits, festivals, openings and other activities becomes overwhelming.

But I decided to go, primarily because they were having a first-ever student competition. Twenty-four hand-picked students from Laguna schools would fight it out with paintbrushes.

The kids, divided into three groups (elementary, middle and high school), were coached by three local volunteer artists, Rick Delanty, Greg LaRock and Jeff Sewell.

With Heisler Park and the coastline as their picture, the students lined up holding their canvasses and brushes and blobs of color.

Some were so eager they forgot their feet and kicked over their easels, splaying their paintings across the ground.

Others sweated under the pressure, spending too much effort perfecting one section of the painting and forgetting the time.

It was beautiful and funny and touching.

Anika Larsen, 15, is a 10th-grader at Laguna Beach High School and wants to be an artist. Both of her parents are artists, so it comes naturally for her.

Her painting was good — not that I would know — but I did admire the pirate ship in particular.

"I know, right!" she said, laughing. "Well, I saw a sailboat but then it sailed away, so I painted what I could remember: a pirate ship."

In contrast, the day before was the serious adult two-hour quick draw. These were the seasoned professionals, some traveling from as far away as Maryland, Tennessee, Texas and Hawaii to try and earn the $5,000 first prize in the overall competition.

The tension here was more palpable, but what made it even more challenging for the artists were the many ne'er-do-wells like me gawking over their shoulders and asking whether they paint planes at this plein air rodeo.

"It can be distracting," said artist Ray Roberts of Angels Camp. "I can tune it out if I have to. I'm able to talk and paint. I may not be coherent, but I can talk."

That seemed to be the consensus among most of the artists. They grin and bear it for the competition, knowing that the crowds come with the territory and ultimately will be the ones buying their paintings.

"It's a little scary and weird," said Jeff Horn of Costa Mesa. "Some people don't do it because it's so confronting. You're working on your baby."

Artist Dave Solomon, a 35-year Laguna resident, has learned to take it with a bemused smile.

"It's like a guy playing the piano, trying to sing, play and talk at the same time," he said.

It was generally clear which artists shunned public interaction. They would wear headphones and avoid eye contact or position themselves precariously near a cliff.

The kids, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy all the attention and opportunity.

At one point, the elementary teacher-artist Sewell decided to mosey over to the high-schoolers and up the stakes. He hovered briefly near the older kids' paintings, then said in mock earnestness, "Wait till you see the elementary school kids. They've done super ones."

A few high-schoolers paused and strained to see the elementary kids' paintings.

Somewhere along the way, while I stood looking at the paintings, then at the ocean, then back at the paintings like a tennis match, I realized that I never had any of this as a kid. Nobody did. About the only thing I had was privately trying to draw Led Zeppelin album covers.

Laguna Beach has a wealth of art. We are rich beyond our dreams with color and imagination.

Shame on me if it ever gets boring.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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