Artists exhibiting at the local summer festivals reveal how struggles they’ve faced have helped shape both their lives and their work.
By Ashley Ryan
Festival of Arts (Acrylic Painting)
Hunting for rocks along the beach was a longtime family tradition for Lyn Hiner and her daughters, but when they set out to do just that in May 2012, Hiner had no idea how it would change her life. One of the rocks was actually a piece of white phosphorus, a dangerous substance that often combusts when mixed with oxygen. Back at the family’s house in San Clemente that afternoon, Hiner says she was surprised to feel a searing twinge on her leg. “I’m thinking that it must be a spider bite,” she explains. “… The pain was so intense. I smack it thinking I’m going to kill something and I look down and instead there’s a white hot flame coming out of my shorts.” The aftermath included 10 days in the hospital, numerous surgeries to save her tendons and ligaments, physical therapy sessions and at-home lotion treatments for the second- and third-degree burns.
A few months later, still in the midst of her recovery, Hiner began thinking about her future. While she toyed with the idea of doing some consulting work, she ultimately felt like she was being called back to painting—something she hadn’t done in a while, beyond teaching art classes out of her home studio. “I used to be meticulous. I used to be very detailed [and] representational in the way I would move through my work,” Hiner notes. “But as I discovered my voice, what I needed to do was boil it down to the essence of what I wanted to examine. And the first series that came from that discovery of my artistic voice was this abstract expressionist series of florals, which became my conversation with God about how difficult that season had been with the … pain of the burns, but how there was always hope.”
That series, titled “Beauty from Ashes,” gave her an outlet to work through the trauma. In the span of a year and a half, Hiner created roughly 150 acrylic paintings—pieces she says she wanted the viewer to be able to feel, too. Her paintings are layered, often beginning with a base coat of vibrant color followed by a darker layer that would become the background. “Every layer is with knives, so, again, taking a delicate element like flowers and then using something so sharp and hard as a knife—that, too, is part of that representational element of … [my] journey,” she says. “… It sounds kind of corny, but, really, this has been a spiritual journey for me. This has been an opportunity for me to show my gratitude for life.” With hundreds of pieces created since 2014, Hiner will be showing at Festival of Arts for the first time this summer. (lynhiner.com)
Christopher Paul Scardino
Laguna Art-A-Fair; Festival of Arts (Mixed Media)
Christopher Paul Scardino was only 25 years old when his father was diagnosed with cancer; five weeks later, his dad was gone. But those five precious weeks that they were able to spend together would start Scardino on his artistic journey. “During that time, I started drawing him. It was the first time I ever drew anything in my life,” he says. A few weeks later, he put together a portfolio and applied to attend the Art Institute of Southern California (now the Laguna College of Art & Design), where he was accepted into the drawing and painting program. Since then, the artist’s work has evolved into something rather unique: His abstract mixed media pieces are crafted using oil paint, wood panels and a propane blowtorch, with some areas cut away to reveal layers below.
But, while his father’s diagnosis launched his career path, it isn’t the only struggle he has had to overcome. In fall of 2018, the Aliso Viejo resident says he began feeling an electrical charge course from his right hand through his arm to his brain. “It was frightening to say the least,” he explains. “It kept happening and I noticed I was getting colder [and] my hand was kind of trembling.” Eventually, the issue landed Scardino in the emergency room, resulting in overnight hospital stays, endless tests and zero results. Suspected to be some kind of seizure, the artist feared for his craft. “I was thinking I’d have to radically change all of my life.”
However, when a doctor finally suggested the cause might be related to his artwork, Scardino made some adjustments, which alleviated the symptoms. “I did have to alter a lot of different things and I’m conscious of the material and even the toxicity of the chemicals in the air,” he explains. “If I was using water-based materials, it’s no big deal; there’s no chemicals in there. But with oil and a little fire, that changes things.”
Targeting his art as the source of his pain allowed him to shift his thinking. “It has pushed me in this direction of thinking of my work a little differently,” Scardino says. “What do all these shapes mean? Was I describing some of the process of what was happening inside my body, inside my cells? … It’s either micro or macro, because you can see my work as planets or … the universe, but it’s very similar in our bodies and I was thinking more and more about those connections.”
While this season marks the artist’s fourth year at Laguna Art-A-Fair, he was juried in to Festival of Arts for the first time as well so he will be showing at both venues this summer. (scardinofineart.com)
Laguna Art-A-Fair; Sawdust Art Festival (Photography)
Having two parents that grew up during the Great Depression pushed Mary Gulino to think practically about her future. The New York native earned a degree in computer programming, worked as a real estate broker and even transitioned to the insurance industry. But, somehow, her childhood passion for photography kept calling her name. Still, she pushed herself to maintain a steady job until, in 1995, she was in a terrible car accident. “I said, ‘I could have gotten killed in this car accident and my life is starting over now,’ ” Gulino explains. She decided to move to Arizona and went back to school, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Arizona State University.
Gulino was once again impacted by tragedy when her mother died unexpectedly a few years later. Afterward, she struggled to find her footing, unsure of what to do next. While teaching art classes at a local community center in Arizona, she yearned to move to Laguna Beach—one of her favorite vacation spots—and become an exhibitor at the Sawdust Art Festival. “I would dream about it and I would … [visit] numerous times a year and just fill my creative well.” So five years after her mother’s passing, Gulino packed her bags and headed further west, settling here in town and finally starting her own business offering art and photography lessons.
Though she struggled to find affordable housing and places to teach her classes, she began showing at the Sawdust’s Winter Fantasy as well as nearby Laguna Art-A-Fair. In 2012, she was able to enter the summer Sawdust festival, finally realizing her dream. But, after five summers in the show, she moved out of Laguna for financial reasons, losing her spot in summer Sawdust due to residency requirements. “It was just so heartbreaking because when I moved to Laguna Beach in 2010, it just became everything I was,” she explains. “I engulfed myself so deeply in the community.” Although she has continued to showcase her landscape photographs of Hawaiian beaches and California vineyards at Art-A-Fair through the years, this summer marks her first venture as a guest artist at Sawdust as she makes her return to that festival’s grounds. “I’m just absolutely thrilled because I love Art-A-Fair—I love everyone there—but I feel like Sawdust is my home,” Gulino says. “I always wanted it to be. But Art-A-Fair caught me when I fell.”
Although the car accident and her mother’s death don’t affect Gulino’s process or inspiration for each specific piece, those life events have impacted her as an artist overall and pushed her to pursue things she wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I still feel that pain in my body from the accident,” Gulino says. “I still feel that loss … [of] my mother every single day. … But that’s life. You’re going to have loss in life. … Am I going to sit and wallow in it or am I going to do something with it? Someone once told me that loss can bring good things—you just have to be open to it.” (myartistloft.com)
Festival of Arts (Resin)
Born in Laguna Beach, raised in San Clemente and now splitting her time between here and Hawaii, Bree Poort’s affinity for the ocean isn’t surprising. Her passion is evident in her smooth-as-glass artwork, which combines layers upon layers of pigmented resin to produce stunning visions of the shoreline. However, her unique artwork didn’t crop up overnight. Rather, the young artist started out with oil paints and, then, watered-down acrylics. When she didn’t get the results she was after, she began to consider resin, which she knew to be a popular material for finishing surfboards. After some experimentation, she was able to come up with a method involving a blowtorch that allows her to create glossy circular and rectangular pieces depicting bird’s-eye views with the help of drone photography. “It’s still evolving, but I definitely became more comfortable and figured out how to do it safely,” Poort says.
Although she started working with resin at the end of 2015, it became a pivotal part of her life and recovery in 2017. That year, when she started having seizures, Poort, her husband Bobby and her doctors all thought she had epilepsy. She stopped driving and surfing to be safe, but there was no distinct pattern to her episodes. Eventually, her spasms were linked to a memory she had suppressed of a 2012 sexual assault, which came flooding back during one of her seizures. “I was able to seize and … [still] tell my husband the story of that night,” she says. “It was so weird that I wasn’t going into paralysis [during the seizure]. … After that, the seizures got less intense and became just like a panic attack. And that changed everything.”
That realization caused Poort to spiral into a depression where she turned to one thing to pull herself out: painting. “Even if I didn’t want to, even if I didn’t like the things that were coming out of it, at least it was keeping me grounded,” she explains. “… It was a really big help because it kept my mind focused on getting art to clients and, at the same time, … [prevented me from getting] too overwhelmed. It was a really good learning experience—[helping me to] understand who I was and who I wanted to become.”
As she began to practice self-love, Poort turned to social media to connect with her followers through her experience. “It’s a platform for me to kind of be real and authentic and understand that my followers aren’t just names on a screen—they’re real people and they have real struggles,” she says. “They would support me in my struggles, but also I could support them.” This network of allies has shown Poort that talking about her experience has provided her with the chance to make a difference in the lives of people across the globe, but it has also helped her pieces reach a wider audience. Now, she has earned a juried spot at Festival of Arts this summer, where, at age 25, she will be the youngest exhibitor. (justbree.com)
Laguna Art-A-Fair (Oil Painting)
Even though she is regularly told by others to leave some brush marks in her hyperrealist oil paintings, Irvine resident Neda Badiei likes the feeling of painting smooth canvases that are often mistaken for photographs. “I like to be smooth and soft but, in that smoothness, show perspective and the shadowing and depth. That’s hard,” she explains. “… What drew me in is human nature. Profiles, faces and bodies—those are tough subjects for me. I do things that [make me] feel a little bit of a challenge when I paint.”
The challenge of her painting style isn’t the only one she has faced. Badiei was born in Iran and has also lived in places like London, Canada and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, before immigrating to the U.S. seven years ago. While she says knowing English before arriving has helped her in some ways, there are other struggles she has had to face. “Because we’re not born here, we don’t have a community. We have that back home, but we don’t have it here. Kind of like a black sheep trying to become part of the group,” she explains. “… When you’re an immigrant, you don’t have your mom and dad next door so when things … [are really] rock bottom, you [don’t] have them. You have no one.”
Another aspect of American life that has presented its challenges for Badiei is her career. When she first arrived, she painted only for fun. Knowing that she didn’t have a mathematical brain, or a degree from a U.S. university, she entered into the world of sales. Although she disliked the industry immensely, she spent
years selling gems and jewelry until she decided in late 2018 to quit. “Everything in my life I [have] had to go through—if I’m super happy, if I’m super down—I always paint,” Badiei says. “… So I said, ‘You know what? That’s it. I’m going to give my best shot to my art. That’s what I love.’ ”
In less than a year as a full-time artist, she has landed gallery representation as well as studio space at LagunaArt.com Gallery and Artist Studios and will be participating in Laguna Art-A-Fair for the first time. While resettling in the U.S. has been difficult, her global experience has also taught her a lot of about life. “When you come from a third-world country, you see that people here [often] take life for granted. You go there and you see … the poverty, you see the struggle, and that teaches you a lot: that you should appreciate your life and be a little bit mindful of your surroundings.” Her travels to places like Cambodia, India, Africa and Bulgaria have impacted her artwork as well. “I love to show different ethnicities and different cultures—I think with every wrinkle we get on our face, it tells a story. And with my paintings, I’m trying to show that.” (nedafineart.com)
Sawdust Art Festival (Jewelry)
From sterling silver to shining gold, MerriJane Morrison’s jewelry tells the story of not just her life but her spiritual journey as well. “Whatever is going on in my life really does inspire what I’m creating,” she explains. “… It comes out in a structural form.” Although the UCLA graduate studied design and architecture, she landed a job at a glass blowing studio after college, where she was quickly promoted to manager of the jewelry department. This unexpected opportunity got her started on the path to becoming a longtime Sawdust Art Festival exhibitor—this summer will mark her 13th year—after a decade of being represented in New York City, where her lampwork jewelry (with beads made from glass) was distributed around the world.
After a decade of that, Morrison shifted gears, now crafting “artistic yet fashion-forward” jewelry using a lost-wax casting technique that requires making a wax carving, a master and a mold to produce her pieces. After producing a gold-plated or silver item, she then adds stones or knots before soldering. “I’m like a one-woman assembly line,” she jokes.
Her signature collection is filled with circles and flowers, but it also contains special designs that are close to her heart. Nearly two decades ago, Morrison designed the Inner Journey series, available as a pendant, earrings or cuff bracelet, to represent all she had been through. Still one of her bestsellers, Morrison decided to create an expanded Journey series as well. “We’re all on a journey,” she explains. “People really resonate with that, when you tell them the story behind the piece.”
But her journey hasn’t always been smooth. Growing up in Washington, after Morrison’s parents divorced and her father remarried, she was surrounded by alcoholism and drug addiction. “When you’re raised in an atmosphere like that—and I did spend a lot of time with them—it’s hard for a child,” she explains. “… And then you start creating your own world.” Although she wasn’t making jewelry back then, other artistic projects left an impact. “The creativity saved me, for sure. I’ve always thought that. … When I look back, some things were painful, but they don’t hurt as much as they used to.”
Her experiences in her childhood paired with her success later in life led her to want to give back so, last fall, Morrison partnered with BISKids, a drug and alcohol prevention program aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 12 that she says is near and dear to her heart. The program’s name stands for both Believe in Success and Believe in Sobriety. “I remember myself as a kid. I would never talk about what was going on at home with anyone—ever,” Morrison says. “I got pretty good at [putting on a facade]. … But, on the inside, you’re not so great. The balance is to be your authentic self. That’s what I’m working toward now and I feel pretty good about it.” Her latest line, the Believe collection, features an original starburst design crafted for the organization, with 100 percent of the proceeds going toward BISKids scholarship funding. (merrijanejewelry.com; thebelievecollection.org)
On the 2019 article: With so much artwork in Laguna, it’s often interesting to peel back the layers and look at the inspiration behind these pieces. While another article could probably be written now about impacts of the pandemic on artists, this emotional story delves into the personal struggles and tragic life events that have affected the work of local creatives.