Arts Colony in the Canyon

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Laguna Beach Studios

Laguna Canyon serves as an inspiring location for a complex of artist studios, with more such spaces in the works.  – By Sharael Kolberg  |  Photos by Jody Tiongco

Laguna Beach artist Doug Stotts awakens to inspiration every morning. Surrounded by the beauty of Laguna Canyon, he doesn’t have to go far to find a scenery worth painting. “Laguna Canyon is one of the most inspiring places, in spite of the traffic,” Doug says. “It is a bit of old California. When the traffic dies down, you can hear the birds and crickets. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It’s like country living.”

Collaborating in the Canyon

Many canyon artists would jump at the opportunity to make the most of their finances and space by living and working in the same place. Doug feels fortunate to be occupying the only live-work space available in the Laguna Canyon Artist Studios complex located at 3251 Laguna Canyon Rd. He is surrounded by about 30 other artists who have had studio space there for an average of eight years, making it a true creative and collaborative community. The benefits for many of the artists in the complex include reasonable rent, convenient location and a sense of camaraderie.

“The artists working here are taking their careers seriously and being taken seriously,” Doug explains. “It’s very valuable to be able to get a professional opinion at the drop of a hat if I need advice or a critique of my work.”

Artist David P. Cooke, an oil painter, has been at the complex since 1984 and has seen changes over the years. Although the complex was built in 1980, it did not always cater to artists. “The complex used to be more industrial,” he says. “The units were used for things like storage, woodshops, welding and surfboard making.” Now that there are predominantly artists in the studios, he has enjoyed the benefits of being in a supportive environment. “I need my own space but need the stimulation from other artists,” David comments. “I need to hang out with people that are into art and exchange ideas. There is no real forum for interaction with other artists. You have to create it.”

Laguna Canyon’s artists include a range of specialties, from plein air painters to jewelry designers, who all encourage each other with the common goal of bringing high-quality art to the local community and beyond.

Painter Fred Hope enjoys having a studio in the complex because he says the environment is more conducive to artists. “Here you tell someone you’re a painter, and they know what you’re talking about,” Fred says. “In places like San Clemente, they think you paint houses.”

Not only do the artists share their knowledge and expertise, but also their friendship. “In the evening when everyone is winding down, you can walk around and see what others are working on and talk about art over a nice glass of wine,” Fred says. “It’s like a campus. Very few of the artists come to work and then go home, like an office. Most talk about the technical sides of things, some hold classes in their space. We all learn from each other while each trying to do something unique.”

Artists Open Their Doors

Having such a high concentration of local artists in one complex is like a pot of gold for art lovers in the area. In 2009, the City of Laguna Beach Arts Commission initiated the Artist Open Studios. Unlike the First Thursday Art Walk in Laguna Beach, where visitors can meander through the town and look at art, the Artist Open Studios take it one step further and allow art enthusiasts to actually meet the local artists once a month and see their new and earlier work, find out what inspires their creativity and learn about the history and the process of the artwork. The city provides free shuttle service to various artist studios in the canyon.

“During open studios in the canyon, 80 percent of the artists will clean up their studios, display their current artwork, provide light food and drink, and throw their doors open,” Fred says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the public to connect with the artists.”

Whether someone is looking to buy local art, or just wants a night out that reflects the culture of Laguna Beach, the  have been popular with residents and visitors alike.

Siân Poeschl, cultural arts manager for the City of Laguna Beach, says, “There has been a trend for the past six or seven years of people seeking more intimate connections with artists. This event provides a unique ability to peek into their world and see how they work and the space they create in. Audiences connect with the artists in this informal atmosphere and expand their knowledge of the art community and the city. It is an investment and a wonderful collaboration.”

Education and Inspiration

For those who are inspired by the artwork and are looking to give it a try, the complex is also home to Laguna Canyon Studios, which offers art workshops to the public. The figurative workshops—known locally as “The Atelier”—are three-hour long, uninstructed workshops with a live model in various poses. The 800-square-foot space is shared with the Southern California Artists Association for demonstrations, parties, documentary film screenings and art critiques. Also located nearby is the Laguna College of Art & Design, which offers figure drawing, stone carving and painting workshops to the public.

Living the Dream

Making a living as an artist can be a real challenge. For most, it means paying for space to work in, which can be cost-prohibitive when combined with housing and other living expenses. For artists, such as Doug Stotts, living and working in the same space can be a dream.

“I don’t think I’d want it any other way,” Doug says. “It helps me focus on my work completely. In this economic time, it helps to have consolidated everything at one location.” Although, Doug admits that it does come with challenges. “You want clients to come, but don’t want them to see dirty laundry. You want to have friends over for dinner, but don’t want them to look at the back of picture frames,” he says. “The space has to be adequate for the type of artist living there.”

There have been a number of proposed artist live-work space projects for the Laguna Canyon area, none of which have come to fruition yet. However, local architect Horst Noppenberger had a four-unit live-work proposal unanimously approved by the city council this September. “The Sheds,” as he calls them, will include three 1,400-square-foot units and one 800-square-foot low-income unit located at 2745 Laguna Canyon Road. Construction is slated to begin in February.

“I have always enjoyed that Laguna Beach is friendly to the arts,” Horst explains. “We have galleries and art education, but what is really lacking that would legitimize the claim that we are friendly to the arts is appropriate working-living conditions. It’s important for artists to interact. It stimulates creativity and artistic growth.”

Local bronze sculptor Louis Longi also has plans to develop a live-work space on his property in the Canyon at 20432 Laguna Canyon Rd. His development, which he calls Long(I)/Live/ Work/Create, is slated to be a 15,000-square-foot structure with nine live-work units (including two low-income units) and a 5,000-square-foot communal production space with shared tools. According to Louis, the project is currently with the City of Laguna Beach’s planning department. The city is reviewing the plans for compliance with the city’s zoning code and environmental regulations. Over the projected next six months, there will be a public hearing for the planning commission to review the project and then it will move to the building division, where all the construction documents will be reviewed and approved for construction.

“The Laguna Beach city council and staff have been unbelievably supportive of the live-work ordinance and very easy to work with,” Louis says. “If we can combine live-work spaces, it’s more cost effective for artists and eliminates their commute.”

Of course, it’s a good sign when the mayor’s behind the proposed efforts, and Toni Iseman is in favor of the live-work projects. “Without artists, Laguna would lose so much of its essence,” Toni says. “We are all working to make it possible to find housing that allow our artists to stay in town, and for new ones to come.”  LBM

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