Laguna Artists Take Diverse Approaches to Creative Entrepreneurship

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Troy Lee
Troy Lee

Troy Lee’s career had humble beginnings. The Laguna Beach resident got his start by racing bikes and motorcycles with friends while selling custom-painted helmets at $40 apiece. Today, Troy Lee Designs is a multimillion-dollar business that counts the top racing professionals as its clients and has a storefront on Glenneyre Street with a 4-acre headquarters in Corona. The company now employs 16 designers, sells products in dozens of other stores and operates a factory in China.
“No matter what, you [have to] run with your dreams,” Troy says. “You gotta make sure you’re loving what you’re doing.”
The 54-year-old is just one of many Laguna Beach artists who are applying entrepreneurial approaches to careers in art. From famous marine life painter Wyland to Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD) students and alumni, local artists are striving to make a living in both traditional and unconventional ways.

Creative Applications

Alexander Gonzalez (left) recently launched “Shell Shock: The Game” on iTunes.
Alexander Gonzalez (left) recently launched “Shell Shock: The Game” on iTunes.

Making ends meet, getting the word out and sustaining a business with capital are challenges that any new entrepreneur faces on a daily basis. To meet these, young artists are learning how to come up with creative business models as they strive for success.

Alexander Gonzalez, for example, hopes to make a living by creating and selling computer games. The LCAD senior launched his company, Grumpy Ogre Studio, with a 99-cent mobile app on iTunes called “Shell Shock: The Game.” In “Shell Shock,” a turtle tries to outmaneuver natural predators, such as hawks, crocodiles, piranhas and a sparrow that bombards him with logs of wood.

“This was the vision I had in mind specifically [when I] enrolled in the Game Art program at LCAD,” says the Costa Mesa native. “For me it was games because we can create an infinite amount of worlds and just inspire different people across different genres and medias.”

Alexander has already created a couple different versions of “Shell Shock” and plans to have it available on Android and other devices soon. “The biggest challenge is keeping momentum going, making content,” he says. “It’s really easy to have an idea, even to have a good one. But making the idea happen, that’s the biggest challenge. On the technical side of things, it’s just learning new things and understanding who your market audience is.”

Another young artist, Alyx Tortorice, is a recent graduate of LCAD who turned her senior thesis into up-and-coming company Starfysh Wetsuits. It produces reversible wetsuits for women that feature removable arms and legs, allowing the wearer to adjust easily to changing weather conditions.

“I had the realization that this would be a good idea when I looked at my own closet, and that it was full of wetsuits, pretty much for the same temperature,” says Alyx, a surfing fanatic who’s originally from Southampton, N.Y. “My design allows the wearer to have more flexibility for what you want to wear. The reversibility for women satisfies the desire of always wanting to have a new thing on. It’s a good niche for the girls market.”

The women’s sports apparel industry is “really growing right now,” she says. “It’s not just surfing but girls in action sports. If you look at any arena—surfing or snowboarding—girls are very much present. It’s not just about looking pretty, but it’s about performing.”

There are certainly other local success stories. Wyland, who was inspired by a trip to Laguna Beach as a teenager, has lived here since the 1970s. After gaining recognition for his paintings of marine life, including life-sized depictions of whales, he went on to create a globally recognized brand.

Troy says that despite the hurdles they face, young entrepreneurial artists can be successful if they employ smart marketing campaigns and business savvy.

“If you buy something for $5, sell it for $10,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got something better than what else is out there. It’s easy to make things beautiful, but the safety thing is what I’ve found lasts. People will always invest in something new if you’re going to protect them more.”

Perhaps most important, he says, “Do it because you love it.”


Tried and True

Robert Holton is at the helm of Laguna Beach’s only all pop art gallery.
Robert Holton is at the helm of Laguna Beach’s only all pop art gallery.

While some artists are finding new ways to reach their audiences, traditional brick and mortar galleries will always have a home in Laguna Beach. Pop art painter Robert Holton operates Drizzle Studios on South Coast Highway, across the street from The Cliff Restaurant. At the moment, it’s Laguna’s only all pop art gallery, and Robert shows his own vivid, paint-speckled canvases in addition to work by two other artists.

“If one can afford to have your own gallery, it can be best, because I can highlight what I want to display,” he says. “I don’t have to rely on the whims of the gallery owner. The majority of the time, I meet the person who’s purchasing the painting.”

Robert, who was a Sawdust Art Festival artist this past summer, places ads in local magazines and participates in trade shows, since he depicts products like Coca-Cola in his pop paintings. He also tries to keep an active presence on social media, and participates in the monthly First Thursdays Art Walk. “We do everything we can to try to get bodies in here,” he says.

Virga Siauciunaite also runs her own gallery, called Virga Gallery. Until late last year, it was positioned across the street from Main Beach, but she has since moved to 305 N. Coast Hwy., across the street from Laguna Art Museum. She emphasizes the importance of location.

“It’s a fabulous location, corner unit,” she says. “Anyone who comes to the museum to appreciate art can visit us.”

The new site nearly doubles Virga’s space, allowing more of her work to be displayed, including larger pieces. In town only since last February, Virga Gallery already has received recognition: It was nominated in January for the Spirit of Laguna Awards presented by the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Originally from Lithuania, Virga has been painting all her life. She’s been in hundreds of juried shows, group exhibitions and solo shows. She managed galleries in Oxnard and Santa Barbara before starting her eponymous Laguna gallery.

“It’s not just to sell art,” says the Art-A-Fair participant. “Art is my soul, it is my life. It’s so important. It’s spiritually uplifting. I never get bored. I cannot live without art.”

Still, she has learned to appreciate the business aspect of the industry, and curates about 10 other artists. “Everyone wants to be in a gallery. I am very careful about what I am selecting—good artists, professional artists, who know what they are doing.”

While summers can be busy, many Laguna gallery owners find that it can be difficult to fill galleries in the winter off-season. “Art is very challenging,” Virga says. “People are more likely go to a restaurant and spend $100 than on a small, tiny artwork.”

Nevertheless, Virga gets support from her family and maintains an optimistic perspective. “I have big hopes,” she says. “There will become more appreciation for artists, not only for commercial art, but prints, paintings and so on. I think it should turn around, and artists will be more appreciated.”

In the meantime, numerous creative entrepreneurs are finding ways to succeed in town.

—Written by Richard Chang | Photos by Jody Tiongco

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