Local artists spread holiday joy through their painted palettes, which are displayed around town.
By Sharael Kolberg
With Laguna Beach’s rich history as an artists’ colony, it is befitting that the holiday season is celebrated by displaying festive and winter-themed artist palette paintings on the lampposts this time of year.
The tradition started in the 1960s with three screen-printed designs on 104 artist palettes. In 1982, the city transitioned to commissioning palettes painted by local artists with original designs that celebrate the holidays, some with a beach twist, like Rudolph surfing or Santa lounging on the sand. There are now approximately 70 palettes in the collection, which fluctuates based on how weathered or damaged a palette has become. They are made of 3- by 4-foot plywood palettes and painted with oils, acrylics or other mediums that can withstand the outdoor elements.
Now, the city’s Cultural Arts Department issues a call each year for artists to enter the Holiday Palette Competition, which is open to adults who live, work or exhibit in Laguna Beach. The program is presented by the Arts Commission and funded by the Laguna Beach Tourism Marketing District. Commission members judge the submissions with winners each receiving a $600 honorarium.
This year, two new designs were chosen from numerous entries: The winners are Noel Lashley and Kathy Tanaka whose palettes are showcased outside City Hall. Previous years’ palettes are displayed on light poles around the city, many along Coast Highway from north Laguna to as far south as Fifth Avenue, during the months of November and December. The designs are as varied as the artists, each with their own inspirations and stories to share.
Laguna Beach resident Kathy Tanaka, who has been a fashion and print designer for most of her life, decided to participate in the competition to foster love through her artwork.
Her design incorporates the word “love” with snow, holly and hearts against a field of blue. “I know it’s been a hard couple of years on everyone, so I entered the contest to spread a little love and joy,” she says.
To paint the palette, first she added a layer of gesso, then a layer of black paint. She sketched the design out and used acrylic paint, applying at least three coats of all colors in the design, making sure it dried thoroughly between coats. Then she used two layers of matte medium to seal and protect it. The result is a vibrant presentation that makes the palette’s message really pop.
2020 and 2021
Noel Lashley owns Laguna Art Supply and is also an artist himself. His pottery and acrylic paintings have been featured in the Sawdust Art Festival. He was surprised and elated to win this year’s competition.
“After 10 years of entering the palette competition and never winning, I finally won last year, and then won again this year,” Lashley says.
His winning designs were modeled after old master painters, such as Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian, who was known for abstracts. This year, Lashley’s design was a holiday-inspired take on van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” with Santa’s sleigh and reindeer flying in front of the moon, plus a tall Christmas tree climbing into the sky.
Working with acrylics, he started by underpainting with blue, then painted the design and filled in with color starting from background to foreground for a seasonal scene to be enjoyed by all.
Kelly Hartigan Goldstein
2017 and 2018
Now retired, Kelly Hartigan Goldstein worked as a graphic designer on Hollywood movie posters and as a digital character animator for films. These days, the Laguna Beach resident enjoys using her creativity as a painter and is currently honing her skills and developing a body of work in newspaper collage. She was excited to be chosen as a palette winner in 2017 and 2018; she also was a winner in the summer banner competition and City Council chambers banner contest, both in 2018.
“It’s always a thrill to be recognized and have your work seen,” Hartigan Goldstein says. “It was also super fun to hear feedback from friends, family and students as they would drive past City Hall.”
Her first winning palette design was a shark wearing a Santa hat and a breaking wave in the background. It was inspired by her love of undersea creatures, especially sharks. Her second design, completed in 2018, featured a bright orange Garibaldi fish swimming among kelp and Christmas lights. Both were painted using acrylics.
“The holiday palette contest provides an opportunity for a whimsical and humorous composition,” Hartigan Goldstein says. “I enjoy playing with the idea of our underwater friends getting into the holiday spirit. The varying purplish-blue and turquoise hues of the ocean, contrasted with splashes of red and orange, is my favorite color combination.”
As far as creating her palettes goes, she says, “Outdoor murals take a beating, so quality materials and prep are tremendously important.”
Local photographer Mary Hurlbut volunteered to paint a palette in 1987—there was no contest back then.
“As a lifelong Laguna resident, I was delighted to see one of my designs displayed during the holidays,” Hurlbut says.
A stained-glass artist at the time, Hurlbut picked up a paint brush and acrylics to scale up the size of a stained-glass design she made depicting a mother and child, which was originally created as a gift for her mom.
“I was pregnant with our first child, a girl born in March 1988, and I was thrilled to be a mom,” Hurlbut says.
The design became somewhat controversial because of complaints that it had a “religious” theme. The palette has disappeared and reappeared several times over the years and now is apparently stored in the city’s collection.
2009, 2011 and 2016
Al Esquerra, who is a professional artist and longtime Laguna Beach resident, created three palettes, as well as six of the artistic banners displayed around town and two banners displayed in the City Council chambers—plus another large painting at City Hall.
“I think participating in public art is the best way for an artist to connect with the city they live in,” Esquerra says. “How many people get to paint on a giant palette?”
His first two palettes were inspired by the Laguna landscapes at Big Bend and Main Beach. The last one, in 2016, was of Christmas ornaments floating on top of the ocean, which Esquerra says was “kind of a statement of how our fortunes rise and fall with the tide.”
As far as creating the actual design on the palette, he admits that it is quite a process. “First you pick up this huge palette and strap it to the top of your vehicle to take home,” says Esquerra, who worked on it at his home studio using acrylics.
“… You cover it with a couple of coats of gesso then draw some sketches and figure out what you want to say and paint, paint, paint, and finish with lots of varnish. … The weather and birds can be cruel,” he adds.
Local author and architect Suzanne Redfearn has created eight winning holiday palettes and the endeavor became a mother-daughter tradition for a while.
“In 2007, when my daughter was 10, she wanted to enter the children’s palette contest, and she asked me to do it also. That year, both our designs were selected, and it was so much fun seeing our work displayed,” Redfearn says.
With palettes chosen every year from 2007 to 2012 (sometimes two palettes per year), she has four palettes that are currently on display and four that have been retired—one (a surfing Santa) was hit by a truck and the others suffered weather damage. Her designs have been abstract and whimsical, such as a mermaid swimming around a Christmas ornament. She also did a series of Santa comic book images that brought humor to her artwork.
She created her designs using acrylic paint—a lot of it—to cover the palettes. “They are a lot larger than you think, and they take quite a while to paint,” she says.
Professional artist and former Festival of Arts exhibitor, retired after 39 consecutive years, Scott Moore was invited to create a palette in 1990. “It’s always fun to be part of the city art [scene],” Moore says.
His design was inspired by the cows in the canyon at that time that would migrate to the edge of the fence along Laguna Canyon Road. He chose to depict a black-and-white Holstein cow standing in Laguna Canyon with a large red nose and an inscription that read “Moo-ey Christmas.”
A few Christmas seasons had passed when the city notified Moore that a truck had hit his palette (displayed on Ocean Avenue downtown) and it was torn in half. Moore spliced it back together and repaired the image so that the city could display it once again—until another incident happened to his popular piece.
“Every year, we would drive our two kids around town and look for the palette,” he says. “Most of the time, it was located on the way out of town on Laguna Canyon Road where the cows roamed. Then one year, we couldn’t find it. We contacted the city and they said that it had been stolen.”
Ironic twist: This year the city contacted Moore and said they found his palette. It has been sitting damaged in storage for the past 25 years.
“I will get it from the city and repair it again for next year,” he says. “You can’t keep a good cow down.”
The Arts Commission also runs an exhibition of Children’s Holiday Palettes. Children ages 5 to 17 who live or attend school or an arts program in Laguna Beach can enter; there were 98 entries this year.
The young artists each receive an award certificate and are recognized by the City Council. The winning designs are displayed at City Hall through the month of December and all entries may be viewed on the city’s website using this shortened URL, bit.ly/32uCdSQ.