The Artists of Laguna Canyon

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Laguna Canyon preserves its artful past while remaining inspired by the natural elements that surround it.- By Laura Gosselin | Illustration by Ken Harris | Photos by Jody Tiongco

Legend has it that Norman St. Claire, a San Francisco artist, abandoned his Northern California studio to become a permanent resident of Laguna Beach in 1903. Once he transferred the breathtaking seascape of Laguna Beach onto canvas, artists began migrating to this quaint beach town in droves—creating an artisan culture that is today still as vibrant as ever.

A lot of folks heading into Laguna Beach dismiss Highway 133 as a means to an end—a winding road nestled in the canyon that connects Irvine to the picturesque town of Laguna Beach—and eventually leads beach-goers to the great Pacific. If you look closer, however, you’ll find that Laguna Canyon is home to hiking trails, a winery, a world-renowned art school, art festivals, as well as businesses rich in artisan culture and at least nine small neighborhoods. Many of the inhabitants of Laguna Canyon are artists themselves, inspired by nature and the great canyon they live in. To the artists who live there, the canyon is the foundational place that Laguna’s artist population holds in the community. For the most part, the artists are not the affluent ones, but the creative force that helped make Laguna Beach the sought-after destination it is today.


Canyon Ranch House

Olivia Batchelder and her partner Steve O’Neil reside in a rebuilt 1956 ranch house in a semi-rural neighborhood two miles into the canyon called Sun Valley, located behind the mountain that creates the “Big Bend” on the 133. Sun Valley consists of about 40 homes along two cross streets—Sun Valley and Stans Lane—located beneath a pocket of sky that allows the sun to still shine through when fog covers the rest of Laguna.

After a flood in 2010 piled mud and debris along the home as well as Olivia’s work studio, it took nine months for Olivia and Steve to rebuild the home.

Olivia recalls, “It was a hard time, and I temporarily lost my sense of direction. … We lived all that time without a kitchen, without walls, without flooring … just me and Steve in the one bedroom that received minimal damage. We had to put our microwave in the bathroom.”

During the restoration, Olivia, who creates hand-painted silks, chose warm white walls for a gallery-like feeling, including the open beam ceiling, which used to be dark. They installed gray-green colored carpeting to match the outdoor native plants.

The living room is large and multi-functional. Olivia notes that at holidays, it’s a big dining room for family and friends to gather. Most days, the living room functions as part office, part studio and part showroom. During the holidays, Olivia holds a big sales event, and it becomes the showroom/party room.

Olivia says she finds solace and inspiration in the open spaces and rural lifestyle the canyon offers. Sun Valley’s proximity to open space where Olivia and Steve frequently go for long hikes out in nature, offers the small town feel that makes her feel grounded.

“We get fresh eggs from one of my neighbors who raises chickens and lemons from another who has citrus trees,” Olivia explains. “I share pomegranates in the fall from my fruit tree. A creek runs through our neighborhood, which bright red crayfish inhabit, along with other river creatures.”

Cozy Bungalow

Lovingly referring to their home as “The Love Shack,” the Barber family had been tipped off that their canyon bungalow was likely built in 1942, thanks to the discovery of an old newspaper between the walls during their renovation project. John Barber, a master glass designer, along with his wife, Rebecca and their daughter, Terza (now grown), moved in back in 1985 when the home was just a one-bedroom early Laguna Beach shack.

“I was in need of both a home and glass blowing studio and showroom to exhibit my recent work,” John says. “For 13 years we rented this property for $650 a month. The landlord gave me permission to make any improvements I needed at our own expense in exchange he would not raise the rent, and when he was ready to sell he would give us the first right of refusal.”

After adding an additional 300 square feet of living space, two more bedrooms, a home office, as well as a glassblowing studio and a showroom next to the house, in 1998 the Barbers purchased the property from the landlord they had rented from for 13 years.

John and Rebecca Barber were able to turn what was once a small rental property into an authentic artist live/work space with an on-site showroom where John offers artist studio tours and glassblowing demonstrations.

John adds, “I hope to see the future Laguna Beach city council and planning commission look for ways to preserve the canyon for artists to work and live without regulations that threaten to dismantle this long history.”

Both John and Rebecca have made it their goal to see the Laguna Beach community and visitors alike actively nurture a Laguna Canyon arts district that helps to promote and support canyon artists and their studios.

“The natural landscape is typical of living here in the canyon, and we love the entire experience,” Rebecca says. “I don’t put curtains up, as they distract from the outside views even though we live on a highway. We are thoroughly exposed in order to enjoy our views of the deer that come down the hills in front of us, right in front of the deer sign, which is pretty funny.”


Contemporary Work/Live Cottage

Louis Longi, a celebrated sculptor who has created a number of large public and private sculptural installations, makes his home and art studio in Sun Valley with his 11-year-old daughter, Isabella. Louis owns three lots with plans to build an ultra-modern 10-unit artist live/work facility.

However, since the economy took a nosedive, Louis, like many others with construction plans, put his dream on hold … for now. In an effort to minimize expenses, Louis and Isabella moved into the small home and renovated it as a minimal open living space. Louis admits that the space does not reflect the rustic, country feel of the canyon, in that the home is modern with concrete floors, recessed lighting and minimal décor. The living and kitchen area are open with no cabinets on the wall of the kitchen—which allows for wall-to-wall views without closing the space. A few small wall sculptures of Louis’ adorn the wall in the living area so that the space is not cluttered, but still personalized. Both the home and studio act as a sculpture garden for his works as well as those created by his local sculptor friends.

Louis explains, “Although my home is small and quaint, we utilize the outdoors a lot as living space, with an open studio where I create sculptures. The small space keeps my daughter and I close,;we have no TV and love to enjoy each other’s company.”

Louis often marvels at the beauty of his surroundings in the canyon, taking note that many beach-bound drivers pass through at high speeds, unaware of how beautiful the setting is, with its immense deep canyons and open space. At night, the cars dwindle and the satisfying sense of isolation sets in.

“The road quiets and the canyon comes alive with frogs chirping,” Louis says. “The surrounding mountains have no homes looking down on us, and the abundant wildlife of cranes, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons and many others come out to visit us.”

All the artists in this article agree that Laguna Canyon is often considered a road to the beach, when in actuality it really is quite spectacular if you stop and discover everything it has to offer.

Louis adds, “In my outdoor studio, everyone is always blown away and say just that, ‘I had no idea how great this area is!’ ” LBM

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