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Photos and Text by Matt Cortina

I’m not buying it. Mark Downing is showing me The Beatles’ Let it Be and Let it Die album covers, and saying one has the photo of Paul McCartney and the other has a photo of Billy Shears. Paul died in a car crash in 1965, didn’t I know? I laugh, and he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, a free-spirit with a nose ring and a black kimono says the neon Talking Heads: 77 album on the counter costs more money than she has in her entire life at the moment. I look at the price tag, and my soul is warmed.

Downing’s shop is first on my unofficial tour of Dana Point art spots. When I ask for his opinion on the city’s art scene, he says, “There is one?”

It’s an easy perception to have. Steps away from Downing’s store is a statue of a cow painted with members of the band Green Day on it. That cow is steps away from another painted cow, which is steps away from another with Kobe Bryant painted on it. That is steps away from a painted elephant.

OK, switch the medium. In music, you can catch an ’80s cover band any night of the week if that’s something you want. In finer arts, there’s the renowned Dana Point Symphony, and well-esteemed dance studios, but there’s such a high barrier to classical music and dance, it seems.

They’re probably for tourists, but doesn’t it seem like there are so many photographs and portraits on display of Dana Point scenery? Several restaurants dutifully rotate art pieces, but where’s the murals of social comment, the subversive graffiti—the public art not sponsored by the biggest developer in town?

Where is the art that engages the young and yearning hearts? Where is the independent book store, the art house, the statue that provokes more thoughts than, “Damn, Henry Dana was ripped”?

Where are the places in Dana Point out of which art grows organically?

'The Hide Drogher' statue overlooks the Dana Point Harbor. Photo: Matt Cortina, edited by Chase Aellig
‘The Hide Drogher’ statue overlooks the Dana Point Harbor. Photo: Matt Cortina, edited by Chase Aellig

That was the goal—what with it being Arts and Humanities Month, whatever that means—when I stopped in at California Records and Gifts to chat with Downing: to find art in a city where, honest to goodness, I once asked a city official about the vision for public art only to be told of upcoming plans for new benches. They were to be gray and ergonomic.

So I walked down Amber Lantern to a steep stairway, which led to walkway and a bridge. At the end of the bridge was an archway from the old Dana Point Inn with ivy draped along the sides. There’s a plaque that, if you shield your eyes from the glare off Henry Dana’s pectoral muscle on a nearby statue, tells a story that takes place during the Great Depression. Framed in the old arches is the new harbor, and it evokes.

On the other side of town, at St. Edward the Confessor, I ask a staffer where the statue of Jesus is. The one where he’s curled in fetal position, covered by a raggedy blanket, with only his punctured feet showing. She says it’s right out on the street and that I passed it when I came in. That’s the point. This art evokes.

In Town Center, I stop into Laura Seeley’s studio and gallery. She lives above the shop with her boyfriend, Dana Yarger, who is responsible for the elephants and cows. On the wall hangs dozens of her original paintings, books and wood work. Being one of the only joint galleries-studios in town has Seeley feeling like a scout for Dana Point city officials to see if it’s worth investing resources in the gallery scene.

“The true art collectors aren’t coming here looking for art, they’re all going up north (to Laguna Beach),” Seeley said. “It’s hard for me.”

Seeley said she doesn’t understand why the city put in landscaping so that it blocks drivers’ views of Del Prado when they’re coming from the north. She said the Art Walk, which will take over Del Prado on Oct. 16, is too short to incentivize artists to participate.

Now, Seeley wasn’t all doom and gloom—after all, she moved to Dana Point in part because there is a diverse population of art lovers—but she also wasn’t the only one to question the city’s approach to cultivating art. Downing said he’s had code enforcement called on him several times when trying to host music events, even with a crowd lined up outside his store listening, even with a tween riffing on “Frankenstein.”

The scene outside Laura Seeley's art studio on Del Prado. Photo: Matt Cortina, edited by Chase Aellig
The scene outside Laura Seeley’s art studio on Del Prado. Photo: Matt Cortina, edited by Chase Aellig

Elise Capener runs Mermade Market, a biannual market for local artisans and craftsmen to sell their wares. Capener said Dana Point is ahead of other cities in some regards—festivals and the elephant statues—but could “step up its game” if it wants to attract artists.

“There is an abundance of people that are truly amazing makers, but have to go outside Dana Point to be seen,” Capener said. “It would be amazing if somehow the city could allow for more art galleries to be created—possibly for cheaper rent—or some kind of community-based gallery, possibly a workshop studio where anyone can rent a space to work on their project.”

Later that day, I met Dana Point Arts and Culture Commissioners Nancy Jenkins and Karin Schnell. They’re helping run the Art Walk, the third of its kind, but our conversation was prospective. When I mentioned the lack of a writing group or poetry venue, they began discussing plans to encourage businesses to start one. Heck, the art house idea was Jenkins’. And Schnell agreed that the city could stand to offer more venues for organic art.

Let’s go back to round this thing out. I’m telling Councilman Scott Shoeffel, a member of the Symphony and self-proclaimed arts enthusiast, that “art” sponsored by the dairy industry (that is, the cows) is worse than no art at all. But I’m convinced by Schoeffel that in Dana Point, having a style is more important than the style itself.

“Sometimes, you have to start somewhere,” Shoeffel said. “Up until the elephant parade, we had really no meaningful public art program … but the elephant parade serviced a tremendous charity while at the same time gave people 10 weeks of the ability to encounter art. And it may not have been everybody’s style, but I have to tell you, a lot of people loved that elephant parade, and for a lot of people, it may have been the only art they’ve ever experienced in their life.”

Shoeffel said later that “the development of art is to a significant extent a pretty organic process.”

That’s right, but how can a city do that? By enacting an arts residency program; implementing business districts to defray the costs of bringing in art; using zoning to create maker spaces; and collaborating with venues to host events, he offered.

That doesn’t sound organic. But it does sound like an effort to build the garden walls and plop down soil, so that gardeners can sow their seeds. Or not, who knows.

Schoeffel says art is emerging—there’s a mural under Crank + Grind, tile work on city bridges and the potential for art in unusual places like on utility boxes.

But the foundation-laying is the critical bit, Schoeffel said, because “things don’t tend to happen if they’re not part of your plan, your vision.”

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comments (1)

  • Excellent article, Matt. Really well written and spot on. I would love to see a bonafide “art scene” emerge in Dana Point. We do have several wonderful painters in our midst, including the quite famous Maria Del Carmen Calvo of Capistrano Beach. Part of the vision for the Doheny Village “maker district” is to encourage development similar to “the Lab” in Costa Mesa, perhaps including industrial arts like metal working, surf board shaping, etc. and perhaps individual or shared studio spaces for potters, photographers, print makers and painters. Surely at least some of the many artists paying high rent in Laguna Beach could be enticed down to a trendy area comprised of the suggested converted shipping containers or Quonset hut structures to be built for local artists and artisans in Doheny Village. I can dream, can’t I?

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