On the surface, there was much to celebrate in downtown Laguna Beach last November.
A crowd of around 200, including such dignitaries as then-Mayor Jane Egly, several city council members, some local icons and assorted folks-about-town, had that Laguna Beach artist Randy Morgan built and installed on the outside wall of the Hobie Surf Shop at the corner of Beach Street and Forest Avenue.
The mural, titled “A Day In the Life of Laguna,” but commonly known as the Waterman’s Wall, illustrates a slice of Laguna’s beach town heritage: a sun-soaked ocean scene with figures on surfboards, skimboards and stand-up paddleboards. There are lifeguards in a tower, boats, a Hobie catamaran on the water, and a flock of pelicans soaring in the air. Several well-known people are depicted in the mural as well, including Jim Freeman, who co-founded Laguna-based MacGillivray-Freeman Films, pro surfers Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns and her husband, Ian, and legendary surfboard shaper Hobie Alter himself.
"The purpose of the sculpture is to invoke a feeling of a day in the life of Laguna Beach," Morgan told Patch at the time. "This is about our ocean and our waterman culture we have in Laguna."
Egly pulled a rope, a drape came down to unveil the mural, and much ooh-ing and ahh-ing ensued. Everyone seemed to love the newest piece of Laguna Beach public art.
But some in the crowd, like Christopher Andrews, noticed something missing from the mural – a thank-you plaque listing the names of the artwork’s nearly 50 financial backers. According to Andrews, Morgan promised the plaque to people and organizations that put up large donations for the mural’s three-years-in-the-making construction and installation.
Andrews, the manager of the Taco Bell on Coast Highway, was representing his boss, franchisee owner Steve Smith, who had donated $2,500 to Morgan’s wall project. But there was no plaque with Smith’s name. Instead, a foam core poster listing the names was propped up on an easel.
“Randy solicited us, and it was a project we were interested in getting involved with,” Andrews tells Patch. “He was very friendly about it and gave us different levels of financial involvement. We were also pitched the idea of the plaque, with Steve’s name and Taco Bell, and he said that in order to get on the plaque, we needed to donate a certain amount, and $2,500 was the minimum for that range.”
Andrews says Morgan also proposed that Taco Bell -- and its colorful history as part of Laguna’s hippie and drug scene in the 1960s -- would be included in a filmed documentary he planned, also called “A Day In the Life of Laguna.”
“It was supposed to be this multi-episode thing that the History Channel was going to pick up,” Andrews says. “I was told not to discuss that with anybody, to keep that a secret, but I had no reason not to believe it. He pitched the idea to myself and Steve, and of course we were all over it.”
Smith adds: “They were going to start filming at Main Beach and end up at our store. It was supposed to happen in late September , but it kept getting postponed.”
“I talked to Randy on a regular basis,” says Andrews. “He would call me frequently and talk about how he was getting a schedule for the film together and he’d let me know. I thought nothing of it until the unveiling. That’s when he dropped off the face of the planet. He would not return calls, he would not return texts, and he avoided me at the unveiling. So we gave the $2,500, were promised the plaque with our name on it, promised publicity from the show, and none of that ever happened. The History Channel thing came directly from Randy -- I never heard from anyone who was actually from the History Channel.”
On the Waterman’s Wall website, Smith is listed as one of the project’s “Key Contributors.” But a name on a webpage hasn't satisfied contributors who expected a commemorative metal plaque.
“I questioned whether it was a scam,” Smith says. “What the $2,500 went to, I don’t really know. He was working on this thing for quite a long time and seemed legit. It was a little disappointing. $2,500 isn’t something I just like to give away.”
So where did Smith’s money go? Apparently to a religious ministry.
Smith was told to make his donation check out not to any obvious mural-affiliated group, but instead to a group called Committed Heart. This turns out to be a Christian ministry founded by Greg Chastain, who calls himself, among other things, “executive lead pastor.”
On its website, Committed Heart claims tax-exempt nonprofit 501(c)3 status and lists a Palm Desert address. A letter to Smith from Committed Heart thanking him for his donation lists another address -- 1278 Glenneyre #43 in Laguna Beach, which is the Mail Stop, a private mail service business. Chastain is credited as a “producer” on the Waterman’s Wall thank-you list, and helped Morgan round up donations, among them the $2,500 from Andrews, Smith, and Taco Bell.
“I didn’t really question what [Committed Heart] was, I just assumed this money was going to pay for the cost of the mural and to do the documentary,” says Smith.
One member of the Laguna Beach arts community who spoke to Patch but asked to remain anonymous said there were others who may have been similarly confused about where their donations went.
“Chastain and Randy made the mural a fundraiser for this church,” the source says. “And I’d bet $100 that half the people on that thank-you list are pissed off about it.”
Another contributor who asked to remain anonymous estimates that “about 40 people … are upset at the way the wall was handled.” When quoted that figure back to the previously mentioned arts community source, they stated that 40 “would be a really low number.”
Though mural contributors were promised their names on a plaque, there may never be one of any kind on the Waterman’s Wall. That’s because plaques are against Laguna Beach city public sculpture laws.
Even though the mural is on the outside wall of a private business -- the Hobie Surf Shop -- when text or words are proposed as part of any art piece, it’s required to go through proper City Hall channels to make sure it complies with municipal codes, and the city’s Arts Commission must decide if the mural can be construed as a sign, advertisement or billboard. If the arts panel declares it a sign, then the city Planning Commission gets involved. According to section 25.54.024 of the Laguna Beach Municipal Code regarding mural guidelines:
“The arts commission shall review and approve all proposed mural applications. If the proposed mural contains words, logos, trademarks or graphic representations of any person, product or service that identify a business, the arts commission shall determine whether the proposal is a mural or a wall sign.”
No plaque or text was part of Morgan’s original design when the Arts Commission approved the mural in March 2010. In fact, Morgan began adding other unauthorized elements into the mural design -- among them, the small surfing and skimboarding figures and stand-up paddleboarders, the lifeguards in the tower, extra boats and the catamaran, which had a clear and obvious white-painted Hobie “H” logo on its sail. (The logo has since been painted to match the color of the rest of the mural, though it’s still visible). The people named and depicted in the mural were also not in Morgan’s original approved submission.
“I noticed there were some changes that he made soon after he began installing the piece,” says Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Manager Sian Poeschl. “It’s not unusual for artists to make changes. Like any public art project, it evolves. But if the changes are significant enough, we ask the Arts Commission to review it again and approve the changes that are going to be made.”
Morgan hasn’t given up on the plaque, regardless of whether it’s allowed or not. In his Feb. 6 application requesting Arts Commission approval for the mural additions [which you can view by clicking the PDF file in the above photo box accompanying this story], he asks, “Please approve plaque from the people of Laguna who supported the building of the wall. We prefer a [placement] choice between the lifeguard tower or the columns.”
But asking nicely doesn’t mean it will happen.
“His application doesn’t say the dimensions of the plaque, it doesn’t say who’s named on the plaque, it doesn’t show it, and there are no drawings to show where it would be or what it would look like,” Poeschl says.
The Arts Commission review of Morgan’s application is set to take place tonight, Monday, Feb. 11, at 5:30 p.m., during the regular commission meeting.
Hobie Surf Shop owner Mark Christy – who, with Morgan, is responsible for maintaining the mural -- tells Patch in an email that if the mural is somehow a sign subtly advertising his business, then he had nothing to do with it.
“I had never once met the artist prior to being contacted about the use of my wall for a mural,” writes Christy. “The very first time we met or spoke, he showed me a detailed, already-completed sketch which appeared to celebrate a broad spectrum of Laguna’s important waterman and surf-culture heritage. To my knowledge, that original sketch did not change prior to approval by the City and I had absolutely ZERO input as to the content, layout or design of the mural. I have received literally hundreds of VERY enthusiastic comments from people saying this is the best thing that has ever happened in terms of public art in Laguna. There has never been a SINGLE negative comment on the mural, or suggestion that it is anything other than a wonderful addition to Laguna.”
In addition to the questions about commemorative plaques and commercial content, concerns about safety and construction have been raised. Part of the mural sticks out at waist level several inches into the walkway – “I actually hit it when I walked past it,” Poeschl tells Patch – significantly further than the half-inch depth that was approved in 2010.
On Feb. 6, Patch also observed long vertical cracks in the several-hundred-pound piece, but by the next day, the cracks appeared to have been repaired.
When informed of the cracks, Taco Bell’s Steve Smith expressed surprise. “Cracks? After only three months? Wasn’t it supposed to last a lifetime?”
“I think the biggest thing the Arts Commission will ask is about the safety of it and this part that juts out,” Poeschl tells Patch. “Our primary objective will be safety. If somebody happened to climb on this, could they hurt themselves if it came off?”
For his part, Randy Morgan says it won’t. In his Feb. 6 application, Morgan responds to Poeschl’s question “Does the additional depth off the wall allow the mural to be pulled down (she noted the life guard tower stand)” by answering “No cannot be pulled down. The whole piece is a 3 dimensional piece of art. None of is [sic] at any greater risk to be pulled down.”
Says Arts Commissioner Nick Hernandez: “We have jurisdiction only over safety issues and over the fact that changes need to be approved. Things like the logo and the surfboard that sticks out too far, that is a violation. If it’s breaking up and cracking, that tells people that it was put in in a really crappy way. Those are the issues we’re going to deal with.”
Could the wall be taken down entirely over the safety concerns?
“Absolutely,” says Hernandez. “But that would be a train wreck we don’t need. I’m hoping we can approve the changes, and they are complied with. I don’t want Randy or anybody to be bummed, but I am an arts commissioner and have to follow the rules.”
Another issue concerns the uniqueness of some of the mural’s pieces. In its list of artwork ordinances, the city requires all art pieces to be original, and if they’re not, well, they’re “not to be considered as artworks.” These include “art objects which are mass produced from a standard design” and “reproductions of original art works.”
This would seem to include the mural’s tandem surfing couple – Hobie Alter is clearly the person propping the female figure on his shoulders – and they also adorn the outside wall of the Hobie Surf Shop in Dana Point. Several pelicans on the mural also appear to be cast from the same molds as their Dana Point relatives.
MURAL OR 'BILK-BOARD?'
While the city’s Sian Poeschl was quietly asking Morgan to submit the unauthorized mural alterations to the Arts Commission, local environmental consultant and activist Roger Butow took things further.
Butow, who has stated publicly that he was hired by Morgan to be his representative and help solicit funds for the mural between March and October 2011, stepped to the mike at the Jan. 14 Arts Commission meeting and the Jan. 15 City Council meeting, and railed about Morgan’s unapproved alterations, insisting the mural was not only a sign, but a “bilk-board.”
“I believe the Arts Commission was duped,” Butow told the council, adding he thinks the mural situation "does have potential civil and criminal ramifications."
Butow tells Patch he began to have reservations about Morgan’s fundraising tactics for the mural during his employment, and eventually severed ties with the artist. Butow (who -- full disclosure -- briefly wrote for Laguna Beach Patch as an unpaid blogger in 2012) says Morgan still owes him $3,000 for his mural fundraising work.
“If I had been paid the $3,000 he owes me, that would’ve been the end of it for me,” Butow tells Patch. But after the mural went up, Butow went public, emailing letters to Laguna Beach news media and city leaders detailing his experiences with Morgan, calling Morgan a "con artist" with "[an] extensive criminal and civil court history -- he knows a lot about being a convict."
“Randy knew that the plaque was against city rules," Butow says. "We discussed it. He asked me about doing that, and I said he can’t do it, it’s against city policy, because it would then be construed as a sign, it would give credit to someone, and there’s to be no accreditation. Only with certain public art projects are people allowed to have their name on it. And I understand some of those people [who contributed] are pretty pissed off.”
Butow says he’s been in contact with six parties who say they were “bilked” out of money by Morgan, “and all of them feel there will be reprisals if their names are made public."
Patch contacted four of the names on Butow’s list. Two refused to comment on the matter, and two did not return phone calls.
Chastain also did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Asked by Patch to comment on the evolving saga of the Waterman’s Wall, Morgan declined, saying, “There’s a lot I’d like to say,” and hinting he would want to say it after Monday’s Arts Commission meeting.