The unconventional are thriving in this land of conformity

Just ask the guy who makes his living with an anvil.

Lands_EndPublished August 2010

In the beach towns along Coast Highway, summer isn’t just a season. It’s a source of art. Blue waves, bronze chaparral, green palms, tangerine sunsets—summer is the masterpiece we never stop painting. This is how it is with beauty. To experience it is to feel the impulse to reproduce it, to make it our own.

Summer is when I think of my friend Randy Bader, who spends the season toiling in arts festivals in Laguna Beach, where I live. Randy turns dead trees into one-of-a-kind rocking chairs and clocks and tables. Randy is one of a kind, too. A short, wiry guy with short, wiry hair, he likes to wisecrack, and refuses to eat meat, wear a watch, carry a wallet, use an ATM card, buy a cell phone, or cut off the tiny braid at the back of his head that he keeps as a souvenir of his hippie adolescence.

He lives in a canyon with his wife and two children in an old industrial building that he turned, board by board, into a home like no other. Handmade chairs, handmade beds, handmade system for using winter runoff to irrigate his courtyard garden. The first time I visited him, the guided tour of his handiwork took half an hour. “Welcome to Randy World,” he said. His work has the carved, curved lines that wind makes on the edges of sand dunes, and, everywhere I looked, lamplight reflected from polished wood.

I also think of Scott Schoenherr and Naomi Tashiro Schoenherr, who live in a house they built after a brush fire made Laguna Canyon affordable for them. The downstairs is a concrete studio; the upstairs looks like a glass-and-cedar tree house. Output litters their workspace: Her dreamlike mixed-media work, his exquisite ceramics, and the little car sculptures they make on the side to underwrite their visions. Art is their livelihood—no day jobs, no trust funds.

Not long ago, Laguna Beach commissioned them to collaborate on a ceramic mural. It’s extraordinary: Western scrub jays and American goldfinches, sycamore and sages and Matilija poppies. Locals went looking for it even before its official unveiling, just to feel the thrill of discovering something so delightful right there in a parking lot behind a downtown drugstore.

And I think of Mike Heintz. He makes hand-forged silver jewelry. Each bracelet is custom-fitted to the wearer’s arm. He spent 33 years in Laguna before he was gentrified out of the market. Now he leases on a quiet Dana Point side street. Behind his beige ’50s-era garage door, he works at an anvil, in a manner employed these days by pretty much no one. He’s 67. Once he taught high school art, but he quit at 30 to become a full-time artist, a decision about which he occasionally has mixed feelings. He owns no property. He has no wife; any plans for a family faded over the years as it became clear he would never make a conventional living. Still, he considers it a privilege to “just get up every day and make things,” and those who collect his bracelets speak with awe of the weight of the polished silver, of the way it slides like liquid over their delicate bones.

I think of these people because they remind me of how many ways there are to see, to experience, to have a life. Orange County has a reputation for airbrushed conformity, for look-alike lives in look-alike houses, but it’s also part of a region built by people who came just because they were different. My experience is, we don’t know the half of what goes on in these subdivisions. Look closer, and a whole mosaic of self-expression shines in the background—the artisan surfboards of Seal Beach’s Rich Harbour, the virtuoso tattoos of Fountain Valley’s José Lopez, the music of No Doubt and Social Distortion, the rise of tastemakers such as Dim Mak Records’ founder and Newport Beach native Steve Aoki.

The silversmiths behind the garage doors. The artists in the canyons. The impulses toward beauty that are as abundant as the days of a summer, each of them one of a kind.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

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