Aaron Schuerr flew in from Montana to participate in the 23rd annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, which started Oct. 2 and continues through Sunday, Oct. 10.

The multiple award-winning painter got the chance to paint en plein air on the pristine beaches of Laguna during his first day here, but when he returned the next day, all the beaches were shut down due to the massive oil spill, which by most accounts started Friday, Oct. 1.

“When I’m leaving on a trip (to Laguna Beach), I tell everyone I’m going to go painting barefoot on the beach,” said Schuerr, 48, a resident of Livingston, Montana. “I had started a painting the morning before the oil spill. But being on the beach the (next) day, seeing the closure signs with the reason why — it really hit me hard. I shed tears, absolutely.”

Schuerr didn’t get a chance to finish the oil painting of ocean waves crashing against rocks on the coast. He’s one of 33 painters from all over the country who had to adjust their plans and move inland or up to the cliffs and bluffs while participating in the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, which has become a tradition in Laguna Beach and parts nearby.

Since 1998, artists have gathered in Laguna Beach and other Orange County beaches to participate in the invitational, which is a competition for cash awards, an art sale and showcase, and a chance for visitors to witness firsthand the continuation of a 140-year-old tradition — painting outdoors, or en plein air, in Laguna Beach. Artists may also go as far north as Huntington Beach, as far south as San Onofre, and as far east as Saddleback Mountain.

However, the tradition of painting on the sand, in coves and near the water has been stifled by the shutdown of beach access up and down the coast. As crews try to clean up oil along the beaches and in the water, and investigators are figuring out the causes and damages from the oil spill, the painters have had to make adjustments and either paint on land overlooking the ocean or move inland to the canyons and hills.

“It is a devastating thing to happen to the environment, and the artists are all attuned to that,” said Rosemary Swimm, executive director of the invitational. “”We all feel the devastation, and how it has impacted the environment. One of the things we truly love is to preserve the environment, and certainly this has impacted them. It’s incredibly sad.”

“It’s a tragedy, really an unfortunate tragedy,” said Toni Kellenberg, president and social media director of the invitational, which is organized each year by the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, founded in 1996. “We go outdoors to paint to share the beauty of our landscape. And it’s an unfortunate tragedy, especially with Laguna Beach being a marine sanctuary.”

Both leaders of the Laguna Beach invitational said painting is an important way to honor and preserve the history of the coast and landscape. “It’s just so important to our future generations, to help them preserve it as well,” Kellenberg said.

She added that the artists who are participating in the competition have been able to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances.

“They’re plein air artists. They encounter bears, snowstorms. They’re rugged. They have to adapt. They’re very versatile.”

And fortune turned the artists’ way Friday morning, when sand areas opened up again in Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and other areas. Artists could paint on the sand, but no one was allowed in the ocean or along the shoreline.

A Potentially Tragic Loss

Casey Parlette is a Laguna Beach sculptor and former lifeguard and commercial deep sea diver. He has been creating marine-life sculptures for decades, and has showcased and sold them at the Festival of Arts for 14 years.

“It’s such a dismaying thing to have happen,” he said of the oil spill. “It’s devastating to think about that so close to home, especially with the coastal ecology, to have the potential of oil coming in and washing up on the beaches and tide pools.

“To have these wetlands, which are kind of like a nursery for fish and wildlife, to have the potential of being obliterated with an oil spill, is such a tragic thing. If the spill does wind up hitting Laguna, it would be a tragic loss of habitat.”

Parlette has discovered two species of fish during his travels around the world, and has one named after him: rivulus parlettie, found in the Amazon.

He said he’s a proponent of ceasing oil drilling off the coast of California.

“You’re looking at billions of dollars worth of oil, but then there’s trillions of dollars of irreplaceable coastline,” he said. “The reason people are here in Southern California, by in large, is for the coast, the beaches. It’s time to cease the drilling and look for alternative methods (of energy).”

Rosemary Swimm, whose husband is longtime Festival of Arts painter Tom Swimm, said it’s been a “very interesting week” for those participating in the invitational.

“With the oil spills and the weather, which is normally beautiful, this week has been a challenge,” she said. “We’ve had rain, clouds, lightning. And they have all risen above the challenge. It’s a mixture of joy and sadness.”

Montana painter Schuerr has kept up with his painting, but he acknowledged the potential devastation, which is still unfolding. “It’s a big enough tragedy that, there’s a point where, it’s not about me, but it is about all of us.”

Undeterred, the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational continued with outdoor painting Friday. A collectors gala and award presentation will take place Saturday at the Festival of Arts. The invitational will conclude Sunday with an outdoor art show on the Festival of Arts grounds.

Visit lpapa.org for details.

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at rchang@voiceofoc.org.

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