Persecution of a freedom fighter

My day in the park with Michael Lavery

Photo by Jessica CalkinI'm not sure how we went from "So you're taking the city of Laguna Beach to the U.S. Supreme Court?" to "So these are copies of your mirror-image writing, 5150 charge, pictures of your old gallery, and what you say is evidence that Wyland got you institutionalized?" But it happened so naturally that I went along for the ride, with Laguna Beach artist Michael Lavery in the driver's seat.

After years of what he calls "psychological torture"—cops citing him after they had sat and watched him work—Lavery took the city of Laguna to court April 23. He hoped to win the right to sell his art in public and avoid high-rent galleries. He lost and says he'll take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I first met Lavery a few weeks ago at Heisler Park, near Main Beach. He arrived on time, and was excited by a simple coincidence: we both had a cup of coffee. I asked him about his court battle; he answered by telling me about his role in initiating the Save the Canyon project. He went to his van and pulled out a large oil painting depicting Laguna's dismal future--skyscrapers, freeways, cars spewing exhaust and factories trailing black plumes from their stacks, all engulfing a tuft of land marked by an ironic sign that read, "Thank god we saved the canyon." Lavery said this, his 1988 painting The Chaos of Progress, was all that stood between Laguna Canyon and a proposed $14 million road-widening project.

A man walking in the park stopped and said, "Hey, Michael, what are you doing?"

"Just an interview with this young lady."

"Wow," the man said as he walked on. "Mr. Popular."

"I was told to not take the painting out in public," Lavery continued. "I had two galleries before I was evicted out of the first one, my landlord noting no political or controversial work was allowed."

He opened a black scrapbook of newspaper clippings, journal entries and pictures of what appeared to be his artwork. He showed me a clipping from a 1988 Register article titled "Attendance low at rally against Laguna Canyon projects"--evidence, he said, that he started the Save the Canyon project. The Register article was silent on the origins of the project. But it did feature a large picture of Lavery with Chaos in hand.

Pedestrians stopped to look at Chaos and ask questions. Lavery pointed out that if he were to hand them a business card or offer to sell Chaos he could be arrested.

"I am allowed to play guitar and receive money, but I could not sell a painting the size of a stamp," he said. "The harassment of Laguna Beach artists is directly correlated to the nepotism that is going on as a result of the money going to government by the bigger galleries."

Later, I called Captain Paul Workman at the Laguna Beach Police Department. He recalled an occasion when an officer in training dressed in plain clothes walked by and checked out Lavery's art. He said Lavery immediately tried to make a sale.

"We leave him alone as long as he is just standing there painting a picture…we are not staking him out," Workman said. "The city just has a policy: people cannot sell artwork or any other goods in the park. It's not just him; it's everyone."

Workman patiently answered questions about what Lavery calls "psychological torture," even saying that he "might remember" something about Lavery's 5150 charge, but he could not discuss the case since it was still pending.

In my conversation with Lavery, I mentioned that James Fosbinder, his lawyer, wasn't getting back to me. Could he fill me in on his threat to take the case to the Supreme Court?

Lavery listed names of other artists driven from Laguna by "big business." There was Dick Sussman, who sold lithographs and prints from a cart, and Paul Blaine, the "fastest knife-pallet painter" in the 1960s and '70s . . . .

"So, what happened?" Sol Ajalat, a part time Laguna resident wandered over to ask about Lavery's court hearing.

"The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held a split decision," Lavery said. "I am appealing the case to the Supreme Court."

Sol left. I asked again about court. "There was a reverse summary judgment," he said. "The city manager and officers being sued deny having known me. When you have a 500-piece puzzle and you begin to put it together it starts to take shape."

A homeless man walked by and showed Lavery a can of beef stew. Lavery kindly told him it looked good.

Lavery turned back to his scrapbook and shared his mirror-image writing. A friend 15 years earlier had told him to start thinking outside the box. Influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's calligraphic experiments in mirror images, Lavery studied handwriting. He said he's now a paid lecturer on retraining the brain. By improving a person's handwriting, he can improve sports performance, he says.

"I think it's homemade," the homeless guy said, passing by.

"Laguna Beach institutionalized me for six days," Lavery said. "I started making acrylic sculptures and Wyland threatened to sue."

Wyland—the marine artist--is in a remote part of Puerto Rico and unavailable for comment.

On August 21, 1997, Lavery said, he was written up on a 5150 charge--insanity. He was evicted from a second gallery on PCH. He said he was angry and frustrated the night before his eviction and punched holes in some of his work. He acted out his wave of destruction for me, his eyes welling with tears, his face reddening.

He stopped. And then he talked about his donations to the Catalina Island Conservancy Ball. Stripped of everything, Lavery said, he does what he can to survive. He played a song for me on his guitar. Sounding like Jack Johnson, he growled about the horrors of Laguna: no more Frisbee, no more sand castles, no more artists.

As I was leaving he said, "I'm not sure what angle you're going to take with the story, but maybe something like: 'Persecution of a freedom fighter, Renaissance man, family man.'"

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