Is Randy Morgan Laguna's Artful Dodger?

The creator of Laguna Beach's Waterman's Wall wants to make amends to the art world, but can he outrun his past?

Is Randy Morgan Laguna's Artful Dodger?
Illustration: Jared Boggess | Design: Dustin Ames

Randy Morgan really doesn't want to be here.

It was supposed to be the realization of a three-years-in-the-making dream for Morgan: A large, black, sculpted relief mural on the side of the Hobie Surf Shop on Beach Street in downtown Laguna depicting a day in the life of the city.

But the stout, gruff-voiced Laguna Beach artist is tired of all the "bullshit," as he puts it, that seems to constantly fly his way.

And so he sits outside the Coffee Pub in the city's downtown village on a sunny, tourism-board-approved afternoon with Aussie expat Ian "Kanga" Cairns, a former world-champion surfer. Cairns is Morgan's new business partner (or "adult supervisor," Cairns will joke), and the two men are trying to answer questions about how, in a city soaking with artists, Morgan has become such a smack-talk sponge.

Jared Boggess
Waterman’s Wall
Dustin Ames
Waterman’s Wall

Not for the content of his work, mind you. Morgan specializes in relatively benign, sculpted wildlife and nature pieces, the sort of designed-for-mass-appeal products that, as with Plein Air paintings of tranquil beachscapes, have come to define the city's famed art community.

Rather, it's Morgan's past that often comes up when people around town drop his name, a time frame the 63-year-old isn't exactly comfortable discussing. Mention Morgan's arrests and drug-dealing convictions and multiple DUIs and prison time, and understandably, he starts to fidget.

But he insists his troublemaking history is behind him, and that all he wants to do is move forward, mentioning some current commissioned projects at a resort in Mexico, pieces he's planning for San Clemente and several beach cities in San Diego County, and a sculpture of Laguna Beach High sports icon Skipper Carillo for a to-be-determined location in the city.

"Delivered on time and on budget," Cairns makes clear.

"People assume that once you're a bad guy, you're always a bad guy, and they'll never give you another chance," Morgan says. "But a lot of people believe in redemption in this country. Hopefully, someday, people will just forgive."

For some people, the day when they can forgive Morgan might never come. He has been accused of swindling cash and making promises he never intended to keep.

"I was a victim of his, and it's my own damn fault," says one source who spoke to the Weekly about his dealings with Morgan. At the mere mention of Morgan's name, the source proceeded to laugh long and loud. "Randy had a talent for getting people really interested and enthusiastic about some great ideas he had, and then the bad Randy took over, and everything went to shit. I think it's a tragedy that a guy with his talent hasn't been able to pull it together. He's every bit as good of an artist as Wyland."

The Weekly spoke with 18 sources for this story, several of whom did not want their names used, claiming they feared reprisals. SanDee Frei, an accountant who dealt with Morgan on financial projections for one of his pieces, didn't mind being quoted—but she only had two sentences to share: "My mother taught me if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, especially in print. And I do not have anything nice at all to say about Randy Morgan."

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It was supposed to be the realization of a three-years-in-the-making dream for Morgan: A large, black, sculpted relief mural on the side of the Hobie Surf Shop on Beach Street in downtown Laguna depicting a day in the life of the city, a piece that eventually became known as Waterman's Wall.

Dedicated Nov. 29, 2012, with much fanfare, including an unveiling ceremony, speechifying Laguna Beach dignitaries and even a blocked-off street (a big deal in this eternally parking-starved city), most of the 200 gathered oohed and ahhed at the mural figures riding surfboards, skimboards and stand-up paddleboards. There were lifeguards in a tower, a Hobie catamaran on the water, a flock of pelicans in flight, and representations of several well-known people in Laguna Beach and the water-sports world, including surfboard shaper Hobie Alter; big-wave rider Mike Parsons; Pacific Marine Mammal Center founder John Cunningham; and Jim Freeman, the late co-founder of Laguna Beach-based movie company MacGillivray-Freeman Films.

"It simply looked like a cool way to recognize the heritage of Laguna's ocean-centric lifestyle," says Hobie Surf Shop owner Mark Christy. "I'm happy with the concept of the piece. I've seen several locals bring their out-of-town guests by to show them the Laguna story depicted in the wall. And rarely does a week go by without someone saying, 'You need to put some lights on that thing.' But it's fair to say that at the end of the day, it's had more than its share of drama."

Part of that drama lies in what was not there: a plaque thanking by name all of the people who contributed to the wall's construction funding, something that donors who gave a minimum of $2,500 to the project were promised.

It turned out that, with few exceptions such as small memorials on park benches, the city of Laguna Beach doesn't allow such plaques on its public art pieces because, officials argue, they would be construed as signs, separate from the artwork, which requires a whole other set of city government approvals.

Sheila Bushard, owner of Bushard's Pharmacy, donated $2,500 to the wall project, as well as $500 of her own money, expecting to see the name of her business—one of the oldest in Laguna Beach—on a plaque. More than a year later, there's nothing, and she's disappointed.

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