Is Randy Morgan Laguna's Artful Dodger?
Illustration: Jared Boggess | Design: Dustin Ames
Randy Morgan really doesn't want to be here.
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.
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."
* * *
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.
"I was in favor of the concept of the wall representing Laguna and the ocean and the historical figures, but these people apparently were promising something that they didn't know was against the rules," says Bushard.
Steve Smith, owner of the city's Taco Bell franchise on Coast Highway, was promised by people representing Morgan at the time that not only would Smith be thanked for his $2,500 contribution on the plaque, but he would also be included in a planned documentary about the making of the wall that was supposedly going to air on the History Channel. But after the wall went up, all Smith got was a thank-you letter.
"I'm not happy that I lost 2,500 bucks," Smith says. "I feel like I was used. I never heard from anyone from the History Channel. The whole thing seems like it was a scam to me."
Morgan claims he never knew about any law against plaques, but some say otherwise.
"He knew that," says Nick Hernandez, a sitting member of the city's arts commission. "Everybody knows that the only place where plaques are allowed are on the benches."
"He knew all along that there can't be a plaque; we discussed it," says Roger Butow, an outspoken environmental consultant and frequent Laguna Beach city-government irritant who helped Morgan with the Waterman's Wall fund-raising during the project's early stages.
A bigger mystery, though, is what happened to all that donation money.
Morgan reported to the city's arts commission that the wall cost an estimated $45,000. One source says Morgan told them he hoped to make a profit of around $100,000. Butow claims Morgan told him he collected $200,000.
Apparently, all the cash went to Jesus.
Morgan put his friend Greg Chastain in charge of fund-raising for the wall project, as well as the supposed History Channel film. Donors were asked to make checks out to the Chastain-headed group Committed Heart, a tax-exempt nonprofit 501(c)3 Christian ministry, of which Chastain is listed as its "executive lead pastor," according to the Committed Heart website.
Yet Committed Heart appears to exist only on the Internet. Thank-you letters received by Waterman's Wall donors listed an address that's actually a P.O. box at Mail Stop, a private mail-service business on Glenneyre Street in Laguna Beach. Tax documents for Committed Heart that were filed in 2009 list an address in Palm Desert—which is also not a church, but Shadow Palms Manor, an elder-care facility in a property owned by Chastain.
Contacted via email by the Weekly, Chastain avoided answering specific questions about Waterman's Wall funds, the plaque approvals or the film project; instead, he demanded to speak to the reporter's editors at the "OC Register" for the grievous sin of ringing up Shadow Palms Manor and asking prying questions. "I have no further comment for you," Chastain concluded.
Morgan claims to have been in the dark on all aspects of fund-raising and that Chastain was in charge of everything money-related for the wall.
"I didn't fund-raise other than ask people for money, like I was told to do by Greg," Morgan says. "He was telling me all I had to do was work on the art, which was what I wanted to hear. That I don't have to worry about my rent or food or electricity bill. It was great. Everything I told people about the plaque or the documentary came from what Greg was telling me the whole time."
Morgan is now trying to sever ties with Chastain, and Morgan and Cairns say they're beginning to explore legal action against him. Meanwhile, Chastain tells the Weekly that he continues to represent Randy Morgan Art and the Waterman's Wall project. Morgan says he'd like his website back, but that Chastain controls both the site and the documentary footage.
"Greg has a piece of Randy's business, but the bottom line is that he abandoned Randy after the wall went up," Cairns says, maintaining that Chastain, who was also responsible for paying Morgan, left him bereft, to the point at which Morgan had to rely on local food banks for meals.
"He pretty much left me to die," Morgan now says of Chastain.
"There are responsibilities on both sides, and part of Chastain's responsibilities are to provide a full accounting to Randy for the partnership for where the Waterman's Wall money went for 2012 and 2013," says Cairns. "We need to know what money went into the 501(c)(3), who gave money and where the money was spent."
* * *
While Morgan fingers Chastain as the flashpoint for much of his troubles involving the wall, others who've had sour dealings with Morgan in years past are just as quick to point their finger—often an extended middle one—at Morgan.
Carolyn Lundberg is the elderly matriarch of Lundberg Family Farms, headquartered in Richvale, just south of Chico. She commissioned Morgan to create a sculpture for the entryway of her business for an agreed-in-advance price of $35,000.
"By the time he finished, it was four times that—over $100,000," Lundberg says. "He just lied about the money part. I've never had someone take advantage of me on a large scale like that, and now I just don't trust anybody anymore. For somebody to not stay within the contract, and then keep gouging me . . . I never want to see him again. I have an orphanage that I support, and I keep thinking about what I could've done for the orphanage with all the money I spent."
Lundberg spoke with police and considered filing a lawsuit against Morgan, but in the end, she opted to just move on and be done with the entire affair.
"It was too emotionally hard for me at the time," says Lundberg. "The piece is in our entrance now. I'm not going to say that it's bad—because everybody likes it—but there were things I told him I did not want, and he did them anyway. Had I known what was going to happen, I would never have gotten involved with him."
"I never heard a complaint from her about what we were doing and where we were going," a surprised Morgan says when told of Lundberg's feelings. "We talked about it every step of the way. I don't understand why she's unhappy now."
"The bottom line is, the Lundberg piece is a fantastic piece of work," says Cairns. "We would like to be able to use her as a reference, so it's really distressing to hear that she's unhappy."
Maria Heredia co-owns the Original Cast Foundry in Buena Park. She says Morgan wound up owing her $20,000.
"He came to us to do molten castings [in] about 2005," Heredia recalls. "He would take a long time to pay us back. His debt started to get bigger and bigger, and we never heard from him again until just recently. We didn't take him to court or sue him because we were going through hard times, so we just let it go. We knew that he would come back sooner or later because we still have his molds here."
Where Lundberg and Heredia are concerned, Morgan appears to truly want to repair any ill will. When told the Weekly had interviewed Lundberg and Heredia for this story, Morgan phoned both up, telling Heredia he would like to work with her foundry again and asking Lundberg if he could come up and correct any issues she has.
In a follow-up interview, Heredia says, "Until we settle what is pending, then we'll decide what's going to happen. He wants to be our customer again, but if we do business, it's going to have to be cash up front."
Lundberg sounds as if she's in a less forgiving mood. "He called me, and I spoke with him as briefly as possible," she says. "He said he wanted to fix things and put on another coat or something, and I told him that wasn't necessary, it's just fine the way it is. He tried to have a conversation, but I just wasn't interested in small talk. It kind of ruined my whole day. One of my girls asked me what was wrong, and I told her who called, and she said no wonder I don't feel well."
* * *
There are other stories of Morgan running up huge tabs.
Kara Lubin contacted Morgan in 2009 looking to get custom medals made for the 100 Mile Club, a nonprofit national organization she founded that gives special needs kids a goal of running 100 miles in a single school year.
"I paid him $1,400 in the beginning, and then one day, he called me, very frantically demanding more money," Lubin says. "He actually drove to my school to get money and came on to the campus. That's when I started feeling a little bit uncomfortable. Then we started getting really close to the deadline. I had 10,000 kids counting on me, kids who made a commitment to running 100 miles, and the end-of-the-year medal ceremony has always been very special, so not having the medals wasn't an option."
Lubin was forced to order stock medals just to make the ceremony deadline. She can't recall the exact amount she wound up giving Morgan, but she estimates it was at least $4,000.
"It worked out, but it was a really bad experience," Lubin says. "I cut my losses and just knew I wasn't going to see the medals or the money ever again. For a young nonprofit to lose that much money, it was very painful."
Lubin also filed a statement with the Laguna Beach Police Department to get the incident on record. She never heard from Morgan again—he never called to apologize, never explained what happened.
"I wanted to finish the product at the end," Morgan now explains, "and then she didn't want to do it—said don't worry about it, we'll do them next year. To tell you the truth, I don't remember exactly how it went, but I know it was a mess. So I'm foggy on the details, but it's an issue that I need to deal with, and I'm willing to make the medals for her for anything she wants to do now, whatever I need to do."
* * *
Morgan says he has been clean since finishing an extended stay at a sober-living house in San Clemente two years ago, a price he paid for violating parole—the judge recommended no prison time after being impressed by Morgan's "great strides."
But moving forward and presenting himself as someone who's genuinely reformed, Morgan understands, may always be difficult, if not impossible.
"There's a fear Randy has with all these people chasing him," Cairns says. "Will they put him back in a negative place and get him to the point where he'll drink and use drugs again—or ends up in jail again? That scares the hell out of him."
Morgan has a new team, consisting of himself, Cairns and Laguna Beach photographer Tom Kemp, that's helping him out with new paying art commissions and making sure he has money in his checking account.
"Our goal is just to clean up the past, and if there are legitimate grievances about Randy, then we'll structure things one by one, and we will address them and fix them, and we will make good," Cairns says. "Randy's situation has been remarkably unpleasant through 2013. Tom and I fundamentally pulled Randy off the street, almost literally. My job is to keep Randy focused on the positive—on the art work, on finding new clients, on delivering them on time and on budget."
"I have a wonderful life now," Morgan says. "I'm able to get up in the morning and make art and be with my family, and that's all I really want to do. It was horrible last year coming out of the Waterman's Wall, thinking that I was with management that was going to get me the next project. And now we've got people who aren't happy because there's no recognition or plaque on the wall, but we're going to make it right, and we're going to pay for it because we have work now."
"I feel for people who donated money in the name of a family member with the expectation that there would be a plaque," Cairns says. "That's horrible. It's not good. So we need to do that. And I absolutely would not be connected with Randy in any way if he was still connected with drugs. I am adamantly anti-drug and anti-abuse of any kind. Tom and I believe in the guy and his honest desire to redeem himself and to create a body of work that, in the latter part of his life, people will ultimately judge him on, and we'll help him do that."
"I'm not a guy who tries to go out and hurt people," Morgan says. "I hurt myself at times, and when that happens, other people get hurt. Can I change my history? No, I can't. But I can change what I'm going to do tomorrow."
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