As you opened the steel door next to the Candy Baron on Laguna Beach’s Forest Avenue and started up the stairs to BC Space, you could sense the opening-night buzz. Betty Turnbull’s personal collection of California artworks had been liberated after eight years in storage, and now they are back on walls, awaiting the next stop in their provenance. The 45-year-old gallery and performance venue is firmly back in action after Mark Chamberlain’s passing in April.
Thanks to Turnbull’s son and daughter, 40 percent of the sales from her personal acquisitions will go toward continuing Chamberlain’s legacy of art and activism.
Turnbull’s life story is as eclectic as her taste in art. At age 4, she appeared onstage in a vaudeville comedy act, then in film and radio-theater from 1935 to ’43. After the war, she began studying and making art while raising her family on Balboa Peninsula. The actress-turned-artist was the first curator of exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum, which was once housed at Balboa Pavilion and is now the Orange County Museum of Art; Turnbull is regarded as instrumental in its progression.
“This show, this art collection was a dream of [Chamberlain’s],” said the curator’s son Mark Turnbull at the exhibit’s opening night. Each Friday of the run, the singer/songwriter/raconteur will perform. “In 1979, mom gave [Chamberlain] his first museum recognition. Mark was always very grateful to her. . . . And we had talked about putting up this collection in BC Space a while ago. It was something he was very excited about.”
The musician had visited Chamberlain in the hospital a couple of days before his death. “He was still excited, convinced he was going to get out of there,” Turnbull recalled. “He just didn’t realize he was going to get out of there through the door that he did. He is here in spirit. His spirit does indeed live on.”
The silence following Turnbull’s remarks was smashed by someone’s old-timey ringtone. While the owner dug into her belongings for the still-ringing phone, someone shouted, “It’s Mark!” Laughter erupted, then faded as the sound of Turnbull’s guitar took over the room.
BC Space reminds me of so many industrious DIY art venues in can-do Midwest cities—former bra factories and Elks social halls—with its wood floors, red-velvet masking, oriental carpets and crap chairs for the spectators, but superior sound and light systems. As I listened to Turnbull’s wry anecdotes of growing up in old Newport Beach enmeshed with song, a red “sold” dot was added to the info card of John Paul Jones’ Mirror Image, a shaped painting in wood and stainless steel reminiscent of Tony DeLap.
After her brother’s gig, Glenda Winterbotham emanated warmth as she told me her mother’s penchant for collecting California art was sparked purely by what she liked, distinct from her curating. She points out a debonair bird in top hat and tails sporting a white-tipped cane and says the pastel was an anniversary gift from her mother to her father, who was a tap dancer. Despite an extensive search, she has been unable to locate the artist, Diane Zapetto, but Winterbotham is pleased Fred Astaire’s Toucan (1979) has sold to a longtime friend.
Another close ally of the collector provided a written key to a curious group of diminutive works. “I was curator of education and performance art,” recalls Phyllis J. Lutjeans, who was not only Turnbull’s colleague at the museum, but, along with Victoria Kogan, also ran TLK gallery in the ’80s. “Several of us were sitting around at lunch, and we were talking about having a fundraiser [for the museum] but simply could not think of something that hadn’t been done before. . . . I cannot remember who suggested it, but eggs came up. ‘Eggs’ we thought, ‘how can we do that?’ Well, we did. [My assistant] blew out about 100 eggs, and she packed each one separately and sent them out to famous and infamous artists.”
The fragile ova by Joan Brown, Bruce Connor and DeLap are unsigned, but Lutjeans promises to “verify in writing that these eggs were absolutely created by the artists.”
Frank Holmes’ The Couch is a large pastel on paper that pokes fun at paintings produced to hang above couches, but it nevertheless holds the gaze. A blue settee sits under a window, which is a portal of flying light that bends around the curves of the sofa in a way that makes me want to sit on it and flee simultaneously. Suzie Ketchum’s ceramic mask instills terror until you read its title: Carrot Nose. One of the earliest pieces is 1955’s King David by Joachim Probst, a near abstract of lush paint swept by a palette knife—the oil on masonite weighing heavily on the subject’s head and shoulders.
A sliver of a hallway that stretches along the stairwell toward Forest Avenue is lined on both sides with smaller works that I coveted: Karen Carson’s For Betty, a tempera in vibratory geometric reds, blacks and grays suggests the inner workings of a building or the behind-the-scenes efforts of a museum; Two Figures and Four Figures were both painted in 1960 by Theo Brown with a sensitive touch of oil on paper.
Pretty much all the available walls and surfaces offer easy viewing of Turnbull’s varied treasures. On a desk sits perhaps one of her final purchases, the amusing sculpture Brush Collage by George Hermes, dated 1980, the year she passed; its base is a wooden hairbrush, a white drawer pull at a jaunty angle tops the mound.
Around 1973, Chamberlain bought that very desk for his house. The pickup spot turned out to be the Masonic Lodge, which was for rent. He and Jerry Burchfield opened their photo lab and gallery there and called it BC Space. Rick Conkey, who will now be at its helm, promises to bring to the gallery as much provocative artwork and original music as he can book. After Chamberlain’s passing, Conkey scooped up the desk from its thrift-store destiny and returned it to BC Space.
The winning tennis coach founded Blue Water Green Earth, through which he has organized events to raise awareness or otherwise benefit communities, including a concert in 2011 that garnered about $20,000 for flood victims. Let’s hope the talismanic desk will empower Conkey to keep Chamberlain’s legacy of artivism alive—now, when we need it the most.
“Betty Turnbull Collection” at BC Space, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1880; bcspace.com. Open Fri., 6-9:30 p.m.; Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. Turnbull performs every Fri., 8 p.m. Through July 29. Free.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.