In the winter of 1978, a series of storms swept through Southern California, turning Laguna Canyon into a river. The soil at the base of the canyon along Roosevelt Lane, just next door to the Sawdust Festival and across the street from the Festival of the Arts, became a sponge. As the winds roared, several three-story eucaplytus trees lost their moorings and toppled, taking with it just about everything that artist Robert Young owned. Both his car and house (with him inside it) were demolished; for good measure, a careening branch broke Young's leg.
If it weren't for the storm, it's likely Young would have never stopped working on his massive magnum opus, a 10-foot-by-15-foot mural of underwater marine life he first began painting in 1969 but had turned into a decade-long obsession. For lack of a better name, the ever-unpretentious Young, a local with a lifelong love of the ocean, called the piece The Big One. In his relentless pursuit of perfection, Young had embellished the painting for hours every day, adding layer after layer of color and shape. Friends had long stopped trying to convince him to move on. “Just a few more moves,” he'd always insisted, recalls Young's childhood friend and fellow Laguna artist Dion Wright.
The only reason The Big One survived the storm of '78 is that it was so large it couldn't fit in his house, so with some salvaged telephone poles, Young had constructed a shelter for the canvas in his back yard. At his wife's urging, he agreed to put the painting aside that year while he recovered from his wound and rebuilt his house and, gradually, his life.
Although he was a prominent artist who'd been a participant in the Festival of the Arts in the early 1960s and co-founded the Sawdust Festival in 1968, Young had studiously refused to court the art world. He sold most of his work to friends, including one of the owners of Chart House Restaurants, where many of his paintings were displayed. Through his connections, he found a home for The Big One at the Atlantis restaurant adjacent to SeaWorld in San Diego; the eatery later closed and became the administrative headquarters for the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.
According to his wife, Deborah, Young almost refused to sign the painting. He finally relented, although he had a habit of signing his name so subtly that trying to find the signature adds yet another layer to the viewer's experience of the work. “He didn't date it because he intended to do more work on it,” Deborah adds. “From the time he got up in the morning, that was his focus. He'd be thinking about his moves as he had his cup of coffee in the morning.”
Over the next few decades, Young continued to work on other beautiful underwater panoramas until about 10 years ago, when he could no longer paint because of dementia. He finally passed away on May 6, 2012. Years before that, though, in 2008, Deborah paid a visit to SeaWorld and began trying to find a way to place The Big One somewhere the public might view it. Last year, with Wright's help, she approached another Laguna artist, Pat Sparkuhl, who was at that time the Festival of the Arts' interim exhibits director. He won approval from the Festival's board of directors to transport the work to Laguna for display this year.
The painting will remain at the Festival of the Arts through Aug. 31. From there, it's unclear where the painting will go. It could become part of the Festival's permanent collection or wind up at another suitable location, such as the Laguna Art Museum or the Norton Simon Museum. “I definitely want it to be in a public venue where people can see it,” says Deborah.
Sparkuhl, for one, would love to see The Big One remain in Laguna. “His approach to doing work that will test your endurance is focused on the fundamental aspect of his philosophy on art, to bring out the truth of his relationship with the ocean,” he says. “It's a monumental painting. . . . It's soul.”