'Big One' comes home

Huge painting goes on display at Festival of Arts a year after artist's death.

August 15, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Deborah Young stands in front of her late husband's wall-sized painting called "The Big One" at the Festival of Arts. The painting is back on view at FOA this summer after being out of sight for many years.
Deborah Young stands in front of her late husband's… (Don Leach / Coastline…)

Robert Young called his massive painting "The Big One." And apart from its 9-by-15-foot size, it loomed large for him.

For eight years, at his Laguna Beach home, he worked on the mural-like image of life under the ocean's surface. The house had no studio space, so he built a structure in the backyard out of telephone poles — which prevented the painting from being crushed by a tree during a 1978 storm that uprooted eucalyptuses along the block.

When the family lent the painting to a restaurant by SeaWorld, Young and his wife went to view it regularly. And in his last years, as the artist slid into dementia, seeing his masterwork again brought a smile and a rare sentence from his lips: "That was fun."

Now, a year after Young's death, "The Big One" is finally on display at the Festival of Arts, just a stone's throw from its place of origin. And though his widow, Deborah Young, is still seeking a permanent home for the artwork, its first public showing in Laguna feels like some kind of closure.


"It's been a part of our lives," she said Tuesday by the painting, which resides behind a metal handrail amid other festival booths. "It's been a part of my life for almost 36, 37 years. It was definitely his pride and joy."

The press materials for "The Big One" call it "the largest painting ever produced in Laguna Beach." That may be an impossible statement to prove — does someone have a 10-by-16-foot work stashed in a basement somewhere? — but the painting's girth certainly stands out on the festival grounds.

The artist, who used pointillist dabs, sprays, washes and other techniques, created a dense oceanscape that feels almost dreamlike in spots, with some objects vividly outlined and others melting into the background. As a young man, Robert was an avid diver, and Deborah said his experiences underwater gave him much of the inspiration for the piece.

Ironically, it was water of a different kind that nearly turned "The Big One" into a big memory. The storm that hit Laguna on Feb. 10, 1978, toppled eucalyptuses onto the Youngs' house and struck and injured the painter, whose leg was hit by one of the trees. When the couple started the process of rebuilding their house, they opted to clear the entire lot, telephone-pole structure and all.

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