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Mystic Arts World: Laguna Beach's Original Psychedelic Gallery

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In contemporary times, psychedelic art often has a stigma attached to it. Along with the association of illegal drug use -- and sometimes cliché patterns and color palettes -- psychedelic art is also ignored in today's commercial art world. However, in the 1960s counter culture era, the baby-boomer generation was tuned-in to psych art. Woodstock, the Vietnam War, and the rise of LSD were part of a litany of instigators that propelled the cultural change of the time, where many sought expanded consciousness and existential exploration. California was an epicenter for it all.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the artistic community finally revisits this epoch in art, to take a closer look at the movement, the artists, and the effects they had on the regional history of art in Southern California. Curator and art historian Bolton Colburn's new exhibition, at Coastline Community College Art Gallery, displays work by artists shown at Mystic Arts World, a 1960s Laguna Beach emporium, bookstore, and gallery. Its artistic program director, Dion Wright, was one of the few curators on the West Coast that specifically highlighted the experimental art of the era. Then Mystic Arts World burnt to the ground in 1970.

Colburn was inspired to investigate this time period and community of artists after reading "Orange Sunshine, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World" by Orange County journalist Nick Schou. The book details the exploits of LCD evangelists and drug smugglers that called themselves the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. The Timothy Leary-approved commune-turned-acid cult also convened at Mystic Arts World. The Brotherhood were notorious for smuggling drugs, specifically their signature, highly potent form of LSD they called "Orange Sunshine." Based out of Laguna, this organization sought to psychedelicize the world and often created stunts and outwitted authorities in their efforts to do so. Schou retells these heavily researched adventures, including one event where they dropped thousands of "Orange Sunshine" tablets from a cargo plane to a crowd of 25,000 people at a rock festival.

Almost as a sequel to the book, Colburn was fascinated with this era in art, and wanted to explore the visuals that were lacking in Schou's tome. "I wanted to know more about the visual side of the story, because it's not very rich, visually," he explains. "Although Nick does a great job mentioning Dion Wright and a couple other artists, there really isn't much about what kind of artwork they were doing or what was happening art-wise."

"Starseed" by Dion Wright.
"Starseed" by Dion Wright.

Colburn was the Director at the Laguna Art Museum for 14 years, and began his museum career in the early 1980s at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego) after testing the waters on the professional surfing circuit. He also worked at the Orange County Museum of Art. After his stint at the Laguna Art Museum he was named the executive director of the Surfing Heritage Foundation. Before leaving the Laguna Art Museum, Colburn proposed a show about the psychedelic influence on the arts in Southern California in the 1960s, a broad exhibition concept. Colburn shelved the idea after leaving Laguna, but recently was encouraged to revisit the concept by his friend, art collector Greg Escalante.

In his exhibit "Orange Sunshine and the Mystic Artists 1967-1970," Colburn decided to focus on just one regional aspect of this era in art by centering it around the Mystic Arts World programming. Interested in how psychedelic culture intersects with the visual art in the '60s, Colburn found the exhibition programming at Mystic Arts World inclusive and incredibly broad, showing artists from all over the country, from various disciplines.

"Dion has a real combination of artists involved there," Colburn says. "Some of them were beginning to emerge; but you know, people like George Herms, who is a well known assemblage artist in the United States now, was beginning to emerge and getting recognition for his artwork at that time."

Although Mystic Arts World wasn't the only place in the state for psychedelic art and experimentation, it really was a hub for Southern California's counter culture. Offering yoga, art, clothing, jewelry, health food, books and a meditation room, the small storefront on Pacific Coast Highway turned into a thriving center for the community. "While it lasted, Mystic Arts World was a focus of seminal, sometimes cosmological, and always super conscious art. What you see in this exhibition is a collection of surviving works of that wild period," says Wright, the maitre d' of presenting "far out, outta sight" art.

"Orange Sunshine and The Mystic Artists 1967-1970" installation shot.
"Orange Sunshine and The Mystic Artists 1967-1970" installation shot.

During the same time period, other places in California that catered to this movement in lifestyle and in art included the Infinite Mind in Los Angeles, and Café Frankenstein also in Laguna Beach -- both of which closed before Mystic Arts World even opened -- as well as the Unicorn in La Jolla. All of these places are said not to have had any dealings with the popular mind altering drugs of the time, but according to Wright, in the early 1960s, Laguna had its own LSD manufacturer. He says that created a close community in Laguna specifically, who later all came to bond over Mystic Arts World too.

Above the drugs and the lifestyle, the psychedelic culture of Southern California was predominantly interested in turning the world on to a higher level of consciousness, says Colburn.

While Mystic Arts World was focusing on the ground-level artists and supporters of the movement, both locally and abroad, nearby the University of California, Irvine's art department was beginning to be built and solidified. This art department became a center for the "light and space" art movement, says Colburn. "The most prominent artists in light and space were at UCI," he says. "So, just over the hill, UCI had this really academic approach that in some way mirrored what was going on in this community, in terms of the sense of expanded consciousness." Though visually different than the classically psychedelic artworks of Beth Pewther, Dion Wright, Richard Alcroft, Louis Delsarte, Tom Blackwell or Robert Young, many other visual artists found thematic similarities within this community.

Colburn's exhibition features more than 40 different artists who showed at Mystic Arts World during its tenure, and the variety of styles and techniques of art is vast, ranging from welding and ceramics, to light work, drawing, printmaking, painting and assemblage. "Most of the artists in the show are artists that I was not familiar with, and I've been involved in the art world in this area for 15-20+ years. So, for me it was a revelation," Colburn says. "And it also helped fill in some of the context for me, for the 1960s in this area; in this region."

There has been an increased interest in this era of art and culture in recent years. In 2013, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art held an exhibit called "The Oracle Odyssey," focusing on the 1960s counter-cultural, community magazine, the San Francisco Oracle, which mixed poetry, art and spirituality with a psychedelic aesthetic. The Walker Art Center in Minneaplois is opening an exhibit in October 2015 entitled "Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia," featuring some of the same artists from "Orange Sunshine and The Mystic Artists." Earlier this year, one of the featured artists in "Orange Sunshine," Gerd Stern, helped write an experimental opera focused around psychedelics called "LSD: The Opera," getting positive reviews.

Today, Mystic Arts World has been revived in a secondary existence, now called Mystic Arts Laguna. It is an artist's co-op focusing on local artists and artisans. Psychedelic festivals have also been popping up all across the country, mostly focusing around the psychedelic musical movement with today's youth. Just this past May, Orange County held the third annual Psycho California, focusing on the jumbling of musical genres of doom, heavy psych, sludge, post rock, hardcore, experimental and black metal, and L.A.'s Psych Fest has its fourth edition later this year. In the visual arts, creatives throughout L.A. and OC are exploring consciousness-expanding drugs like ayahuasca, and reviving alternative communal lifestyles, hoping to mine new realms of artistic expression. A new generation of psychedelic artists is emerging, finding the same running themes of higher consciousness in their search -- artists like Mary Delioussina, Bwana Spoons, Porous Walker, Ferris Plock and Caroline Augusta, just to name a few.

Though Colburn's vantage point was from a historical context, the relevance of this art and lifestyle are interesting and broaden the larger scope of the resurgence of this counter culture in Southern California. "My curatorial trajectory has been to examine regional art in California and to bring it forward, so this is the perfect slice of something that was important that happened but has been forgotten," he says. "It is exciting when you can bring out an aspect of something that's happened here that's really neat and important that you think can also resonate with the culture today."

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