'The Big One'

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. (Don Leach / Coastline Pilot / August 12, 2013)

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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.

Through a personal connection, the Youngs found a space for the painting by SeaWorld. In later years, the restaurant was converted to offices for the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, which meant that few people saw it beyond employees and visitors who came through on tours.

"Everyone enjoyed the painting, and we were sorry to see it go," said Don Kent, the institute's president, in an email.

But there was more than a little interest in returning the work to Laguna. Last summer, after her husband's death, Deborah set up a tribute display for him at the Sawdust Art Festival, of which he was a founding member. The booth contained a print of "The Big One," and Pat Sparkuhl, the curator of the Festival of Arts' permanent art collection, saw it and urged the board to admit it this year.

Then came the problem of physically transporting the picture, which had settled snugly into its SeaWorld confines.

"We had to de-install it, which means we had to take it off the stretcher bars it's on, which took us a day," Sparkuhl said. "There were four of us, and it took us one day to take thousands of staples out and roll the piece up in a 12-foot Sonotube. What's happened over the last 30 years of its presentation at the research institute at SeaWorld is they've built architecture around the piece, so it's impossible to take it out as it was."

When the festival ends Aug. 31, the painting's future will be uncertain. Deborah hopes to find a buyer for it, preferably a museum or other public place, but said no offers have come through.

So how much is "The Big One" worth? Gazing at it Tuesday, Deborah fell short of an answer.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know how to put it. It's worth a lot to me."